Objectively, nothing about Broadway’s latest smash hit Hamilton should work.
Playwright Lin-Manuel Miranda’s hip-hop musical about the life of our founding father Alexander Hamilton, who is perhaps the most unfairly maligned and shut out of history of the people who brought America together, should reek of poor late-90s attempts to make learning fun for angsty and hormone-ridden middle schoolers.
Yet the show is sold out through October and a single listen to the cast recording album reveals the rich, often funny and more often emotional ride that Hamilton is capable of. A deep bench of compelling characters rapping clever earworm tunes seems to elevate this beyond the “Schoolhouse Rock! for Adults” vibe that those who have not yet converted to the show may be getting.
I’ve wanted to talk about this for a while, but I’m not an expert in any of the areas that talking about this show seemingly demands. I’m a casual fan of hip-hop at best, enough to get the references and hear some of the flows being imitated, but that’s about it. I know jack-all about Broadway, outside of a bit of research done to understand why I hated Tom Hooper’s Les Miserables. And I know just enough about history for fun facts, certainly not to assess anything regarding accuracy or how we talk about history.
But there is something else that finally clicked for me, and it may be the most significant underlying reason for the success of this show.
To put it simply, Hamilton is the best written story of 2015, and possibly one of the finest works of narrative storytelling in some time.
What exactly makes this story work as well as it does, what makes Hamilton so incredibly thrilling and so eminently satisfying, and what we can learn from it?
Obviously, this is all based on the original cast recording. I haven’t had a chance to see the show yet, as very few have. If you haven’t listened to the soundtrack, go and do that right now. I’ll wait.
Before we get into the specifics of Hamilton, I want to discuss what I mean when I use the term “narrative storytelling.” Obviously, there’s a lot that that can mean, but I’m focusing on a very traditional and classical way of satisfying our need to tell tales.
That would be a set-up and reward structure. Narrative storytelling gives us set-ups, usually in terms of plot actions and thematic movements. We’re given an idea as early as possible in the story of what’s going to be happening and what our story is about.
We then get narrative rewards. A story’s plot and thematic movements are designed to earn these rewards, by gaining the audience’s sympathy or enjoyment, and setting itself up so that later these actions feel realistic to the audience watching. Essentially, the audience feels like there was a good reason for going through those earlier set-ups, and that their investment paid off.
Hamilton understands this mode of narrative storytelling better than any other work that I’ve read, seen or heard this year.
Let’s start with the opening song, “Alexander Hamilton.” The final lines give us each of the character sets speaking in turn about their relationship to Hamilton.
Hercules Mulligan/James Madison (Okieriete Onaodowan) and Marquis de Lafayette/Thomas Jefferson (Daveed Diggs) declare they “fought with him” (the musical is divided into two acts, and a number of actors play a different role in each act). George Washington (Christopher Jackson) declares that he “trusted him.” Eliza Schuyler Hamilton (Phillipa Soo), Angelica Schuyler Church (Renee Elise Goldsberry) and Peggy Schuyler/Maria Reynolds (Jasmine Cephas Jones) declare they “loved him.” And in the biggest punch of all, Aaron Burr (Leslie Odom Jr.) declares that he’s “the damn fool that shot him.”
If there’s ever been a better set-up of both plot and theme in any other work, I’m hard-pressed to find it. What Miranda has done is given quick and simple evocations of the main storylines of his work. You’re given a distillation from each of the characters of what their individual plotline in relation to our main plotline is and what the thematic thrust is. This gives the audience a knowledge of what they’re getting into, and enough excitement to carry them through the complex layout of Hamilton.
Essentially, Hamilton breaks itself down into five main plotlines, some of which resolve and move at different times than others. Yet, because of the early set-up, the audience will never lose sight of what’s going on.
Miranda knows that, but understands that the audience needs quick resolution. Within roughly 20 minutes, you’re reintroduced to the majority of the main plots through actual action, and he lets them each have room to breathe in their own songs and their own time. It’s always clear what’s going on and how the various plot interactions interrelate to each other.
We know, for example, that Hamilton’s marriage to Eliza comes out of his rise thanks to the his role fighting in the Revolutionary War, his relationship to Washington having elevated him. We know that his marriage therefore informs Hamilton’s psychology when it comes to his conduct in the Battle of Yorktown, the climactic final battle of the Revolution.
Miranda makes these relationships explicit, but without ever making it feel expository, which is the key of good narrative storytelling. You need to signpost, but it should never feel like a lecture to the audience.
And that clear understanding of where the stories are allows him to take his time within each storyline. Each is given a proper setup, is drawn through multiple parts of the story, both in solely dedicated moments and in moments in which it has influence, and then is resolved without lingering questions. Miranda hit the jackpot by simply figuring out what will keep us engaged in the story he’s telling and what will leave us enjoying it at the end.
This isn’t to discount the phenomenal character writing, his willingness to give each character a complex psychology and find his sympathies in each of them, even the more villainous ones. Or the great and catchy songwriting on display throughout. He understands that without a strong skeleton to build on, the details given to character and songwriting ultimately won’t make his story last.
And let’s not discount metanarrative. Narrative storytelling never exists in a vacuum. This is where the stories and the storytellers that pass by the wayside fail; they don’t understand the world they’re putting their stories into. Miranda does. His recontextualization of the Founding Fathers as a diverse and largely minority cast speaks to a moment of the zeitgeist, of an understanding and a desire for more diverse representation. This is most of all what has made Hamilton hit, is that it understands the stories that reflect us as a culture now, and has recontextualized those from the past.
And yes, to close, this is something that even Hamilton itself is concerned with. A major theme and question that the story tries to answer is that of legacy. That we have no control over “who lives, who dies, who tells our story?” This is what leads to Hamilton’s success. We like to think of the best storytelling as effortless. But Lin-Manuel Miranda knows that it absolutely must be a concerted effort when you tell someone’s story. To understand them, to respect them and to respect and understand the culture you put it into.
Few works have achieved that better than Hamilton.