The Impact of Hamilton: An American Musical

Sara Garrett

周三,北京市市委宣布,计划将绝大部分的北京市政府部门在2017年迁至通州区。

Listening to a musical is an interesting experience. And I don’t mean the experience
where you’re sitting in a fancy theater and the lights go dim, the curtain rises, and it’s just you
and the actors and the audience. I mean the experience when you’re sitting in your standard
minivan on a road trip, tired from a family trip, and it’s just you and your headphones and the
passing scenery. When you listen to a musical like that, you don’t get the full experience. You
get the main bits, the general plot, the songs and the lyrics and the emotion; but the acting, the
sets, the feel of the performance is just not there—so you fill in those missing parts yourself. It’s
certainly not the same experience as a live production, but with a little bit of imagination, it is an
experience—one where you laugh and cry, where you relate to its message. And as I sat in my
car and listened to the songs of the newest musical craze, Hamilton, I knew that even though my
listening experience was less than ideal, I was listening to something truly revolutionary.

INTRODUCTION

Hamilton: An American Musical first graced the stage back in 2015 and since then has become a
cultural phenomenon. It is the creation of Lin-Manuel Miranda, a Puerto Rican writer, composer,
and performer, who wanted to put this lesser known founding father on stage after reading Rob
Chernow’s biography on Alexander Hamilton (Mead). In the past four years, the musical has
exploded in popularity, setting new standards for Broadway, with “$111 million in ticket sales in
just over 13 months, 16 Tony Award nominations (and 11 wins), [and] a Pulitzer Prize for
Drama” (Berman 51). It has leaked into wedding vows and birthday parties, as well as
nomination speeches and Met Gala outfits. There are homemade costumes, a companion book to
the musical, and even a camel dubbed “Alexander Camelton” after this revived founding father

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(Berman 52). It is no secret that this revolutionary show, well known for its racial diversity and
unique blend of Broadway with rap and hip-hop, has become a integral aspect of American life.
But attempting to tell a historical story with such a new spin, especially one as well known as the
American Revolution, will not go without some critique. Critics have found fault with the way
Hamilton portrays American history, but others argue the show can nevertheless be a force for
good. Despite its faults, this musical is profoundly beneficial to contemporary American society;
it increases awareness of social issues, encourages discussions of our nation’s history, and
ultimately reinforces our constant effort to reinterpret our past and find a unifying national
identity.

SOCIAL INFLUENCE
Hamilton’s unique style and production has made it the perfect vehicle for necessary social
commentary, and its fame helps make the public more aware of political issues. In 2014, while
creating Hamilton, Lin-Manuel Miranda watched the growing controversies surrounding police
brutality and Black Lives Matter. With white police officers avoiding punishment for killing
African-American men such as Michael Brown, and protestors assembling for demonstrations in
the streets, Miranda tweeted some lines from Hamilton in response: “If we win our
independence / Is that a guarantee of freedom for our descendants? / Or will the blood we shed
begin an endless / Cycle of vengeance and death with no defendants?” (Mead). A couple years
later, following the controversial election of 2016, the cast of Hamilton used the musical as an
opportunity to make a statement to then Vice-President-elect Mike Pence when he attended one
of their shows—and it caused quite a stir (see fig. 1). “We, sir — we — are the diverse America
who are alarmed and anxious that your new administration will not protect us, our planet, our

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children, our parents, or defend us and uphold our inalienable rights,” said the actor of Aaron
Burr, Brandon Victor Dixon, on behalf of the production. “We truly hope that this show has
inspired you to uphold our American values and to work on behalf of all of us” (Mele and
Healy). The president lashed out in response, but Hamilton, with a unique combination of
patriotism and ethnic diversity, was able to use its platform to better defend the rights of those
they felt would be harmed by the Trump presidency. This standoff between a Broadway musical
and the political administration ultimately increased awareness of the social inequalities
prevalent today. But there are more recent events as well. To further emphasize the production’s position
towards the president’s policies, last year the powerful lyric, “immigrants—we get the job done”
was turned into a music video of the same name that depicts the struggles and uncertainties of
immigrant life. It opens with a commentator stating, “It’s really astonishing that in a country

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founded by immigrants, ‘immigrant’ has somehow become a bad word,” setting the tone for the
video and its commentary on the current rhetoric surrounding immigration (Deb). And finally,
this past March, Miranda collaborated with Dear Evan Hansen’s Ben Platt to combine their
respective ballads, “Story of Tonight” and “You Will be Found”, to make a new charity single.
The medley, titled “Found/Tonight”, was created to support March for Our Lives, a rally
protesting the lack of gun control in response to the fatal Parkland shooting. Miranda said he was
in awe of the movement and the students behind it, and wanted his song to be his “way of
helping to raise funds and awareness for their efforts” (Kreps). These examples show how the
political content, diverse cast, and charged lyrics of Hamilton combine to create a musical lent to
social and political commentary, as its creators, cast, and fans have clearly shown. One study by
Alliant International University in San Francisco found that “[m]usical theater may be a
promising method for promoting attitudinal change” (Jacobs). If that is true, then by taking a
stand on political and social issues, Hamilton has benefited our political climate by making more
people aware of and even altering their attitude toward pressing issues, which will hopefully lead
those under its influence to more active political participation.

HISTORICAL INFLUENCE
But for all the acclaim regarding its socio-political influence, this ground-breaking musical still
has its critics. Many of these critics argue that not only does the musical portray history
inaccurately, but also that it is not as revolutionary in its interpretation of history as initially
thought. Many historians have fact-checked Hamilton and found significant errors that have
fostered incorrect knowledge surrounding the American Revolution among the general public.
Kenneth Owen, an associate professor of history at Oxford, admits Hamilton has a modern and

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creative presentation, but laments the traditional “hero narrative” view the musical takes (510).
Although the musical “[takes] some liberties with historical details” to create a comprehensive
drama of Hamilton’s life, Owen is more disturbed by the idealized man it presents (511). The
musical glosses over Hamilton’s more controversial opinions, such as his support for military
leadership or instituting a new American monarchy. Furthermore, the real Hamilton disliked
“common” people and tried hard to distance himself from them; thus, the musical ironically
molds him into an acceptable modern-day hero Hamilton himself would have distrusted
(Freeman 261). Accordingly, some historians argue that Hamilton is “the wrong hero for our
age” (Smith 519), as viewers are left with a distorted view of this controversial founding father.
But Miranda doesn’t just idealize this lesser known Founding Father: his whole
interpretation of the American Revolution falls into what Owen and other historians call the
Great Man theory of history, where a few elite men, such as Washington and Jefferson, are
constructed as the only important historical actors—and the media has only been encouraging
this obsession. Movies and TV shows such as 1776 and The Sons of Liberty, not to mention a
host of worshipful biographies such as the one by Ron Chernow, have all contributed to this
“Founders chic” trend, and Hamilton is no different. Its portrayal of the founding through the
escapades of an elite few means it falls into this “American Revolution rebooted” genre, causing
some to argue that it is, in fact, not very revolutionary at all (Schocket). Ironically, this “Great
Man” approach ignores the very ideas Hamilton stands for: the common immigrant, the power of
the united group, and the representation of those usually excluded from the narrative.
Consequently, Hamilton leaves us with a great contradiction as it sets up One man as a
representation of what One man alone cannot be—the realization of Everyman.

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But why worry about accuracy and content if it’s just a musical? Nancy Isenberg, a
Professor of History at Louisiana State University, addresses the need for all this historical
debate by acknowledging how entertainment like a Broadway show can have a greater impact on
what people know than a historian ever could; thus, the popularity of Hamilton implies a greater
need for historians to step forward and “make the cultural producers of popular history more
accountable” (303). If they do not, then incorrect interpretations created for entertainment soon
become the assumed truth, weaving themselves into the collective historical remembrance and
distorting our ability to accurately connect to and learn from our past. Thus, historians must work
to keep the record straight before inaccuracies become too entrenched in society’s memory that
they might as well be fact.
While I admit that historical accuracy is valuable, I believe that musicals can be
inaccurate yet thought-provoking; despite its faults, Hamilton has benefited historians by
opening the gateway for historical discussions. When Lin-Manuel Miranda began writing his
biography-based musical, he set out wanting, “the historians to respect [it]” (Mead). Much of the
musical is drawn from Rob Chernow’s biography on Alexander Hamilton, and Chernow was, in
fact, a historical consultant throughout the musical’s creation. Thus, much of Hamilton is
factually correct, although some would claim that makes its inaccuracies more deceptive, as,
“[i]ts fictions seem factual when mingled with historical facts” (Freeman 256). However, one
must remember that Hamilton is a musical, admittedly a historically based one, where
entertainment comes first; educating the audience just happens to be a happy side benefit.
Presenting history through entertainment is a time-honored practice in part because it makes
history relevant to non-historians. Becoming a pop culture phenomenon means Hamilton, as well
as Hamilton the man, are talked about across the nation. Such awareness leads to changes such as

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keeping the previously unrecognized founding father on the ten-dollar bill, as well as
opportunities for concerned historians to draw in audiences outside of the usual university class
or historical documentary. With a groundbreaking musical as a hook, one can draw in and further
educate many casual history fans on the deeper nuances of our nation’s history.
In fact, Hamilton has allowed many history teachers to do just that, providing “manna
from the curriculum gods” (Berman 54). The musical’s modern music style and racial diversity
grab the attention of students, allowing them to see “an inclusive take on our national history”;
these students understandably find a colored Thomas Jefferson rapping about cabinet meetings
far more entertaining and relatable than the traditional white figure from their textbook
(McAllister 288). The show has expanded on this opportunity by partnering with the nonprofit
Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History, among others, to help history students from
underprivileged schools have access to the musical and gain a better appreciation for history
(Berman 54). As Benjamin Carp, an Associate Professor of History at Brooklyn College, put it,
Hamilton is somewhere between dismissive pop culture and revolutionary historical
interpretation; we must acknowledge its influence on larger audiences since “pop culture does
matter,” but also recognize that historians “lay the foundation” for its existence (291). Thus,
although the musical may not be entirely accurate, it starts important social conversations about
history, and historians can “take full advantage of the spotlight that Hamilton has cast” to delve
deeper into the character of and context surrounding the ever-complex Alexander Hamilton, as
well as our nation’s history (Freeman 262).

UNIFYING IDENTITY
But perhaps most influential has been Hamilton’s racial diversity. The musical is well known for
how it subverts traditional expectations by placing people of color in historically white roles.

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And that casting change was very intentional. Commenting on his struggle to find lead roles,
Lin-Manuel Miranda admitted that, “[i]f I want to play the main guy, I have found, I have to
write it” (Mead). So that’s what he did, opening leading roles for many actors used to staying on
the sidelines or playing the classic sidekick. The producers of Hamilton are determined to keep it
that way with a recent casting call asking for “nonwhite men and women.” Their wording
inspired some criticism, and the producers agreed to change it, but they remained firm on their
intent to have a diverse cast (Paulson). By having Hamilton performed in such a way, Miranda
has given minorities the chance to literally step into the spotlight, and that action is made all the
more powerful by the extremely patriotic and revered positions they fill on stage.
But Hamilton doesn’t just “change casting practices on Broadway…it changes the
questions audiences ask about who can body-forth American history” (Nathans 277). Miranda
explained in one interview: “we’re telling the stories of old, dead white men but we’re using
actors of color, and that makes the story more immediate and more accessible to a contemporary
audience” (McAllister 283). By portraying the well-known story of our nation’s founding with people of color, Hamilton places minorities in “the room where it happens,” a place of decision-making they have been denied throughout history, thus making them feel more of a connection to our nation’s founders and their own elusive American identity (McAllister 288). The musical
also captures the raw emotion and fear surrounding the revolution, making this historical event
more immediate and powerful to the audience. The American Revolution wasn’t just an
inevitable series of events acted out by omniscient white founders—it was “ambitious, risky, and
in-the-making” (Freeman 261). The traditional American ideals such as freedom, democracy,
and new beginnings are thus stripped of their traditional white façade and portrayed for all to
relate to and act upon. Overall, this inclusive interpretation alters how we perceive “who belongs

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to the founding,” because Hamilton is ultimately a reflection of how our nation has changed
since then (Schocket 269). The United States of America may have started out one way, but it
certainly doesn’t look that way now. America is known for its diversity, and Hamilton allows
minorities to celebrate their background and still feel American. When Miranda wrote this
musical, he combined his many identities in one piece: from Puerto Rico to New York, hip-hop
to Broadway. And that combination of all his “spaces into one room…excites people, because
that’s what this country is”—multiple identities and multiple cultures blending into one,
phenomenal entity (Mead). As Obama once said in reference to Hamilton, “the show reminds us
that this nation was built by more than just a few great men — and that it is an inheritance that
belongs to all of us” (Paulson). By translating contemporary identities onto a classic American
story, Hamilton allows those identities to translate classic American ideals back onto themselves
and truly feel a part of our collective story, both then and now.
Crucial to this reinterpretation of history are the gaps in historical knowledge that allow
Americans to infer new and relevant meaning from old sources. Applying the experiences of the
past to issues of the present is nothing new, even when it comes to Alexander Hamilton. Joanne
Freeman, a Professor of History and American Studies at Yale University, claims that, “[f]rom
the dawning of the republic to the present day, generation after generation has created a
Founding narrative that served their needs, with Hamilton’s reputation rising and falling
accordingly.” From a popular money-man whose acceptance fell once the Depression hit, to a
“prophet of the glories of capitalism” during the Cold War, to the immigrant hero he is today,
Americans have been revering or despising Hamilton according to their will and pleasure (258).
As Isenberg put it, “history is created by the archive”, and that archive is incomplete. Those in
power are those who write history, consequently leaving many stories untold and open to

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interpretation. This gives interpreters of history the freedom to praise or condemn according to
how they fill in the gaps (Nathans 274). Americans have used this principle when they applied
the words of a slaveowner to civil rights, or when laws written by landowning males were
expanded to cover many outside of that category. Hamilton also takes advantage of this idea,
inviting audiences to reinterpret our nation’s founding to fit their current situation. Because
“America’s Founding myths are so central to national identity”, our nation turns to the Founding
for reinterpretation when our diversity increases and more people must be included in our story
(Owen 515). Thus, Hamilton can be seen as another effort to create a unifying identity,
something we need now more than ever. In our divisive and uncertain times, the ideals of the
past that we Americans hold common are what unify us, and Hamilton shows us how we can
reinterpret those ideals to better define our nation.

CONCLUSION
Everyone can agree that Hamilton has impacted our nation, in more ways than one. It may have
historical inaccuracies, but by breaking Broadway records and becoming a cultural phenomenon,
this historic musical has forever changed our country by bringing political issues and historical
discussions to the forefront of our nation’s conversations. These conversations are valuable
because they help us acknowledge that as Americans, we don’t need to be limited by our past;
instead we can use our past to expand our collective identity and unify our society as what it
means to be “American” continues to grow and change. Thus, by redefining one of America’s
most revered historical events—its Founding—Hamilton: An American Musical has aided in the
defining of an ever-changing nation.

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