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How does a fifty-something opera fan fall in love with a hip-hop Broadway show?
The first clip I heard from Hamilton: An American Musical was the opening number, “Alexander Hamilton.” It was so far out of my Mozart-Beethoven-and-Rossini-loving comfort zone that I didn’t even know if “hip hop” was the right musical term for it. Strike one.
Also: Alexander Hamilton is my favorite Founding Father: an excellent writer, a (sort of) capitalist, and a New Yorker. But for the past century or so, he’s been the most neglected and reviled of the Founding Fathers. A hit show in ultra-liberal New York City: how likely is it that Hamilton is going to be shown as my kind of hero? Strike two.
Fortunately, my friends refuse to let me wallow in my own ignorance. One of them saw Hamilton at the Public Theater and has been raving about the show ever since. He listened patiently while I explained (several times) why it was absolutely inconceivable that I would like Hamilton. Then he handed me the soundtrack and suggested I listen before deciding.
I still haven’t seen Hamilton: An American Musical. The difference is that now I really, really mind that I haven’t seen it. I tear up every time I listen to “The Unimaginable.” (The track is actually called “It’s Quiet Uptown,” but I never think of it by that name.) I jump up singing, ready to tackle the world, at “My Shot.” To my amazement, although political debates generally leave me queasy, I can enjoy them if they involve the Founding Fathers, rapping.
So first of all: thanks, Lin-Manuel Miranda, for expanding my self-imposed horizons!
Waiting for it
Tickets are sold out through August , and I don’t have the income to patronize scalpers. I plan to cope with my impatience by writing. My niche is outdoor sculpture in New York City. There are four sculptures of Hamilton here – more than of anyone else. In researching them, I’ve read a fair number of Hamilton’s writings. Over the next months, I’ll be posting writings by Hamilton and his contemporaries that are related to the lyrics of Hamilton: An American Musical. For good measure, I’ll toss in some illustrations of Hamilton and his times that I collected while putting together the Guides Who Know Monuments of Manhattan videos on two of the Hamilton sculptures in New York.
I hope you enjoy these posts as much as I intend to enjoy writing them!
- To get much out of these posts, you’ll have to buy the soundtrack to Hamilton– preferably a CD with liner notes, which will tell you who’s singing what. For copyright reasons, I won’t be printing the lyrics. (Amazon tells me that the book Hamilton: The Revolution will appear 4/12/16, with details on the development of the musical, full lyrics, and annotations by Lin-Manuel Miranda. Can’t wait!) [Note 11/5/2017: the book was worth the wait – great pics, layout, and comments – but now that I’ve removed the lyrics, this is less relevant.]
- You do not (not, not, not) (did I say, NOT) need historical notes such as I’m writing in order to enjoy the musical or the soundtrack. As legions of fans will tell you, Hamilton: An American Musical stands on its own as a work of art.
- These comments are purely unofficial, my personal take on a work of art that I enjoy very much.
Addendum (November 2017)
The producers of Hamilton: An American Musical have requested that I not use the lyrics in the published version of these posts. I’m not sure if that prohibition extends to these (free) online posts, but I don’t take risks when lawyers are involved. As of early November 2017, I’ve removed the lyrics from the headings. The few that are left fall under fair use.
For those who read these posts without the musical in mind, I should explain that the sequence of posts was originally based on the sequence of events in the musical. For example, Aaron Burr, Hercules Mulligan, John Laurens, and the Marquis de Lafayette appear in early posts because they appear near the beginning of the musical. If you prefer to read the posts according to their order in Hamilton’s life, see the cross-references in my Alexander Hamilton: A Brief Biography.
I still enjoy listening to the soundtrack of Hamilton, but early in writing this series of posts, I veered away from following the musical’s story line to dive into primary sources. When I gave my first talk on Hamilton back in 2004, I spent hours in the stacks of my local library, poring through through the 27-volume printed version of Hamilton’s writings. This time around, I not only to read most of Hamilton’s letters and essays online – I also found the letters he was replying to, and eyewitness accounts of events Hamilton participated in. Based on this research, I was able to present some aspects of Hamilton’s life and times in a way that I haven’t seen elsewhere. I think they’re worth reading, even if you’re a fan of the Founding Fathers but not Hamilton: An American Musical. Some of the ones I’m most proud of:
- A Revue of Royal and Revolutionary Rhetoric, 1756-1776 (Hamilton 15)
- Hamilton’s “death wish”: what’s the evidence? (Hamilton 8, 9, and 24)
- Hamilton’s early political essays: why did they make him outstanding among patriotic writers of his time? (Hamiton 8)
- Duels: what were the rules? (Hamilton 27 and 28)
- Hamilton’s writings as secretary of the Treasury: what did he advocate? I outlined each but included substantial excerpts, and added introductory material on their context. (Hamilton 60, 61, and 62)
- Hamilton’s economic policy: was he a laissez-faire capitalist, a proponent of big government, or …? Where did he draw the line between economics and politics? (Hamilton 62)
- The Reynolds Affair: all the available letters and documents, printed out in chronological order, including an outline (with excerpts) of The Reynolds Pamphlet. (Hamilton 63a, 63b, 63c)
Having finished these posts, I did consider editing them down into dense academic prose that presents only my conclusions. But … I’ve always been fascinated by the process of studying history, as much as by its results. I’m hoping that seeing the methodology – how a historian goes about reaching conclusions – will intrigue and amuse you, and perhaps even inspire you to dive into history yourself.
This is my favorite Hamilton sculpture in NYC, for the defiant look, the posture, and the texture on the frock coat. It’s at 287 Convent Ave. at 141st St., where Hamilton’s home, the Grange, used to stand. The Grange is now around the corner and down the hill, in St. Nicholas Park (414 W. 141st St.). Walk inside: it’ll make your toes tingle to stand where Hamilton stood.
- Want to visit all four Hamilton sculptures in Manhattan? Handout is here.
- Find out which other fascinating figures in Manhattan sculpture are in Outdoor Monuments of Manhattan: A Historical Guide (or buy the book from Amazon). Outdoor Monuments has been “translated” into the Guides Who Know Monuments of Manhattan videoguide, available for iPhone users (free Preview; complete app) and Android users (free preview; complete app).
- I’ve occasionally added comments based on these blog posts to the Genius.com pages on the Hamilton Musical. Follow me @DianneDurante.
- Other posts in this series are available via the “Hamilton” tag in the Obsessions cloud at lower right. The “index” to these posts is my Kindle book, Alexander Hamilton: A Brief Biography. Bottom line: these are unofficial musings, and you do not need them to enjoy the musical or the soundtrack.
- Want wonderful art delivered weekly to your inbox? Members of my free Sunday Recommendations list (email DuranteDianne@gmail.com) receive three art-related suggestions every week: check out my favorites from last year’s recommendations. For more goodies, check out my Patreon page.