I’m not throwin’ away my shot.
Hey yo, I’m just like my country.
I’m young, scrappy and hungry.
—some of the lyrics used by Alexander Hamilton to introduce himself in Hamilton, the musical.
I am not a fan of rap music; but when the opportunity to attend a performance of Hamilton came my way, I leapt at it. The reason was, in part, because a guest on a recent Central Park Walking Tour gave the show high praise. I thoroughly enjoyed the performance, which was a benefit for the Morris-Jumel Mansion in Washington Heights. A portion of the work was written at the Morris-Jumel Mansion, with its connection to Aaron Burr, a central character in the play.
Hamilton had its world premiere at New York’s Public Theater, where its run has been extended to May (there is a strong buzz that the show will transfer to Broadway). The show began previews on January 20th; and it opens on February 17th. With book, music and lyrics by Lin-Manuel Miranda, this rapping romp through the formative years of the new American nation took its inspiration from the book Alexander Hamilton by Ron Chernow. Mr. Miranda, the creative force behind the 2008 Tony Award-winning musical In The Heights, is cast in the title role of the scrappy young immigrant, the key figure in setting America on a financial path that would be its destiny.
Mr. Miranda, winner of Tony and Grammy Awards, presents a wildly inventive new musical about the unlikely founding father, who was determined to make his mark on a new nation as hungry and as ambitious for success as he was. Directed by Tony-Award nominee Thomas Kail, this exciting musical, about taking your shot, follows the life of America’s founding economic father, from his bastard orphaned roots on the Caribbean island of Nevis to his dueling death in Weehawken, NJ, the state where everything is legal, according to the lyrics. The show, in many ways, is an opera, in so much as there are very few spoken words; almost all are set to music. The word rhymes and meanings are quite clever. For example, how the the word ‘shot,’ in the lyric quoted above, is used. The word ‘shot’ whose meaning as an opportunity, which Hamilton took full advantage of, contrasts with the use of the word meaning what a pistol does, which he did throw away, bringing him to his end. The choreography and staging are brilliant; the sets and costumes are spare, focusing attention on the action, lyrics and music!
George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, Elizabeth (who is called ‘Eliza’ throughout the action) Schuyler Hamilton, her sister Angelica Schuyler, and Aaron Burr are among the historic figures who play pivotal parts in Hamilton. It is clear from the late 18th-century, national policy topics, such as involvement in foreign wars and the national debt, that are debated throughout the second act, that an old adage still applies; as the Francophile Jefferson might say, plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.
From orphan to George Washington’s right hand man, both on the battlefield and in the backrooms of power, Alexander Hamilton, a loving husband who was caught in the country’s first sex scandal, has, even today, a strong presence in New York, his hometown. He, his wife Elizabeth and their oldest child, Philip are buried in Trinity Churchyard; he founded the Bank of New York and the New York Post. His country house, the Grange, located at Convent Avenue and West 141st Street, is part of the National Park Service. A granite likeness of Hamilton stands behind the Metropolitan Museum of Art in Central Park. It was donated to the Park by one of Hamilton sons, Colonial John C. Hamilton, who is entombed in a hillside mausoleum at Green-Wood Cemetery, a National Historic Landmark in Brooklyn.
To those who believe that this hip and happening musical will prompt a younger generation to take an interest in American history, I would say, that this is only the starting point. Although this production brings historic events and the people behind them to life in a fresh way, it is only the beginning. Reading reliable sources and the guidance of a good teacher are necessary next steps to flesh out the story. Hamilton is, after all, entertainment, not education.
In the lobby of the Public Theater two bronzes, titled Hamilton and Burr, add a three-dimensional, life-sized reality to America’s most famous duel. Part of the collection of the New-York Historical Society, Kim Crowley’s 2004 sculptures capture the culminating moment in the often stormy relationship between a sitting U.S. vice president and the country’s first Secretary of Treasury, who made a skeptical world believe in the American economy. Burr had been involved in at least three previous duels; and the insecure Hamilton, being the hot-head he was known to be, had participated in ten.
New York State prohibited dueling; New Jersey was less strict about prosecuting those who engaged in honor affairs, as duels were known. On July 11th, 1804, the two men and their parties took row boats across the Hudson River to Weehawken, where they faced each other on the same ground that saw Hamilton’s eldest son Philip lose his life in a duel. Hamilton’s shot intentionally missed Burr, who returned fire, mortally wounding his opponent. Hamilton died the next day. His widow would live for another 50 years, becoming the longest living public figure with a direct connection to the American Revolution and its key personalities. American politicians of the first half of the 19th century would pay her court to burnish their own image in the eyes of the voting public. Then, as now, image counts for everything; again the Master of Monticello can be heard saying, plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.