A Study in Ham

It's hard for me to believe that there are people who don't know about the new Broadway Smash, Hamilton. It's a musical about Alexander Hamilton. But it's not just any musical. This is a Rap/Hip-Hop style where the entire show used color-blind casting to recreate the early days of our country. Besides helping educate Americans about their founding fathers, Hamilton is also a great example of script adaptations. Here are a few reasons I learned from studying this show

1) You can make a Historical script accurate

Without fail, a historical movie will come out, and my immediate reaction is to wonder how accurate it is. Most of the time, it isn't. Some, like the Imitation Game or Hurt Locker, take liberties to try to make sense of history. They take basic history and imagine the reality surrounding that basic historical theme. Others, like Braveheart or Shakespeare in Love, seem to think historical accuracy should be thrown out the window. Don't get me wrong, I can still love a good historically inaccurate movie. I will belt along with Pocahontas like crazy. However, Lin-Manuel Miranda's efforts in Hamilton blow away Hollywood. Miranda admits taking some liberties for ease of storytelling. For example, Burr didn't challenge Hamilton to the duel after losing the election of 1800. Angelica was married when she met Hamilton. Adams didn't fire Hamilton. Hamilton had resigned before Adams even got to office. With any historical fiction, there is bound to be some creative license. But these discrepancies pale in the comparison to the attention to historical detail Miranda has included.

Every line and moment reflects historical research. It's obvious as soon as you start doing your own research. Miranda pulls lines straight out of the real life writings. Angelica's catch phrase focuses on being "satisfied." Miranda drew this from a letter the real Angelica Church wrote Alexander Hamilton. She spoke about his inability to be satisfied. Miranda pulled that single thought out of her letters to help explain their mysterious real life relationship.  He also throws in tiny references to actual events, relationships, and politics. Thomas Jefferson and John Adams were close friends in two different political parties. Even as Jefferson is critiquing Adams' policies, he throws in "I love the guy."  We see how Burr kick started the modern campaign trail and Jefferson's policies eventually led to our two-party system. This musical brings in the complexity of history by drawing on more than just proving Hamilton to be "great." The historical accuracies make it more relatable and these historical figures more human.

The script brings these tiny details that allow us to view the characters as real life people instead of fictional works. It doesn't get bogged down in trying to create drama. Who needs to create drama when actual history is relatable. Who can't relate to feeling jealous about someone else succeeding when you're equally qualified? Who can't relate to feelings of pride for their family and children? Who doesn't feel heart break at the loss of a friend or a son? Compared to so many other scripts, Hamilton proves historical fiction is more interesting when you stay close to the real thing.

2) History and modern music work together.

Who can't think of a historical piece that tries to hard to be modern, and just completely misses the mark? Baz Lurman's The Great Gasby is my personal favorite example. Music is an obvious choice to connect audiences to a story. So if we want audiences to relate to history, why not use music? Miranda has proven that you have to fully commit to this idea to make it work. 

Hamilton throws in references to Beyonce, the Beatles, to a dozen other artists. From modeling whole songs to throwing in a single references, the show is packed with hidden gems. Alexander spells out his name during "My Shot" in homage to The Notorious Big in "Going Back to Cali." Eliza's "Helpless" is a clear reference to Beyonce's "Countdown" and Brandy's "The Boy is Mine." Each reference uses modern music to bring the audience closer to the characters, not just time or setting. King George's Beatles sound contrasts the R&B sound of the rest of the show. This parallels the British contrast to Americans at the time. The Schuychler sisters are introduced in a Destiny's Child sound. What other way would introduce them as empowered women? The music doesn't set the scene, it enhances the scene. Music is about feelings. When you hear a song, it reminds you of something special. Miranda uses that knowledge to help explain the characters through our predetermined conceptions on music. He makes conscious decisions to help us understand the feeling of the show.

3) Play with your words.

Historical pieces seem to think that we need to hear them talk in a historical manner. I love myself some Shakespeare, but sometimes that bogs down the overall message. One of the thing that has drawn me into Hamilton is the constant deliberation behind Miranda's word choices. He mixes formal period language with modern dialects. His use of popular phrases, modern rap sounds, and historical plays on words gives hundreds of layers to be found.

The word choice can be beautiful to listen to.  "You built me palaces out of paragraphs" parallels with "And you are paranoid in every paragraph." The alliteration alone is gorgeous to the ear. Then you remember that not only is there alliteration, these two lines showcase Eliza's her view towards his writing followed by her now pained view. While these lines are separated in different versus, the scheme brings listeners close to understanding her pain.

This is a section I could spend hours talking about, so we'll move on.

4) Men can write strong women characters.

So many writers struggle with writing women. From Supernatural to Doctor Who, fans are starting to call out for better writing. Hamilton heard those cries and included several strong female characters. 

The obvious first choice is Angelica. She is introduced as "looking for a mind at work." She self describes as appearing "intense or... insane." She's not simply going to let someone marry her for her status. The real life Angelica disregarded the rules and eloped to marry the man she loved. Her passion for politics is displayed in the show with her letters back and forth with Hamilton. She stands up for her sister and for her beliefs. She raps just as fast as all of the men. Angelica is the obvious independent woman. 

Miranda didn't stop there. He wrote another one! Eliza Hamilton shows more strength than her sister. At first glance, Eliza doesn't seem strong. She's worried about being "enough" for Hamilton. Her first impression of him even left her "helpless." Miranda didn't keep her passive. Throughout the show, we see her thinking about her role in Alexander's life. From her desire to be "part of the narrative" when pregnant, to deciding to remove herself during "Burn." She is aware of the larger story. While Eliza is aware of everything around her, Washington is constantly reminding Hamilton that "history has its eyes on you." Eliza's acknowledgement of being part of the narrative plays into her real life role to the story. Eliza spent her life after Alexander's death collecting his letters and writings. Many historians credit Eliza for our knowledge about Alexander Hamilton's life. The real Eliza decided what remained in the records. She ultimately gave us the narrative of Alexander Hamilton. Miranda's word choice (and subsequently, the show's ending) highlights her historical significance. Eliza chose to redeem the man who publicly cheated on her, was the cause of her son dying, and had an emotional affair with her sister. Throughout the whole show, she choses the keep her head up. She doesn't passively accept her fate. She burns letters, destroying part of the narrative. She refuses to let the grief of her son's death defeat her. Even as she struggled with all of the loss in her life, she chose to open a private orphanage. Eliza redefines what it means to be a strong woman. 

 

 

Hamilton sets a new standard. Musicals will never be the same. Historical drama will never be the same. It's clever, it's accurate, it's diverse. Overall, Hamilton is what people are calling for in film and television. Miranda has proven to us that it's possible. Now let's learn from his example and step up our own game!