In 10 For The ’10s, The A.V. Club looks back at the decade that was: 10 essays about the media that defined the 2010s, one for every year from 2010 to 2019. Today: 2015, Hamilton, and Star Wars: Episode VII—The Force Awakens.
The next time you share an idea you think is brilliant, and the person you share it with laughs, just smile and turn to this:
A decade has elapsed since Lin-Manuel Miranda told President Barack Obama and a room full of White House guests that he was writing a concept album about “the life of someone I think embodies hip-hop: Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton.” It was May 12, 2009, and the first time Miranda had performed the project’s opening number. Watching that video, you can see that Miranda knows the laugh is coming. He not only knows, but welcomes it with open arms. It’s clear that even then, he knew his angle was a good, even brilliant one, that the skepticism conjured by the apparent absurdity of describing one of the Founding Fathers of the United States as embodying hip-hop would vanish once people understood the reasons why. They could laugh. Maybe they should laugh. Then they’d listen, and that would be the ball game.
“I’ll be playing Vice President Aaron Burr,” he says, to audible giggles. “Snap along if you like.”
How does a bastard, orphan, son of a whore and a Scotsman, dropped in the middle of a forgotten spot in the Caribbean by providence, impoverished, in squalor, grow up to be the subject of one of the biggest musicals of all time? How does a friendless, indigent junk trader, abandoned—if not sold for drinking money—by her parents, wind up wielding a sci-fi Excalibur at the center of one of the world’s most beloved cinematic universes? 2015 saw the rise of an intentionally provocative political figure whose unsubtle racism and misogyny—apparent even in the first speech of his campaign— would somehow get him to the White House, but the year was also bookended by two massively successful, conversation-dominating artifacts of pop culture that each, in its own way, took an unshakeable American institution and remixed or remade it into something new. Neither Hamilton nor Star Wars: Episode VII—The Force Awakens erases or abandons its source material; to the contrary, both operate on the assumption that the story being told is not only worthy of the telling, but an essential epic. Yet each was changed by this simple act: Its creators opened the doors wide, and let those too often left to wait outside come in and make those stories new.
As Miranda wrote in The Atlantic last week:
In tense, fractious times—like our current moment—all art is political. But even during those times when politics and the future of our country itself are not the source of constant worry and anxiety, art is still political. Art lives in the world, and we exist in the world, and we cannot create honest work about the world in which we live without reflecting it. If the work tells the truth, it will live on.
Much of Hamilton’s success is due to its writer’s keen understanding of two American art forms, as well as his formidable gift for language. But the real key to unlocking the greatness of Hamilton is this: Lin-Manuel Miranda looked at the life of Alexander Hamilton—at its particulars, not just some marble bust. He saw the story of an immigrant, of someone who used language and hustle and boldness to make a place for himself in a world that would otherwise have shut him out. He saw an audacious loudmouth, a genius who didn’t know when to shut up, a trait which dazzled and backfired. He saw feuds and sex and swagger. And then he did something both simple and revolutionary: He wrote it exactly that way. He reflected the world in which we live. He told the truth, and it will live on.
Inspired by Ron Chernow’s bestselling 2004 biography of Alexander Hamilton, Hamilton is, unequivocally, hip-hop—just not in the form of the concept album described in the White House in 2009. When the musical’s songs were compiled into an LP, a Billboard review dubbed it the best rap record of 2015. Busta Rhymes sat in the front row, grinning, when the show played the Public Theater in New York, its home before the inevitable Broadway transfer; he was later one of many artists to appear on The Hamilton Mixtape, a list that includes Ja Rule, Nas, Wiz Khalifa, Common, Miguel, Queen Latifah, and Chance The Rapper. After seeing the show, Questlove, who would later produce the original cast recording with Black Thought, found himself asking: “Is this the most revolutionary thing to happen to Broadway, or the most revolutionary thing to happen to hip-hop?”
And that’s because Hamilton is just as unequivocally a musical, with choreography, costumes, an intermission, scenework, a massive set, and a few powerhouse ballads. It’s a sonic experience, but a dramatic one as well. It’s not a musical about hip-hop; that is simply the form it takes. As all great hip-hop artists do, Miranda places Hamilton in conversation with other great artists by quoting and sampling their sampling their work—it’s just that he’s as likely to cite Jason Robert Brown as Mobb Depp and Biggie Smalls. The lyrics contain more than 20,000 words, far, far more than your Evan Hansens or your Hadestowns—just as, say, your average Busta Rhymes track would have far more words than something by Dolly Parton.
And it’s not a gimmick. “This music is the only way you can tell this guy’s story,” Miranda told Grantland in 2015. “You could do a Les Mis-type musical about Hamilton, but it would have to be 12 hours long.”
And so a story about the founding of the United States—previously captured in films like The Patriot, television shows like the miniseries John Adams, and musicals like 1776—was told again, by pairing one American art form with another. It’s a choice that this time in a way that reflected the country’s diversity. George Washington (Christopher Jackson) was Black. Burr (Leslie Odom Jr.) was Black. Hamilton, initially played by Miranda himself, was Puerto Rican. Thomas Jefferson was Black, played by a biracial rapper (Daveed Diggs) who went to Hebrew school and would win a Tony for his Broadway debut. King George (Jonathan Groff) was white, deliberately so; his menacing, wickedly funny, Beatles-inspired songs sound unlike anything else in the score. The other named characters, and the vast majority of the ensemble, were all people of color.
This isn’t “colorblind casting,” the kind of thing where you sit down to see Hamlet and the fact that a Latinx person is playing Claudius is never acknowledged. This is “color-conscious casting,” an indispensable element of the show, operating—as most things in Hamilton do—on multiple levels. It elevates and enlivens the story, kicking preconceptions about what this period of history should look and sound like to the curb; in doing so, “you rob it of its inevitability, you rob it of its sort of plaster sainthood,” Miranda said in 2018. It’s also a practical artistic consideration: “I wanted to write a hip-hop, R&B musical about the life of Alexander Hamilton,” he added; “If it had been an all-white cast, wouldn’t you think I messed up?”
But it’s another element that most lingers. It pops out in lines like “And when I meet Thomas Jefferson, I’m ’a compel him to include women in the sequel,” and, most famously, shines through in “Immigrants: we get the job done.” Here’s Miranda in the annotated libretto included in Hamilton: The Revolution, a massive tome about the creation of the show, co-written with Jeremy McCarter.
This just made me laugh: Lafayette and Hamilton, on the verge of the last battle of the way, patting themselves on the back. I never anticipated that the audience response would drown out the next few lines every night. So we added two bars just to absorb the reaction. Cheers still drowned ’em out. So we added four bars. Then we felt like we were asking for applause, and they delivered, and it was even worse. We went back down to two bars and it is what it is. Why does it get such a delighted response? Because it’s true.
Hamilton is a reclamation of American history—a story which, yes, features quite a few prominent white men. No one who sees Hamilton is going to suddenly forget that George Washington and Thomas Jefferson were white guys—it in fact reminds the audience that Jefferson was a slaveowner (“Sally, be a lamb, darlin’, won’t you open it?” he croons in the electric second-act opener, “What’d I Miss?”) But when the lights go up, the audience sees a stage full of people of color in breeches and corsets, playing presidents and war heroes and other great figures of history. They’ll listen to the cast tell that story through an art form created by people of color, many of them immigrants—something they have in common with the show’s central figure. The diverse cast is a necessity to tell this version of this story correctly, but it’s also an incredibly powerful statement, taking a vital piece of American history and allowing it to belong to everyone.
When I first actually saw Hamilton—not just listened, not watched clips, but sat down in a Chicago theater to be in (forgive me) “the room where it happens”—I figured I had an act and a half before I got weepy, maybe less if “Wait For It” was particularly sublime. (It was.) But it happened much sooner, when the actor playing Angelica Schuyler came to the line about compelling Thomas Jefferson to “include women in the sequel.”
The acknowledgment that even within this marvelous show women were going to have to wait for the sequel meant a lot to me in that moment. It meant, and means, a lot to the show—particularly in 2015, as Hillary Clinton was running for president. The women aren’t caricatures—you could make a decent case that Angelica is the third-best character, after Burr and Hamilton—but they’re not singing “What’d I Miss,” either. Their gender ensures that they remain mostly on the sidelines; they feature prominently in the story only by virtue of their relationship to its protagonist. That line was a recognition of what was missing and a promise of things to come; things that would be compelled, rather than granted.
It’s that idea, I think, that ensured that Rey’s first lightsaber battle in The Force Awakens would resonate with so many. The Star Wars franchise has never been a story by and about exclusively white men; to argue otherwise erases Leia and Lando, among others—though The Force Awakens was a big step forward, including a Black man and a Latinx man in leading roles. Nor is Rey (Daisy Ridley) the first woman associated with the Force (again, see Leia). But knowing that is one thing. Watching the character filling the Luke Skywalker role in J.J. Abrams’ affectionate retracing of A New Hope catch Luke’s lightsaber as it flew past the guy with Skywalker blood and into her hand—her hand—was something else.
It’s one of two moments in that crucial Rey/Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) lightsaber fight that has a little of that Hamilton reclamation energy. We don’t see Rey stick her hand out and reach for this weapon that’s also a symbol; it’s the former Ben Solo we watch, willing it out of the snowbank and into his palm. But he’s a dark knight, trying and failing to pull the sword from the stone, bewildered that it won’t yield to him. Then it almost clocks him in the head as it whips past, to a woman who had run away from even the suggestion that she could harness that kind of power. When the moment arrives, she doesn’t run again.
The second, late-arriving moment is one for which we can thank Ava DuVernay. Rey’s losing this fight, and Kylo Ren barks at her that she needs a teacher—as much a scold as an offer. “I can show you the ways of the Force,” he snarls, but that word is all she needs. She had a teacher, for just a moment, and remembering Maz Kanata’s advice, she closes her eyes, feels the Force, summons her composure, and opens her eyes.
In the commentary track for a collector’s edition of the film, Abrams explained the origin of that moment, which was captured in reshoots:
I showed an early cut to my friend Ava DuVernay, and she had a bunch of great suggestions. One of them was she really wanted to see Daisy, in her attack on Ren, have one really cool moment... So she has this incredibly internal moment that is sort of extended in movie time where she basically feels it, accepts it, and is now ready to kick his ass.
It’s not simply the fact of a woman as the main protagonist of a Star Wars film that makes Rey’s arc, and that scene in particular, so powerful. It’s that the woman in question lives out one of the great hero moments of all time—Arthur obtaining Excalibur—not once, but twice. She reaches out her hand and the sword flies forth. She closes her eyes, reaches out to the universe, and the Force reaches back. With that scene, Rey became a towering figure in the Star Wars universe, standing shoulder to shoulder with the characters—nearly all of them men—who made that far-away galaxy the cultural juggernaut it is today.
Alexander Hamilton is a pretty American concept—a person, yes, but also an idea, just as Jefferson, Adams, Benjamin Franklin, and George Washington are ideas. As American as apple pie, you might say, or Oklahoma!, or It Takes A Nation Of Millions To Hold Us Back, or Star Wars. History belongs to all of us; musical theater belongs to all of us; Star Wars belongs to all of us. That’s truer now than it ever has been before, even if those in the highest offices of the land refuse to hear that truth.
Hamilton is still running on Broadway as well as in London and Chicago, with two tours currently criss-crossing the United States; Rey catapults herself through the air in the most memorable shot of the first trailer for The Rise Of Skywalker, a moment far more powerful than the self-congratulatory women’s all-skate near the end of Avengers: Endgame. We still have a long way to go in terms of diverse representation in pop culture, but thanks to artists like Miranda and images as potent as Rey’s outstretched hand, there are doors open now that never were before. The room where it happens may still be elusive—but it’s a hell of a lot bigger, and more interesting.