Hamilton: An American Musical has taken our country by storm. Not only is it hugely popular on Broadway (the show is completely sold out for the foreseeable future), but the show has also won the Pulitzer prize for best drama (it is highly unusual for a musical to win this award, usually it goes to plays), the Grammy Award for Best Musical Theater Album, and it swept the Tony Awards with a record breaking sixteen award nominations going to the musical. Billboard named the soundtrack the number two album of the year.
Why should a musical about Alexander Hamilton, history’s forgotten founding father, be so celebrated? I mean, in history class in high school he was just mentioned as having something to do with banks and financials, probably some rich bastard who never worked a day in his life. As I got older, I learned that Hamilton founded the nation’s financial system, and he is the one responsible for the two party political system by founding the Federalist Party. He was also the first Secretary of the Treasury. Hamilton always seemed to be this unknowable, untouchable character in history. We all learned about Ben Franklin and his witty sayings and his experiments with electricity, Jefferson who helped pen the most important documents in US history, Washington, our first president and general in the American Revolution. Even John Adams had an HBO series made from his biography—and in that, Hamilton seems like kind of a douche. When I first heard about Hamilton, I admit, I was highly skeptical. Then I heard that it had rap in it, and featured a diverse cast, and…What? I was a skeptic, to say the least. What were these people doing to US history?
Well, it turns out, a lot. And not all of it was what I expected.
If you follow me on social media, chances are you know that I’m an overly-educated smart ass with a pretty high IQ. But the thing is, I can only be overly-educated about the things I actually learned. And, I realized very quickly, I really hadn’t learned anything about Alexander Hamilton.
The very first line of lyrics in the musical taught me more than any history book ever did:
“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 a hero and a scholar?”
Whoa, wait, WHAT? That doesn’t sound like a rich untouchable bastard to me… well, maybe the bastard part, but I hadn’t meant that literally. I had assumed he was some rich Brit who latched onto Washington’s coat tails and just road his way to founding fatherdom. An orphan. A bastard, who not only was abandoned by his father, but according to some sources, didn’t even truly know who his father was. You can learn everything you ever wanted to learn about Hamilton in Ron Chernow’s extensive biography of him. It is fascinating and very eye-opening.
But back to my original question: Why are people going ape over this musical?
The answer is in the first song, I think.
“My name is Alexander Hamilton
And there’s a million things I haven’t done
But just you wait, just you wait…”
Who can’t identify with that? I know I have a million things I haven’t done in my life. I may not be the orphaned bastard son of a whore, but I’m not exactly rich. And I know how hard I’m working to make my dreams come true. And now, knowing the odds that were against him in the 18th century, my interest is definitely piqued to find out how the hell Hamilton managed it.
This musical is inspiring to geeks of all trades and backgrounds. One thing that makes us geeks is that we have a passion for something. Maybe it’s Star Wars, maybe it’s Barbie, but we have a vision. Hamilton, the musical shows, clearly had a vision, too. This is a guy who wanted more than this provincial life. And when opportunity came, no matter how small, this guy took it. He wasn’t going to settle for what life handed him. If he did that, he would have died on a slavery-ridden island in the Caribbean, penniless and alone. But no, he took small opportunities until the opportunities grew larger.
“The ten-dollar founding father without a father
Got a lot farther
by working a lot harder
By being a lot smarter
By being a self-starter…”
And he was not throwing away his shot. The musical shows young Hamilton as “young, scrappy, and hungry,” a person who went after what he believed with no apologies. I think people look at his character and are inspired by what they could be if they had the same attitude as he did. It’s so easy for us to be overwhelmed by the “shoulds” in life, making money, buying two cars and a house and having a couple kids. And dying with a mind full of unfulfilled dreams. Hamilton shows us that this doesn’t have to be. A complete nobody who had no business being around influential people managed to shape this country in a huge way. Why can’t we, who probably have more than he did starting out, do the same?
I think Hamilton speaks to the person inside of us all who is reaching for the stars, who has a dream and won’t let go of it. Maybe that part of us is dormant from being beaten down so often, but this musical certainly helped to wake mine up.
“Why do you write like you’re running out of time?”
“Why do you always say what you believe?”
“Ev’ry day you fight like it’s going out of style.”
The musical makes it clear that Hamilton says what he believes, and goes after what he believes, without fear or hesitation. He is at odds with Aaron Burr at times because Burr wants him to “talk less, smile more,” and not commit publicly to either side of an argument. Hamilton waves his hand at this safe political talk. While Burr takes the safe path, Hamilton fights. He charges ahead with what he believes, even though it makes him enemies, even though he isn’t popular at times. He is at odds with other politicians, with his family, with his friends at times, but he doesn’t back down from what he believes. He knows what’s important to him, and most important of all, he believes in himself.
I for one think we need more of that in this world. I’m not saying we need pointless arguing, I’m saying if we had more people who were sure of themselves and confident, we’d have more intelligent discussions and while we might have arguments, people geeking out over what they believe in, I find, is to be preferred over people just saying what they think should be said. Passion creates change.
Hamilton was in a position when he was young that a lot of Americans today are in—stuck in a repetitive life just trying to pay bills and eat. What he accomplished in his lifetime should have been impossible. But he made it happen, and that means…
Well, doesn’t that mean we could do great things, too?
I asked a couple of other people in my geeky circles what they thought of this phenomenon, to see if I was alone in my thinking. Michael R. Underwood, speculative fiction author and all-around geek says:
"For me, one of the main appeals of Hamilton is that it paints a largely hopeful picture of American political reality - it tells a story where a better system is possible, where revolutionary change can be spurred by strong writing, passionate rhetoric, and friendship. The fact that it's a musical means that it hits even harder, reaching right into our hearts and never letting go.”
A better system is possible through hard work. We don’t have to be destined for the 9-5 forever. It’s possible to overcome and rise above the lives we were handed.
Fantasy author Nora K. Jemison wrote an amazing article on her take of Hamilton, which I encourage you all to read. But something that hit home for me in her post was her comparison of Hamilton to fantasy fiction, saying that Alexander Hamilton in this musical is much like a fantasy hero:
“In the end, one of the mythic purposes that fantasy heroes serve is the power fantasy — the chance to imagine ourselves as the movers and shakers of a world, whether as the lucky Farmboy With A Destiny or as Rosie the Riveter. Someone who ends up wielding the power to Do Things, basically, by physical, magical, or spiritual strength alone.”
This is exactly what Hamilton did for me. I’m not a big political mover and shaker, but I do write and I put all of me into my writing. This musical, and Hamilton as its hero, tells me that with hard work, I can be legend, that my work can change people and introduce ideas, and inspire.
And I am not throwing away my shot.
Melanie R. Meadors is the author of fantasy and science fiction stories where heroes don’t always carry swords and knights in shining armor often lose to nerds who study their weaknesses. She’s been known to befriend wandering garden gnomes, do battle with metal-eating squirrels, and has been called a superhero on more than one occasion. Her work has been published in Circle Magazine, The Wheel, and Prick of the Spindle, and she was a finalist in the 2014 Jim Baen Memorial Science Fiction Contest. Melanie is also a freelance author publicist and publicity/marketing coordinator for both Ragnarok Publications and Mechanical Muse. She blogs regularly for GeekMom and The Once and Future Podcast. Her short story “A Whole-Hearted Halfling” is in the anthology Champions of Aetaltis, available now on Amazon. Follow Melanie on Facebook and on Twitter as @MelanieRMeadors.