Hamilton: Who Lives, Who Dies, Who Tells Your Story

Hamilton poster - a gold foil background with a black star the top of the star made of a silhouette of Hamilton, one finger pointed to the sky When Esi Sogah was a guest on an episode of the podcast, she talked a little about the musical Hamilton, and how much she loves it. I asked if she’d be willing to write a review, and not only did she respond immediately with a huge “YES” but then demanded I give her a word count because she could go on for days. Here is her review.

Who Lives, Who Dies, Who Tells Your Story
This is not a moment, it’s the movement

Y’all. I thought I knew what I was doing when I said yes to writing about Hamilton. But then I realized I wasn’t writing a book. Therefore, I can’t share all my thoughts about this show, because that would take a book. Maybe two. I could do Hamiltonian amounts of writing about Hamilton. (Also, in order to do this justice, I’m listening to the second half of the second act for the first time since…I saw the show. I am suffering for my art.)

First things first: what is it? Hamilton: An American Musical is…an American musical. Written by Tony (and Emmy, and Grammy, and MacArthur Genius) winner Lin-Manuel Miranda, Hamilton tells the story of founding father Alexander Hamilton. Revolutionary war hero, prolific writer (like, you don’t even know. You can’t imagine), 1st treasury secretary, and (250-year old spoiler) killed in a duel. It’s also about a thousand other things you probably never learned about in history class. It’s the story of the creation of America, and makes it clear how completely crazy this experiment of a country was, and still is*. It’s also a “hip-hop” musical, in that it is rapped and sung through, with influences and references from across the music spectrum. It’s also cast with almost entirely non-white actors, making it, as Miranda says, the story of America then told by America now.

It would take too long to track all my reactions to Hamilton (although, if I recall correctly, my first thought was “Where has Daveed Diggs (Marquis de Lafayette/Thomas Jefferson) been all my life?”). I’ve watched the video of Miranda’s performance of Hamilton’s opening song at the White House in 2009 more times than I can count (though YouTube probably knows.) Suffice it to say that my very high expectations were met. Exceeded. Blown out of the water. My life is forever changed.

Alexander Hamilton
A | BN | K | AB
Hamilton is based on Ron Chernow’s Alexander Hamilton, an 800-page biography Lin-Manuel Miranda picked up on vacation and immediately realized should be a hip-hop musical–to the point that he Googled it assuming someone had done it already. No one had. Alexander Hamilton led a batshit crazy life, and the show covers all of it: from his birth on Nevis to his creation of our entire financial system to his death at the hands of VICE PRESIDENT Aaron Burr. To cover that amount of information, and to even scratch the surface of all Hamilton said and did, rap is really the only way to go. You can fit in twice as many words and frankly, it’s still not enough. As I write this, it’s the #1 rap album on Billboard. A Broadway cast recording. Remember what I said about life-changing?

Hamilton is also, surprisingly, very much about Aaron Burr. Burr plays the role of narrator in the show–as well as the villain. Or is it hero? One of the best things Hamilton does is complicate our view of history. Neither man is sinner or saint; both have flaws–Burr’s turn out to be fatal, for Hamilton and for his own dreams. Miranda and Leslie Odom Jr. play Hamilton and Burr respectively and their chemistry is undeniable. The two men circle each other their whole lives, constantly running up against each other at pivotal moments in history. And basically everything at the time was of the utmost importance.

Alexander Hamilton played by Lin-Manuel Miranda sitting down to write surrounded by dancers who become almost green pale ghost specters when the light changes

But a perfect example is the song “The Room Where It Happened”, Aaron Burr’s lament about “how the sausage gets made.” Hamilton, Jefferson, and Madison brokered a deal that placed the banks in NYC and the nation’s capital in DC. It happened over dinner, not in a long legislative session in front of witnesses. Madison and Jefferson… “hated” is probably not too strong a word to describe how they felt about Hamilton. Ham did not have the votes in Congress for his (necessary) financial plan. After this dinner, he did. As Burr says, “We want our leaders to save the day/But we don’t get a say in what they trade away.” It’s a song that perfectly encapsulates the very messy business of government.

It’s also Burr’s ‘I Want’ song. He wants, more than anything, to be in that room. He works his entire life to get into that room. And just when it’s about to happen, Hamilton throws his weight behind Burr’s opponent. The rest, as they say, is history.

The thing is, they have two fundamentally different ideologies. Hamilton has absolutely no chill. He also has negative fucks to give. (See: duel. See also: having an affair and then WRITING ABOUT IT AND PUBLISHING THE ACCOUNT in order to clear himself of accusations of embezzling from the Treasury. This is an actual thing that actually happened).

Burr bides his time, watching. Waiting. Scheming. “I’ll keep all my plans close to my chest/I’ll wait here and see which way the wind will blow.” No, it’s not necessarily bold, but…which one was vice president (and nearly president)? Not Hamilton, that’s for sure.

Let’s talk about the women. I heard Miranda say that Chernow’s book is called Alexander Hamilton, while the musical is just Hamilton. And, as becomes clear, it’s as much Eliza(beth) Hamilton’s story as Alexander’s—perhaps more so. (This is not to say Eliza plays no role in the book; in fact, she begins and ends it.) In Act I, we meet the Schuyler Sisters, Angelica, Eliza, and Peggy. Singing some of the most beautiful songs (and spitting the hardest verses) Angelica and Eliza are both the heart and the backbone of the show. They both love Alexander, Eliza as his wife and Angelica as his sister-in-law and…well, it’s up for debate. Are they, at the end of the day, supporting characters in a male story? Sure, but that’s the fault of the times they lived in, not the women themselves. (As Burr sings “Ladies, tell your husbands vote for Burr!”) Their influence is felt in every one of the thousands of pages Alexander wrote—and the lines that Miranda puts in the actors’ mouths.

The three women playing the Schuyler sisters rocking out on stage, big dresses hands up

The performances are…flawless. Philippa Soo, Renée Elise Goldsberry, and Jasmine Cephas-Jones (who also plays Maria Reynolds, of the affair referenced above) are absolute forces of nature. I think it would be easy for many creators to have given the women all the soft moments; the slow points that allow the audience to take a breath. Instead, Goldsberry has some of the hardest bars in the show, while the sheer power of Soo’s stage presence blows us all away. And I actually can’t talk too much about Jasmine’s 2nd act performance because…y’all. Just see the show. (How? I don’t know how. But do? OK, great.)

Here’s a sample of some of the verses (NFSW due to language):

Those breaks to breathe, if we can call them that, belong to one King George III. Usually played by Jonathan Groff (and temporarily Andrew Rannells. And previously Brian d’Arcy James), the king is an extravagantly dressed Brit-pop sensation. He’s also the only white lead. And so his entrance in the show often gets the biggest laugh—both because he is abbbbbbsolutely hilarious, but also because many in the audience feel…reassured. This is something that they get.

(This is a really good segue into what I want to talk about next, but I would be remiss if I didn’t point out that rest of the cast is just as impressive. Every time Okieriete Onaodowan (Hercules Mulligan/James Madison) is on stage, I get chills. The ensemble is the hardest working group of people on Broadway. They are equal part Greek chorus and Arsenio Hall audience. Never still, lifting furniture over their heads while dancing (I see you, Betsy Struxness!), embodying both sides of the war and imbuing life into early America with everything they have.)

Where was I? Ah, yes. The show’s diversity has been discussed in nearly all its coverage, but it really can’t be talked about enough, especially given current conversations in the world (both the greater world and that of publishing). What works so well about the casting is that it is not a wink at the audience.** It’s neither a gimmick nor a hammer to the head. It simply is. It makes a powerful statement without having to say anything at all. To look at the stage and see a group of people who look like your typical passengers on a New York City subway car makes the story immediate in a way that all the lecturing in the world couldn’t.

Lafayette saying He's never gon ' be president now after Reynolds pamphlet was released

In addition there are, by my rough count, ten actors making their Broadway debuts in Hamilton–leads Anthony Ramos (John Laurens/Phillip Hamilton) and Diggs included. It puts paid to the idea that “the talent isn’t out there” or “we can’t get such-and-such group to audition” or “we need to lower the bar.” This show is a huge big deal, and the people behind it filled it with talent, regardless of name recognition.

Which leads me to the last thing I want to say about Hamilton (for now. In this space. Save for the comments section).

Hamilton is great, full-stop. And its success is probably the greatest lesson for our industry. It was six years in the making, most of the people in it are not household names, and it is inspired by an 800-page biography about a man who wrote soooooooo many more pages than that. There are countless ways this could have been screwed up, not the least being if the producing team had pushed Miranda to get it done sooner. But in allowing it the room it needed to grow and coalesce, what we have is the best possible version of this show. And it works, not because it’s based on a well-known property, or stars a Hollywood A-lister, but because it’s good. Authors always get frustrated when editors respond to “what are you looking for” with “a good book”. But it’s the truth. Quality work will out. And I hope that I, and the rest of the publishing world, will always find a way to allow great work the room it needs to grow.

Things I didn’t get around to talking about: cabinet debates as rap battles, slavery and John Laurens, the song “Wait For It,” Ham4Ham, Christopher Jackson’s portrayal of George Washington, my favorite rap and musical references, the number of times I cried, the number of times I nearly leaped out of my seat, the way Miranda so perfectly captures how crazy it is to be a writer. And more things. SO many more. Oh! Also the real Hercules Mulligan and Cato. Like I said, I’ll be in the comments. And on the internet in general, talking about Hamilton. Forever.

*I can’t help but think that President Obama let out a big ol’ laugh at Hamilton’s line: “But they don’t have a plan, they just hate mine!”

**As I type this, “It’s Quiet Uptown” is playing and I actually might need to crawl under my desk.

Alas, tickets to the broadway production of Hamilton can be difficult to get. You can check the website for the production; currently they’re selling September and October 2016.

But! There are a ton of ways you can learn more and experience pieces of the show:

60 Minutes did a behind-the-scenes on the making of the cast album.

You can spend hours down the rabbit hole of The Federalist Freestyle.

Plus, Hamilton did a remake of the famous Aaron Burr Got Milk? campaign:


Have you seen Hamilton? Are you going soon? What did you think? 

Comments are Closed

  1. Megan M. says:

    *argleflail* This sounds so amazing and I am going to have to break down and listen to this cast recording already.

  2. Rachel says:

    Thank you SO MUCH for this review! I have long been obsessed with Alexander Hamilton (not out of admiration, so much as because he is so insanely fascinating); I love that Chernow biography so much. The show just sounds absolutely amazing; I’ve been wrestling with whether to shell out the money to get to NY and see it for months now. I think this review just pushed me over the edge!

  3. Cat G says:

    Usually I’m vaguely embarrassed by musicals, it’s the whole randomly breaking into song thing, but I want to see Hamilton soooo bad. I wont be making it to NY anytime soon, but fortunately “Lin-Manuel Miranda’s blockbuster Broadway musical Hamilton will launch its first national tour in Chicago. The production will kick off with an open-ended run at the Windy City’s newly named PrivateBank Theatre beginning September 27, 2016. According to The Chicago Tribune, a second production will launch on the West Coast before continuing to cities across the country. Casting and further dates for the tour have not yet been announced.


  4. YAAAAAY! I love the cast recording for this show so much! I was listening to it constantly for a while, but it made me want to do nothing but talk about Hamilton. It’s thrilling to see something so interesting and well done get the recognition it deserves.

  5. bookworm1990 says:

    Your commentary on how many debut actors are in the show is SO IMPORTANT. I understand loyalty to stars and the need for good ticket sales, but this show totally disproves so many of those typical reasons why a show “just wouldn’t sell.”

  6. denise says:

    love the got milk commercial!

  7. Esi says:

    Hi everyone! Thanks for reading and thanks to SB Sarah for the opportunity. Other things about Hamilton I just realized I didn’t mention: immigration–this is one of those topics that makes the show REALLY feel like it’s about present-day events; the New York Post–found by A.Ham; the absolute flood of celebrities who have seen the show (many more than once).

  8. Deborah Taylor (@shackle52) says:

    I am loving this review so much! I have tickets for next month (praying for weather mercies) I have been obsessed since August when I saw a segment on Chris Hayes’ show (he went to school with Miranda) and I have read and viewed every last word I can find. You haven’t lived until you have wallowed in the genius site where almost every line of every song is annotated. http://genius.com/albums/Lin-manuel-miranda/Hamilton-original-broadway-cast-recording
    In addition to all the things mentioned, if anything, this piece shows how much of our history was as iffy as the deal in “The Room Where It Happened.” Plus, every time I think how many various genres of music Miranda wrote for this and how well he did it, I am overwhelmed. In addition to all the great things about the show mentioned, Miranda does these incredible Ham4Ham segments on some days where there are two shows that are then on youtube. Simply amazing.

  9. Esi says:

    Rachel, the Chernow book is SO GOOD. I absolutely devoured it–I’m amazed at how much of Hamilton’s life Miranda managed to fit in the show AND how many huge things still didn’t make it.

  10. Lovie says:

    LESLIE ODOM!!!!! Sorry/no sorry for the shouting, but Leslie Odom is amazing and doesn’t get enough love as Aaron Burr. He is so amazing and he is swimming in a sea of other amazing folks doing spectacular things, but he deserves a shout out!

    That is all. 🙂

  11. Esi says:

    I can’t believe I didn’t mention this, but Philippa Soo (Eliza) and Jasmine Cephas Jones (Peggy/Maria) are ALSO making their Broadway debuts.

    Lovie, Leslie Odom Jr. is STUPID good in this show. Lin-Manuel has talked about how he gave him all the best songs. He changes the way you think about Burr (VP Biden agrees!). My fav Burr/Odom-related moment: I’m standing behind a couple after the show and the guy asks his girlfriend, in reference to the t-shirt she bought (the one that lists all the main male chars. names, with only Burr’s in red) “Why is Burr in red?” GF: “Because he’s the bad guy.” BF: “NO HE’S NOT!!”

  12. Joy B says:

    I’m #obsessed with Hamilton – and going for my birthday in June!!

  13. Rachel Glickman says:

    I first saw it at the Public and spent months bemoaning the lack of a cast album. Have seen it four times since and am obsessed. Every time…something new to see and absorb. The piece is genius. The cast is genius. It changes the way we think about everything historically and of our current political landscape.

  14. Sandy James says:

    Great review, Esi! I love your commitment to Broadway theater!
    I normally hate hip-hop. (My age is showing!) But I caught a couple of Ham4Ham performances on YouTube, and of course it’s hard to miss the buzz on what a great show this is, so I checked out a few songs. I was hooked. The history teacher in me LOVES that this is a way to help more young people learn to love history as much as I do!
    I have to hand it to Lin-Manuel Miranda. He is the George M. Cohan, Cole Porter, and Jonathan Larson of his generation!

    For a little fun, catch the three “King Georges” lipsynching to the Schuyler Sisters! https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3C4vmM5mQT8

  15. Deborah Taylor says:

    Sandy, you may have seen this and this history major librarian was just thrilled.

  16. Sandy James says:

    @Deborah Taylor
    No, I hadn’t seen it! Thanks for sharing! <3

  17. Mara B. says:

    Okay I’m putting this comment on both of today’s Hamilton posts because this video is awesome and everyone should see it. When Hamilton was still mostly a concept album Miranda was invited to perform at the White House where he did an early version of the opening number in front of the Obamas, it’s great. http://youtu.be/WNFf7nMIGnE

  18. marjorie says:

    Great post! I too saw Hamilton at the Public (and was griping before it opened THERE about the cost of tickets — good lord, little did I know! — now I want to take my kids but OY). I am plotzing to see it again. My 14-year-old has the score memorized. Both Miranda and the NYC Department of Education are committed to helping public high schools get to see it, so who knows, maybe her school will get to go.

    Two observations: 1) It made me weep at our current political situation. The very notion of two elected officials with very different values and agendas actually putting the values of democracy and the good of the country first, and going into a room and negotiating and compromising, seems impossible now. 2) I didn’t think Miranda’s Into the Heights was great. It was OK. Others may disagree (I thought Bring It On: The Musical was better, perhaps because my expectations for it were lower!). But now I see In the Heights as a boundary-nudging necessary step –for Miranda and maybe for producers and audiences — on the road to Hamilton. Nothing about In the Heights prepared me for the MIND-BLOWN experience of Hamilton…which gives me hope that many of us are capable of greater and better and more ground-breaking and more inspired work than we’ve done in the past.

  19. chacha1 says:

    I will definitely see this when it comes around on tour. And I so hope that Leslie Odom Jr is in the inevitable film version, because he is pure gold (stole every scene in “Smash”).

  20. Lindsay says:

    I have been literally waiting to see a SBTB review of Hamilton and somehow I missed it until now!

    First off, OBSESSED, can we all squee on twitter about it together? @lindsayraemyers

    Second, I was glad that I had gotten into romance recently before being introduced to Hamilton because familiarity with the times made it hit harder, especially that ballroom scenes and dueling culture. I appreciated much more how clever “10 Duel Commandments” is, the whirlwind letter-fueled romance of Alexander & Eliza and in the Chernow biography, the American anxiety about hereditary titles/primogeniture. TO appreciate the radicality of American meritocracy (which Hamilton was a prime example of and huge believer in) you have to appreciate how rigid the social/political culture of britain was and romance novels definitely illustrate that in a way you don’t really learn about in history class.

    I’ll also point out this great commentary on Hamilton that name drops Courtney Milan(!): http://www.tor.com/2015/12/21/the-uses-of-history-in-hamilton-an-american-musical/

  21. Lindsay says:


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