The upside-down narrative of HAMILTON

After Stephen Sondheim’s jazz-influenced era of musical theatre and Jonathan Larson’s rock-infused follow-up, Lin-Manuel Miranda took the world by storm with a third age of musicals, drawing on hip hop in the ‘90s and early ‘00s to make the hits In the Heights and Hamilton in the late ‘00s to mid ‘10s. The latter combined the Latin diversity of the former with the revolutionary fervour of early hip hop, echoing such ideas as Nas’s ‘The World Is Yours’ or even 2Pac’s ‘F— The World’ on the refrain of the musical: ‘The world turned upside down’. Did it, though?

Leslie Odom Jr’s Aaron Burr in Hamilton, by Lin-Manuel Miranda, based on the book by Ron Chernow.

The American revolution changed many things, but slavery was not one of them. Enslavement of millions of people shipped from west Africa to the Americas endured until the close of the Civil War, decades after the Wars of Revolution. The figure of Alexander Hamilton owned slaves, and as the cut song ‘Cabinet Battle 3’ shows, failed to make significant efforts towards its abolition. His priority was, as the former cabinet battles laid out, to finance the national bank with the funds for a federal treasury with a view to establishing a bank across the thirteen colonies. His vision was British, and his model was the British constitutional monarchy and national economy based on trade and finance of industry. Contrast with agricultural aristocrats like Jefferson who preferred the slave-based plantation economy which gave them their wealth and power. Hamilton, too, wanted these things — just through a different, forward-looking mechanism of economic modernisation and political centralisation.

Well, Hamilton got the former, long after his death, but not the latter. Today’s America is economically unified by capital but politically divided. Hamilton’s modernisation, ironically, is not complete. Should it be?

A sceptic of Hamilton’s executive vision was friend Aaron Burr, who (though this is obscured in the musical) took a principled stand against slavery. Burr stood between Jefferson’s democratic traditionalism and Hamilton’s Caesarist radicalism, proposing a third way: democracy without slavery. How about that?

An obvious comparison would be with the figure of Benjamin Constant, who penned the constitution for ageing Napoleonic France as its Alexandrian figurehead (recently dubbed by historian Andrew Roberts as ‘Napoleon the Great’) grew tired of his youthful vaulting ambitions and lust for power. A call for moderation is also evident in Napoleon’s belated concession to follow Britain’s move to formally abolish the trade in slaves. But Napoleonic moderation, like Hamilton’s belated softening of his vaulting ambition, came too late to save the leader from a violent fate. Napoleon was defeated by British general Duke of Wellington and died of illness six years after, in exile, while Hamilton was killed in a dual with Aaron Burr before either could ascent to rank of President of the United States, like Washington and Jefferson, in whose cabinets they served as Treasury Secretary and Vice President, respectively.

Hamilton affords the most beautiful songs to Angelica Schuyler and Aaron Burr, friends of Hamilton and Jefferson, alike. Hamilton’s songs have a hollow ecstasy to them, and a sense of futile tragedy, while Schuyler and Burr are resigned to their secondary roles in things. Burr’s ‘Wait For It’ and Angelica’s ‘Satisfied’ contrast with Hamilton’s ‘My Shot’ and ‘Non-Stop’. Hamilton’s shallow ambition contrasts with his friends’ deep caution. Hamilton’s own depth emerges as he confronts tragedy again in his life, revisiting the reality of death that he repressed in his troubled childhood in the Caribbean. It is, alas, too little self-awareness, too late.

Burr’s ambition rises on the infectious ‘Room Where It Happens’, as he is faced with powerless awe at Hamilton’s successful negotiation with Jefferson and Maddison in creating a national bank in New York in return for sending the Capitol down south to Washington, DC. Burr’s refrain:

I want to be in the room where it happens

Click, boom

Burr, from Hamilton by Lin-Manuel Miranda

In Ron Chernow’s biography of Hamilton which inspired Miranda’s musical, duals are framed as a mechanism for exorcising the collective guilt that the violence of slavery generated. What is repressed must return, and what is upside-down must be set rightside-up again. So turns the wheel of space and time. I wonder where the next revolution will end up — or, as importantly, where it will begin.

I guess we’ll just have to wait, see, and — more importantly — get ready. There is much work to do.

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