Hamilton: “How Stories Harden into History”

"Hamilton" is a feat of storytelling genius with lessons for those of us who write history

Seeing “Hamilton” on Broadway—and reading the excellent companion book Hamilton the Revolution—has stirred a few thoughts for those of us who write history, tell history, and love history.

On the persistent DNA of founding fathers and founding mothers: In “Hamilton,” you understand within seconds who these people are, on the surface and beneath. Hamilton is presented with the most complexity, of course—not least because of his tangle of relationships with the Schuyler sisters, a complex pair themselves. Washington comes across bigger than life, willing to ask for advice (when pressed to the wall), and occasionally clueless. Jefferson’s ego soars to the rafters as the Act Two opener. I’ve always contended that the DNA of the founder(s) remains alive in an organization’s history. So it is with the United States.

On the links and leaps that bind past and present: “This is a story about America then, told by America now,” is how director Tommy Kail explains the multicultural casting—the fact that those who “perform the songs … might look nothing like their historical counterparts.” Finding connections is a primary skill in the history writer’s toolbox. So is the ability to see divergence and its meaning.

On the power of torrents of words: We all love brevity, but people sit spellbound at “Hamilton” the musical for almost three hours. It contains nearly 24,000 words, longer than a lot of Shakespearean plays (OK, most of “Hamilton”‘s are sung–score another point for the importance of oral history). Hamilton the book has 288 pages of words and pictures, containing not just the lyrics (libretto) but insights from the creators on how the musical was made. And of course the book that inspired Miranda, Ron Chernow’s Alexander Hamilton, runs 818 pages. Waterfalls of words spill over us in all these versions, punctuated by moments of calm. History earns the luxury of length when it tells a good story.

All quoted material in this blog post is from the book Hamilton the Revolution, a masterwork by Lin-Manuel Miranda and Jeremy McCarter (Grand Central Publishing © 2016). Let’s end with its delightful 30-word (!) subtitle: Being the Complete Libretto of the Broadway Musical / with a True Account of Its Creation / and Concise Remarks on Hip-Hop, the Power of Stories, and the New America.