Gary Conkling Life Notes

Mostly whimsical reflections on life

Hip-Hop Hamilton

It would be a rare bird who got excited at news of a hip-hop Broadway musical centering on Alexander Hamilton.

hamiltonBut just as Hamilton may be bumped off the $10 bill as just another old white guy, he has hopped onstage as a hungry, energetic young guy in one of Broadway’s most anticipated, if improbable hits. If Hamilton were still alive, he would have begged to play himself.

Hamilton is considered a founding father of the U.S. Constitution, along with James Madison. But Hamilton was anything but a staid colonial. In fact, he probably would feel right at home in contemporary America, enjoying today’s relaxed mores and taking delight in the enlarged role of the federal government that he fought to create.

He would be the perfect tabloid bad boy as a bastard child who grew up the West Indies and wound up an orphan. With the help of a benefactor, Hamilton secured a college education from King’s College in New York City where he fed his insatiable taste for success. He fought in the Revolutionary War, used his military experience to win a seat in Congress and later practiced law and established a bank in New York.

Like Madison, Hamilton recognized the loose affiliation of 13 states didn’t equal a country, so he was part of the hoodwinking that led to the constitutional convention in Philadelphia. Hamilton and Madison largely divvied up writing the Federalist Papers that were instrumental in persuading a skeptical public to approve the U.S. Constitution.

15740373Hamilton went on to serve in President George Washington’s cabinet, where he famously feuded with Thomas Jefferson over issues such as a national bank and raising an American army and navy, which led to creation of the Federalist Party. One of Hamilton’s memorable achievements was setting up the U.S mint. Another was taxing whiskey, which sparked the Whiskey Rebellion and the first use of U.S. military power on its own citizens.

You’re thinking, this is the stuff of history, not hip-hop. But this is where the story gets juicier. In 1791, Hamilton took up with Maria Reynolds, whom he believed had been abandoned by her husband. Instead, her husband attempted to blackmail Hamilton for his indiscretion. It got a little complicated after that, but the affair ended and Hamilton and his own wife reconciled. Not everyone was satisfied. Hamilton nearly dueled with future President James Monroe.

Despite his scandalous reputation (he also was an abolitionist), Hamilton remained in the public eye, including playing a key role in the defeat of Aaron Burr in his bid to become governor of New York. Burr was beside himself. The men traded insults, which led to a duel where Burr shot Hamilton, the perfect plot twist for a hip-hop musical.

hamilton-joan-marcus-public-theaterWhen actor Lin-Manuel Miranda read Ron Chernow’s biography of Hamilton, he envisioned the story told to music. (I read the biography, but received no melodic inspiration.)

Miranda developed his idea first as a reading and then as a workshop production. Ultimately a musical emerged featuring a variety of musical styles – hip-hop, R&B, jazz, pop and chorals.

he actors and appear in period costumes, but are racially diverse, unlike the way it was in Hamilton’s time. Miranda said, “We’re telling the story of old, dead white men, but we’re using actors of color, and that makes the story more immediate and more accessible to a contemporary audience.” Hamilton would have wholeheartedly approved.

1.172315One critic said the musical reeked of New York City, which was true of Hamilton himself. Business, trade, manufacturing and banks were his true mistresses. He was in love with an America that Thomas Jefferson saw as an abomination. Hip-hop is the perfect musical medium to capture Hamilton’s personality translated into modern terms and the gap between his vision of America versus Jefferson’s.

Hamilton’s story told in music has a contemporary ring. An ambitious man. A political schemer. A womanizer. An immigrant from south of the border. In fact, it it is interesting with or without music.

One comment on “Hip-Hop Hamilton

  1. Joanne Verger
    September 2, 2015

    I do like this one. Have read a lot about Hamilton And Aaron Burr.

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