How Hamilton ruined my life

Note: At the time that I am writing this, I have hit about 1600 words. To retain my sanity and to keep some sort of end in sight, I’m going to keep my deeper analyses limited to Hamilton and Burr (and even within those constraints I am forced to limit myself: these characters are so layered and complex I would have to devote a book to their full deconstruction. …I’m a little tempted to do just that).


 

My friends have been talking about Hamilton for a long time. And by talking about it, I mean gathering in groups at parties and singing songs from the play together as if in some sort of rapture. I was always interested in listening to the soundtrack eventually, but I have a bad habit of putting things off until I’m forced to do them; inevitable, I fall in love with whatever I’m forced to do (see below).

Jemma messaged me, saying “You have to listen to Hamilton as soon as possible.”

It was a Saturday afternoon, I wanted to veg out for a few hours, the alternative was playing Stardew Valley and totally losing my soul to it (again): it was as good a time to start listening to the OST as any. Ten seconds into the first song, I sent her a message back saying “already losing my shit.” (…like I said…)

I don’t exactly know what kind of expression I had on my face, but I imagine it must have been a little alarming. I was sitting on Adam’s bed. He was busy playing a video game while I was listening to Hamilton. At some point he turned around to check on me, did a double take, asked what was wrong and I just responded with “I’m having a religious experience.” It’s that good.

Now if rap, hip hop and R&B aren’t quite your speed, you might have a hard time letting the music itself resonate with you. But it’s the ensemble, comprised mostly of people of color telling a story of a country that has historically seen racial tensions, and academia and scholarship of a primarily monochromatic palette, that should really capture your attention; if not even that, it’s the narrative of the story doing history justice and shedding light on a forgotten Founding Father and just some really dang clever writing.

Important: I’m not American, and I know little about American history before the 20th century beyond a cursory familiarity with its founding. This musical has made me emotionally invested in long-dead historical figures. It’s a travesty.

In any case, I was straight up crying by the time “Satisfied” rolled around. It was around then that I realized this play was far more than just a fun (hah, so I thought) musical about history for me. I know I’m an emotional person – I cry at the drop of a hat over most things, particularly fictional works (you can ask basically anyone who has watched a movie with me, or watched me read books). But Hamilton touched me in a way that left me feeling like I had the wind knocked out of me. It was the spiritual equivalent of my eyes widening in realization. (Pretentiously) so much of Hamilton’s own experience resonates with me.

There’s a line in “Satisfied” where Angelica Schyler asks Hamilton where he came from, and his response is, “Unimportant, there’s a million things I haven’t done.” When I first heard that line, it made me hold my head in my hands. I was openly sobbing throughout that song. I often say I’m an easily satisfied person, and I suppose I am: all I need is good friends, good conversation, fulfilling work and I am content. But that song reminded me that true satisfaction is service, it is the pursuit of knowledge to the point of exhaustion – and for me, it is “Writing like it’s going out of style.”

And I think that’s why Hamilton struck such a chord with me. It is the story of a man who built his life from the ground up out of a hunger to be something, to do something, to stand for something or die trying; it is the story of a man who realizes that living is much harder than dying, but it is worth it so long as you live for a cause. It is the story of a man whose passion and drive nearly destroys him, and in many ways does destroy him when he has to choose between love for family and public service. It reminds me of my own fears and the human mortality of ambition.

The future excites me but often leaves me feeling grave. I cannot imagine a life where I live only for myself. I was born to do “a million things” and I am terrified there is not enough time. What do you pick when it all matters so much? Is pure drive enough? You can stand up for the right thing but not have people rallying behind you until long after you’re dead.

Is glory in life the reward? Or is it the legacy you leave behind?

And what if you become the villain of the story?

“Non-stop,” the final song of the first act, has me grinning and/or near tears for eight entire minutes. It is an exhilarating song for those of us who are relentless in our desire to work for the greater good. It is both anthem and counsel, a rallying cry and a warning: Hamilton is both soothsayer and harbinger, and that dichotomy is frightening and awesome.

Hamilton was a war vet, a politician, an economist, a lawyer, but through it all he was a writer and the most prolific of writers at that. Though he resisted it at times, writing was his strength and it was what propelled him from the slums through to New York City when he was a broken young man.

“Alexander Hamilton embodies the written word,” said the play’s creator (and Hamilton himself) Lin-Manuel Miranda [paraphrased]. That theme is echoed in the play itself, particularly in “Non-stop,” when Aaron Burr and the Company demand of Hamilton:

How do you write like tomorrow won’t arrive?
How do you write like you need it to survive?
How do you write ev’ry second you’re alive?

(PS: Definitely click through to the lyrics, they’re worth reading)

At the risk of sounding self-important, I see myself in Hamilton the character/person a lot. My friend Alex asked who I was in the play and my immediate response was, “Oh, definitely one of the Schyler sisters.” And while certainly, I adore the Schyler sisters (particularly Angelica), I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t anything like Alexander Hamilton at my worst. I have to be mindful to not monopolize my time with work – “Look around, look around, how lucky we are to be alive right now” – or I risk isolating myself; but I have to remember not to completely mantle myself in people or I risk feeling like I’m losing my willpower and drive.

How lucky we are to be alive right now. But to what end does this luck serve us? What will we accomplish, in the small blip of time that we are present for in the grand scheme of things?

And what if we forget, one day, to look around because we are too busy looking forward?

In short, Hamilton brings up a lot of questions inherent to the life of a political science/IR student, or someone who wishes to enter public service or governance in any capacity.

And then there’s Aaron Burr whom all I knew about prior to this play was that he was kind of a dick. Don’t get me wrong, he still is kind of a dick, but he’s one of the most human characters in a play all about humanizing historical figures. The same friend who asked me who I was professed that he was Aaron Burr – the most Slytherin of Slytherins. Maybe that was one of the reasons I found myself focusing on Burr’s lines on my multiple re-listens of the album:

“Talk less / Smile more / Don’t let them know what you’re against or what you’re for / You want to get ahead? / Fools that run their mouths off wind up dead.”

I almost always re-listen to that entire part of the song. Beyond the fact that it sets up Hamilton and Burr as foils to one another throughout the play, and that Leslie Odom Jr.’s voice is absolute silk, it has some personal resonance. Before I gave myself the right of passage into waxing poetic (I still say mostly fluff, but at least I’m somewhat eloquent now?) I firmly believed I was always running my mouth. And really, at the end of the day my waxing is a mask; I still run my mouth.

“Fools that run their mouths off wind up dead.”

Neither Hamilton nor I know when to shut up. I all but aspire to have Aaron Burr’s self-restraint. I’m good at that when I’m in conference, representing someone else’s policy, being a politician to boot – but maaaan, my mouth is non-stop. I mentioned earlier that “Non-stop” is a warning message as well as an anthem, and Burr himself underscores this when he says “Why do you always say what you believe? / Every proclamation guarantees / Free ammunition for your enemies.”

Whoops, I’m screwed. But anyway, Burr wasn’t wrong – Hamilton made a lot of enemies with his mouth, and ensured that his own legacy would be a niche historical interest (until Lin-Manuel Miranda came around anyway).

“Wait For It”, in particular, is a beautiful testament to Aaron Burr’s entire philosophy. His sense of self-preservation is the guiding force of his life, but it doesn’t mean he does not have values and opinions he believes in; he warns Mulligan, Laurens and Lafayette to lower their voices in “My Shot” to ensure that no loyalists hear of their plot; he signs up to become George Washington’s right-hand man, only to be shoved aside in favor of Hamilton; and when he finally sees that the playing field is safe enough for him to pursue his desire to become President of the United States, he is foiled by Hamilton who mistakes his self-preservation for disinterest (for lack of a better word).

Aaron Burr at his softest is divine to listen to. The tenderness with which he sings of Theodosia (R&B at its finest in this play) segues into a broader narrative on life. It is a three-part soliloquy on love, death and Hamilton, the first two of which don’t “… discriminate / between the sinners and the saints” but all of whom “take and [they] take and [they] take.” Love, death and Hamilton: forces of nature in Aaron Burr’s world, a world where he is willing to hold his plans close to his chest. As he sees it, the fact that Theodosia is with him and no one else, and that he outlived his family – that he is even alive right now – proves he has a moment coming. He will just bide his time until he can safely secure that moment for himself. Burr does have a cause, it is just one that doesn’t manifest as chaotically tangible as Hamilton’s does. And the cherry on top of the humanity sundae?:

“I am the one thing in life I can control … I am inimitable, I am an original … I am not falling behind or running late … I’m not standing, I am lying in wait.”

If that isn’t inspirational, I don’t know what is. The entire song is Burr’s way of saying “Look around, look around, how lucky we are to be alive right now.” He has passions and opinions and ambitions like everyone else, he is just restrained and contained and so deeply R&B in a play full of rappers and beat-boxers.

I love Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr’s initial friendship. Their playful banter up until “Story of Tonight (Reprise)” is frankly adorable, particularly when Hamilton tries to encourage him to pursue Theodosia and when Aaron Burr, without any spitefulness, tells Hamilton to “smile more” – on the occasion of Alexander’s wedding, it’s sweet, kind, friendly advice.

Their former friendship culminates in the infamous duel where Aaron Burr shoots to kill and Hamilton raises his gun to the sky – showing restraint, where Burr is the one who channels death and takes, and takes, and takes. Hamilton had finally decided to slow down after his son’s death and truly look around, look around at his wife and family; Burr sees his moment and attempts to seize the Presidency, only to have it taken away from him by Hamilton’s vote. It is a scene heartbreakingly rendered. So much so that I refuse to go into it in more detail than I already have.

It is also the one song I haven’t been able to bring myself to listen to again.

Description cannot do Hamilton justice. I haven’t even watched the play and it was able to garner such a visceral reaction from me. I don’t recall the last time I became so enamored of something so quickly. It has been two and a half days since I first started listening to Hamilton, and I find myself desperately trying to wrap up a 2000+ word essay because if I don’t stop myself now, I won’t stop at all.

So I will end on this abrupt note: do yourself a favor and listen to Hamilton, because 200 years from now they will remember Lin-Manuel Miranda’s genius – and how lucky we are to be alive right now.

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