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Hamilton and Alexander Hamilton: Grace notes from history

Maryanne Chrisant, MD
Joe DiMaggio Children's Hospital
Hollywood, FL, USA

I recently had the pleasure of getting to know one of the founding brothers in a most enjoyable fashion. I read the book, Alexander Hamilton by Ron Chernow, and saw Lin-Manuel Miranda's mostly rap musical, Hamilton.

Chernow's book is a 700 plus page, 10 pitch opus that's well written; it's a big, savory book. Reading this book was a pleasure, and Chernow's style allows the reader's psyche to wrap around Hamilton's as he wove his way through the landscape of early America. Hamilton was a founding brother: a charismatic autodidact who shaped a progressive world. He was handsome, fluent in French and upwardly mobile. No wonder he was so attractive to men and women.

And the musical? Truly, saying that I "saw the musical" doesn't quite describe the experience. Last Wednesday my family and I sat in second row orchestra seats at the Richard Roger's Theater in New York, watching a matinee performance of Hamilton. I bought tickets directly from the theater months before the entire world discovered the musical and now insist on paying three times the theater box office price. We came upon Hamilton while cruising You-tube, catching Lin-Manuel singing the opening song at a 2009 White House poetry jam when it was still The Hamilton Mixtape and not a fully formed musical story, just a conglomeration of songs that Lin birthed after reading Chernow's novel. We watched this recording half a year or so before the play hit Broadway. This bit was breathtaking, and yes, we were stopped in our tracks. My sons played it over and over, until they could recite the lyrics, with the right inflection and rap beat. That song spawned an investigation of Hamiltonian history, which of course dovetailed into the history of the United States.

Hamilton is not a "musical." Yes, it has many elements of a "classic" musical, with a strong overture that introduces the main characters and sets the stage, with repetitive and catchy musical themes that become a character's signature, with lively action, brilliant staging and with a "truly grand" grand finale. However, it is an elevated and inspired modern opera. Lin-Manuel weaves the Chernow novel, his inspiration, so neatly into the Libretto that there's arguably no need for a more definitive read. The musically inclined may wish to forego the book, however I would entreat them not to. The composite experience is part history lesson and part modern application. My sons, husband and I have a renewed appreciation for a timeless man who was often the "smartest in the room," even in the presence of such founding brothers as Franklin, Washington, Adams, Jefferson, Madison, Monroe, and, yes, sadly, Burr. As I'm the lone reader of the Chernow novel in our family, I've found myself providing the back-story to events portrayed on stage. The musical Hamilton takes a few grace notes with history, enough to make the story and the action on stage propel forward in a more interesting fashion.

Take, for example, Alexander's wife, Eliza, the love of his life (though not the only love of his life) and her sister, Angelica. Both Lin-Manuel and Chernow show that Angelica and Eliza were founding sisters, in the thick of the revolutionary zeitgeist. Both authors captured their love triad. Lin has Angelica introduce Eliza to Hamilton at "A Winter's Ball." Effective drama, though not quite the scene that Chernow portrays in his book. Alexander and Eliza's romance begins in Morristown in 1780, when Eliza, daughter of prominent and wealthy senator Philip Schuyler, arrives with military escort to stay with relatives. Their paths cross and cross again, and with more intended meetings within a month they are betrothed. Eliza's stunning, intelligent, and well-read sister, Angelica, whom Hamilton later meets, was already married. In the musical version, Angelica, as the oldest daughter of a father who "has no sons" understood that her only job was to "marry rich." In reality, Philip Schuyler sired three sons and five daughters. Marriage into this large family gave Hamilton a currency that he'd been longing for his whole life: instant legitimacy of social position, instant family loyalty and potential wealth, though Hamilton never tapped this latter aspect of the Schuyler clan, desiring instead to prove and live by his own worth. Alexander's relationship with Angelica fed a part of him that his steadfast, practical, unintellectual and in some ways naive Eliza could not. However, Chernow writes, "their shared love for Hamilton seemed to deepen their sisterly bond." It's this bond and the duality of Hamilton's attraction and loyalty that Lin-Manuel brings up to contemporary speed, demonstrating that Alexander was not an easy man to live with or love. But Lin-Manuel advances the women's view, by making the story as much Eliza's and Angelica's as it is Alexander's. Lin-Manuel's point and Chernow's, are aligned: those were difficult times, and daughters of a political activist, a couple of scholars, a French Marquis, and a poor orphan immigrant "comin' up from the bottom" made a remarkable difference by plotting a new course for the world. As Hamilton, in his final moments, sings, "America, you great unfinished symphony, you sent for me!" The multi-ethnic casting of Hamilton is a not so subtle message to the young that we all may have our place in history, no matter what our color, sex, country of origin or breeding (rich or poor, ill-bred or well-bred).

There's more. Another juicy bite of the book reveals that Theodosia Prevost, the future wife of Aaron Burr, while still wedded to a British officer, provides sanctuary to the run-away bride of Benedict Arnold after she aids her traitor husband in escaping Hamilton and the other young Americans. This is the same Theodosia that Burr sings about so sinuously and the "mother's name" he invokes so tenderly to his newborn daughter of the same name. Lin-Manuel made Burr (and all the key players) likeable and human, affording them a dimension that history books cannot. By providing a deeper level of detail, Chernow conveys the potent limitations that are imposed by human weakness despite overall strength.

Another point that resonates is that Hamilton taught himself about the world's great financial systems, even before there was a United States, well before there was a position as Secretary of the Treasury to enjoy the fruits of this education. He longed for a cause and a reason to be alive. He wrote volumes when others wrote sentences. He wrote "like he was running out of time." Hamilton's musical signature is "One Shot:" he understood that he had only one shot, one opportunity that he shouldn't, couldn't throw away. He took advantage of opportunity and more: he created opportunity so that he could auspiciously excel. Despite this brilliant drive, he also had an inopportune facility for disassembling his own success. Take, for example, the Reynolds affair and its aftermath, and his denouncement of President John Adams, both portrayed in the play; there are other incidents portrayed in the book, made less impactful by indulgent Hamilton supporters, such as his resignation from Washington's service as his personal secretary with Washington's subsequent rebuffed attempts at reconciliation. The man Hamilton was not easy.

But a word about Burr. His anthem is, "The Room Where it Happens," laying bare his long desire to be a part of the key decisions, the back-room deals, the inner circle. He wasn't, not even when elected vice president, just missing the presidency as Hamilton endorsed his long-time political rival, Jefferson. Burr, too, was handsome, scholarly, orphaned, ambitious, but as principled and outspoken Hamilton states, "No one knows what you believe." Hamilton found him unprincipled. Three years later, Hamilton campaigned against Burr in his attempt to win the New York gubernatorial election. This was enough. This was the culmination of thirty-years-worth of being cut off, cut down and cut out from that inner circle, in Burr's eyes. There were more perceived slights that Hamilton refuted, but how could Burr let it go? Hamilton responded, in kind. For Hamilton, the duel was a gentlemanly way of settling conflict, of putting to rest an insult. He intended to throw his fire to honorably satisfy the challenge. As Chernow writes: "wars, like duels, were honorable rituals, conducted by gentlemen according to sacred and immutable rules." Though as younger men, both Burr and Hamilton expressed disdain for the brutality and primitivism of dueling, they, as many in their day, lived by the ancient tenet that it's better to be brought home on your shield then arrive home alive without one.

The final scenes of the play, the death of Hamilton's young son by a duel, and Hamilton's own death, are unimaginably sad. The haunting (truly) ballad sung by Angelica, "It's Quiet Uptown," says it far better than I can write here. Lin-Manuel understands. My sons noted, after the show, how sad the end was. They got the gift of understanding. In addition to a long view of the revolutionary war, the birth of our country and the entwining lives and tangled webs of a handful of patriots, they got the gift of Lin-Manuel's and Chernow's art.

Since the show, I've periodically checked for tickets (yes, it's well worth seeing again) but direct box office sales are sold out. Tickets are only available through resale with a very stiff mark up. As you're waiting for ticket prices to settle or for perhaps the traveling show to make its way to your town, pick up Chernow's book and read it. Neither book nor musical will disappoint. ■

Disclosure Statement: The author has no conflicts of interest to disclose.

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