When we kids of a certain age first learned about the Founding Fathers in elementary school, we could be forgiven if they all sort of blended together in a torrent of knee-length stockings and powdered wigs. Oh, we learned the names of most of them. We saw their pictures on our money. Maybe we learned that George Washington wore false teeth, Thomas Jefferson invented the first swivel chair, and John Adams was kinda short.
But few of us had much idea about who these historical leaders really were or what they believed. And what of Alexander Hamilton—the only guy in our wallets who had never been president? We learned nothing about him at all.
That was before Lin-Manuel Miranda penned Hamilton, a raucous, rap-inflected, rapturiously received musical that doubles, oddly, as a very lively history lesson. In the musical, Washington is not just the face on a dollar bill, but a passionate general and a measured, introspective statesman. Jefferson’s a bit of a dandy who loves his country almost as much as himself. James Madison is sickly and pompous; Aaron Burr’s an empty suit.
And then we come to Alexander Hamilton himself: born out of wedlock in the Caribbean. Orphaned before he had his first shave. Hamilton was a penniless nobody who, by dint of his own brilliance and ambition, became one of the foremost authors of the American experiment. He’s not just stamped on the $10 bill. His fingerprints are everywhere, even in modern America. And though his critics called him a English-loving monarchist (fighting words back in those days), he was, and is, the Founding Fathers’ best example of a self-made man.
Oh, the dude had some failings, too. He made his share of enemies, and in the end he died because of it.
But that comes later in Miranda’s musical. And this review has barely begun.
The character of the United States is built on a powerful sense of self-determinism: If we’ve got the talent and the work ethic, we tell ourselves and our children, we can become anything we want. Some might argue how true that truism really is, but there’s no question that it was first embodied by Hamilton. And Miranda’s rendition emphasizes that ideal again and again.
Hamilton is Hamilton’s hero, and we see his willingness to take sometimes controversial stands on the issues of his day. He rails against British rule as the Revolution begins to stir. After the revolution, he advocates for a strong centralized government and pushes that government to take on states’ wartime debts. Toward the end, he waxes philosophic about his legacy. “It’s planting seeds in a garden you never get to see,” he tells us.
Though dramatically ambitious, Miranda’s Hamilton has his eye fixed on history, too. He’s in a position to plant seeds for a promising young nation, a “place where even orphan immigrants can leave their fingerprints and rise up,” and he’s determined to give that nation the very best chance to grow and flourish. Here, Hamilton’s story and the ideals on which the country is based are deeply entwined.
But if you’re looking for heroes here, perhaps a better example would be Hamilton’s wife, Eliza. We’re often told how gentle and kind and giving she is—and, as we’ll see, forgiving, too. And as the musical comes to an end, Eliza offers both a eulogy and a recitation of how she carried on her husband’s legacy while burnishing her own: raising funds for the Washington Monument; fighting against slavery; establishing the first private orphanage in New York; tirelessly advocating for her late husband’s place in history.
We find other heroes, too. Washington, so often locked in history as a marble statue, comes across as a passionate, deeply considered statesman here—doing not only his best to win a war but get a country off on the right foot (despite having the warring geniuses of Hamilton and Jefferson in his cabinet). Eliza’s sister, Angelica, proves to be both loving and sacrificial. Hamilton’s wartime friends John Laurens, Hercules Mulligan and the Marquis de Lafayette all fight and risk a great deal for the fledging country, with one of them offering up the ultimate sacrifice.
The musical sporadically references God, faith and religion, with those spiritual sentiments growing more heartfelt as the production unfolds on stage. Early on, Hamilton and his friends marvel about the “odds the gods would put us all in the same spot,” shortly thereafter drawing parallels to Moses’ Promised Land with a new land of opportunity. We hear some references to God’s provision, and Aaron Burr sometimes reminds us that neither love nor death discriminate “between sinners and saints.” During an early duel, we hear someone say that participants should “pray that hell or heaven lets you in.” When Washington is set to retire from public life after 45 years of service, he pointedly tells Hamilton that he’s doing “like the Scripture says: Everyone shall sit under their own vine and fig tree/And no one shall make them afraid.” (It’s a reference to Micah 4:4, and the real George Washington often used the phrase in his own correspondence.) Hamilton experiences a family tragedy, and he finds himself praying outside a church. “That never used to happen before,” he marvels. During a duel, Hamilton says that he can get a “glimpse of the other side” and the people who wait for him there. Eliza talks about how “the Lord in His kindness” allowed her to live for several decades after her husband passed, giving her more time to talk about him and to continue, as she thinks of it, his good work.
The musical tells us that Hamilton was quite the ladies’ man when he was younger—so much so that Martha Washington apparently named her amorous tomcat after him. (And that anecdote is apparently true to history.) Hamilton’s friends ribaldly express amazement that he settled down (augmenting the conversation with some pelvic thrusts, leaving the audience in no doubt about what they mean). Hamilton, we learn, also became the central player in America’s first sex scandal. When Eliza and Angelica head out of New York to leave Hamilton alone to work, a woman named Maria Reynolds asks Hamilton for financial help. She clearly has more on her mind, though, and Hamilton—lonely and overworked—caves to temptation and begins a months-long affair. Then, Maria’s husband turns up, demands money to keep the affair quiet and tells Hamilton that as long as the money’s good, the politician can sleep with his wife all he wants. (Hamilton pays the blackmail money but ends the affair.) The whole thing eventually comes to light anyway, though—by Hamilton’s own hand, in fact—and Eliza is understandably crushed. The musical also makes much of perhaps an unrequited love between Hamilton and Eliza’s sister, Angelica. (The two exchanged some lively letters in real life.) Angelica jokes at first that if Eliza really loved her as a sister, she would “share” Hamilton with her, forming an 18th-century harem. Playful joking aside, Angelica is indeed smitten by the ambitious politician. Though this production insists nothing untoward went on between Hamilton and Angelica, both hold a certain longing for the other. (The match would’ve never worked, Angelica says, given that when they first met, Hamilton was a penniless nobody: As the oldest daughter of a family without sons, her only job was to marry someone rich and well-to-do.) Hamilton’s son, Philip, brags that he’s smart like his father, then gestures to his groin and says that’s “not where the resemblance stops.” He invites the ladies to come back with him and they can “strip down to our socks,” as well. We hear about Aaron Burr’s own affair with a woman who’s married to a British officer. Several main characters make some lewd, suggestive dance moves, purposefully indicating a certain randy-ness, and one man sings about how there are so many “women to deflower.” People talk frequently about how Hamilton’s mom was unmarried when she had him and say that he was the “son of a whore.” Characters kiss onstage, and some women wear the cleavage-baring dresses so popular back in the day.
All the violence we see onstage is highly stylized. We see no blood. That said, Hamilton’s world was filled with physical strife. First, there’s the war. Hamilton longs to lead troops into battle, and we see soldiers use muskets while some illustrative explosions take place on stage. Washington laments how he led troops into an ambush earlier and still feels awful about those who died under his command. One of Hamilton’s best friends is killed in the war, too. But the bigger issue here would probably be the frequent duels that the Hamilton family often finds itself embroiled in. The real Hamilton took part in several during his lifetime, and we see one instance where he was a duelist’s “second.” We hear about the “Ten Duel Commandments” that outline the oddly courteous rules involved with the challenge. Two people die in duels during the production, with another individual wounded. Again, the “action” is bloodless, but we do see some tense and tragic scenes. We hear about the execution of the king of France. When talking about a general who took a bullet in the neck, Washington reminds Hamilton that it’s easy to die a martyr: “Living is harder.” Before the Revolutionary War, King George III tells his American subjects that he will “remind you of my love” by sending out his army and killing “your friends and family.”
The Broadway version of Hamilton includes three f-words. The Disney+ version has been cleaned up a bit, eliminating two of the three. (Miranda tweeted that he “literally gave two f—s so the kids could see it”). But the language is such that the original Founding Fathers still would’ve been shocked. The one remaining f-word was, to my ears, never actually completed—sounding like a drawn-out version of “duh.” So I’ll have to take Miranda’s word that it, technically, remains. But the musical also contains at least five s-words (though some of the dialogue gets a bit blurry amid rapid-fire raps). We hear other profanities, too, including “a–,” “b–ch,” “b–tard,” “d–n,” “h—,” “p-ss” and “pr–k.” God’s name is misused at least seven times (three with the word “d–n”), and Jesus’ name is abused three times as well.
Hamilton and the other founding fathers drank quite a bit, and sometimes Hamilton and his pals seem as though they’ve imbibed more than enough. They drink shots at times, but more often wine or beer it seems, and they frequently “raise a glass to freedom.” They drink at a wedding party. When Washington is getting ready to retire, he invites Hamilton to enjoy one more glass with him. We hear about a tax on whiskey (a big issue in the young nation). Would-be voters in the 1800 election say that Aaron Burr’s the type of candidate “you could grab a beer with.”
Hamilton, as we can see, is no saint—nor are his peers. People often insult one another and, perhaps, work backroom deals to get what they want. Hamilton’s ambition (albeit with a healthy sense of duty) pulls him away from his family at times and leads him into a really compromising situation. When he lands in that situation, he tries to cover up his misdeeds for as long as he can. And while times have changed, and duels back then were seen by the American aristocracy as necessary evils to defend one’s honor, in this contemporary time we can’t overlook the fact that not only did Hamilton participate in them, but gave his own son dueling guns so that he could participate, as well.
If the word Broadway means anything to you, you likely know about Hamilton’s place in the modern musical pantheon. Inspired by Ron Chernow’s outstanding 2004 biography Alexander Hamilton, the musical’s been a rolling phenomenon since Lin-Manuel Miranda’s creation first landed in an off-Broadway theater back in 2015. In 2016, when it moved to the Great White Way, Hamilton nabbed a record-setting 16 Tony nominations (winning 11 of them) and earned that year’s Pulitzer Prize for drama. I get the appeal. As I suggested at the top of this review, the history of the United States’ critical formative years, and the lives of its founders, can easily get lost, with the major players locked in marble. Rarely can we feel the breath of that time, the heat, the audacious idealism of the American Experiment. Hamilton, through its multi-ethnic cast and contemporary rap-musical beats, smashes that marble and transports us into a time when a strange collection of people harboring wildly new thoughts of self-governance rocked the world, putting a brilliant, prickly underdog at its core. And while it takes a few liberties with the history, it’s both far more memorable and urgent than a semester of lectures. But we can’t forget that when Miranda brought Hamilton into the 21st century, he slathered on some very 21st-century issues. Hamilton’s sexual dalliances are a matter of historical record; the pelvic thrusts and tawdry allusions are purely of the here and now. The language is refreshingly contemporary but often crude, too. Even if Washington and Hamilton used this sort of language behind closed doors, I doubt they would’ve approved of its use before a theater full of people—much less a streaming television audience of millions, including children. This Disney+ filmed version of the musical features Hamilton at its 2016 peak, with Miranda himself playing the title role. It’s educational, entertaining and, in this fraught time when the American Experiment can seem a little wobbly, inspirational. The problems and fights back then echo our conversations now. If they figured out how to overcome those difficulties more than two centuries ago, why can’t we? But that doesn’t make Hamilton suitable for the whole family. Take a page from the musical’s Washington: Weigh the evidence, think of the benefits but consider the cost. Before pushing play, it’s sometimes good to push pause.
Paul Asay has been part of the Plugged In staff since 2007, watching and reviewing roughly 15 quintillion movies and television shows. He’s written for a number of other publications, too, including Time, The Washington Post and Christianity Today. The author of several books, Paul loves to find spirituality in unexpected places, including popular entertainment, and he loves all things superhero. His vices include James Bond films, Mountain Dew and terrible B-grade movies. He’s married, has two children and a neurotic dog, runs marathons on occasion and hopes to someday own his own tuxedo. Feel free to follow him on Twitter @AsayPaul.