Who tells our story?

Yes, I watched Hamilton for the first time this past summer. Yes, I live under a rock.

Though it has had mainstream appeal since it came out in 2015, I had only heard the Hamilton soundtrack secondhand—in a car with a friend, as background music for a social media post, at a Leslie Odom Jr. (Aaron Burr, in the original cast) concert last fall. Yet, somehow, I think this lends more legitimacy to this piece. I write free from the fanaticism that has followed the musical phenomenon. Many people say they wish they could experience Hamilton for the first time again. This is my first time, and these are my thoughts:

It deserves 100% of the hype. 

There is a difference between listening to the occasional Hamilton song and actually watching the music unfold throughout the play. Many (if not most) of the songs can stand alone (“Yorktown,” “Dear Theodosia,” “One Last Time,” “It’s Quiet Uptown,” …you get the point). But listening to the resounding chorus of “The world turned upside down” after so many years of struggle, conflict, and violence; pondering the birth and development of America as Burr ruminates on his daugher “com[ing] of age with our young nation;” reflecting on the trials and stalwart qualities of George Washington as he abruptly announces “I’m stepping down. I’m not running for President;” and sympathizing with the complex character of Alexander Hamilton as he grieves the loss of his son and embraces the “quiet uptown” has the ability to strike your heart in a place that no textbook or documentary could ever reach.

After watching the whole play once through, every song sounded different. Each carried dramatic context, intense visuals, and historical significance; each echoed others, drawing new melodies to the forefront and hiding others up-stage. Every song evoked emotion, sympathy, and meditation. Hamilton is not to be listened to trivially. It demands our minds—it demands our souls. 

The impact of Hamilton in American culture is undeniable. It was nominated for 16 Tony Awards — a record — and won 11. To date, it has grossed over one billion dollars, according to Forbes. Anybody who’s anybody has listened to it, seen it on Disney+, or had the opportunity to see it in person. But these numbers underestimate the play’s importance. Hamilton lays claim to every aspect of America’s political culture. Though there are some statements, I will admit, with which I disagree, the majority of them remain poignant and pertinent, even today—especially today. 

One such statement is Lin Manuel Miranda’s casting choices. Famously, the creator and writer casted the show entirely with people of color. For a play that is almost exclusively about white men, this choice certainly raised some eyebrows among the “history buffs.” But it is this choice that makes the play so powerful. This choice alone warrants the play’s recognition as one of the greatest American stories ever told.

I am white; it is true. However, I do not have a single ancestor who lived in America before the Civil War. My dad’s side immigrated from Ireland and Germany in the late 1800s. My mom’s side came from Germany and Poland a few years later. I have no ancestral tie to the American Revolution or to the founding fathers, who were mostly Anglicans with long histories of American wealth (Hamilton, an immigrant from the West Indies excluded, interestingly enough). But the beauty of the American experiment is that it is a story that continues. It is a story that perhaps at one point was about White Anglo-Saxon Protestants, but, since then, has drawn freed slaves and immigrants from all over the world into the narrative.

You don’t have to be English to be American or to appreciate and participate in the phenomenon that was the American Revolution and ratification of the Constitution. You don’t have to be white, either. Lin Manuel Miranda’s casting choices emphasize this. America, as a concept, as the product of a miraculous upset and ingenious Constitution, is for all. Indeed, Hamilton is for all. 

As the show often reminds us, we do not get to live to tell our own stories. That is up to some unknown future generation. Undeniably, the story of America is one of some controversy, especially as of late. But Hamilton addresses the controversy. It gives you the grain with the chaff, and it reminds us that the American experiment is not over. Furthermore, it can be accessed, changed, or reconfigured by any of us. We tell its story. And who will tell ours? That remains to be seen. But this American musical preaches — indeed, promises — that our unique and diverse heritage makes this country a story to tell, and a story for all.

John Burke is a junior from St. Louis double majoring in the Program of Liberal Studies and Economics. John in a bad mood is almost assuredly a result of St. Louis Cardinals bullpen problems. He can be reached (on non-game days) at jburke23@nd.edu.