Broadway Rap Battles and the Crisis of Historicity: Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton

Konstantinos Blatanis*


Interest in this article revolves around Lin-Manuel Miranda’s musical biography of Alexander Hamilton as both an occasion of contemporary commercial theatre and a cultural phenomenon which foregrounds issues of historical understanding but also constitutes an unconventional record of the crisis of historicity that defines its own moment. The study focuses on the distinctive mode in which the play co-opts rap and hip hop music for the purposes of a large-scale Broadway production and examines the ways in which African American music is thus employed in a work that ultimately betrays its historical specificity. Furthermore, the article interrogates the terms in which Hamilton invites spectators to engage anew with questions regarding who, on what grounds and to whose benefit may be granted the right to “rap” the nation’s story.
Keywords: Hamilton, Broadway musical, African American music, hip hop, historical understanding

The long and varied history of the American musical is marked by the distinctive and often unexpected ways in which the genre intervenes in the public debate. As scholars Jessica Sternfeld and Elizabeth Wollman accurately note, no matter how “light-hearted, escapist, frivolous and even embarrassingly corny [the musical may seem at first glance, it] can in fact serve as bold commentary on aspects of society” (1). Indeed, it is music itself, the most prominent of its component elements and by all means “the ultimate making of any musical” (Kerr qtd. in Warfield 244), that allows each individual occasion of the form to converse with its immediate historical conditions. Furthermore, music onstage contributes also in its own exclusive modes and, at times, in radical ways to matters and issues of historical understanding, on a larger and more general scale.

One of the primary contentions of this article is that, similar to what historian Dominick LaCapra underlines about the value of the novel, it is instructive to address music in a play as an eloquent “object of study” (History and Criticism 116) for historical interrogation. Over the course of the present decade, Lin-Manuel Miranda’s phenomenally successful biography of Alexander Hamilton serves to exemplify, more intensely than any other instance of the contemporary American musical, the particular qualities, the assets as well as the limitations of such an approach.    

Ever since its world premiere at the Public Theatre, in February 2015, and its quick transfer to the Richards Rodgers Theatre on Broadway, in August of the same year, Hamilton: An American Musical has been standardly recognized as the epitomic “hip hop musical” that aspires to revolutionize both the genre and the collective understanding of the founding period.

Following Miranda’s first attempt to employ hip hop music onstage with his play In the Heights (2007), Hamilton was welcomed as a venture that contributes decisively in “diversifying the Broadway musical aesthetically, musically and choreographically,” but also as a work that “envision[s] a new world of Broadway and US society, one that is not post-racial but racially inclusive and aware” (Titrington Craft, “Can We Leave” 217).

It is important to note right at the outset that not all critics and scholars converge in their appraisals of the show, yet few would disagree with the argument that “a hugely popular work like Hamilton may well influence America’s visual, aural, and narrative image of the American Revolution and its aftermath for generations . . . finding its way into people’s heads through the catchy soundtrack and its memes” (Romano and Bond Potter 6).

Video 1
Hamilton: An American Musical. The official trailer of the Broadway production

Undoubtedly, Hamilton constitutes no exception to the rules of the form, and thus music is indeed the main vehicle by means of which the play seeks to attain its goals. As a result, it is imperative that a candid assessment of this work illustrates primarily the reasons for which hip hop is prioritized over any other popular musical idiom of the present era as well as the terms in which this specific employment is effected.

In particular, the present discussion recognizes as its point of departure the following seemingly simple, yet demanding question: is it really hip hop what Hamilton audiences experience? Further and equally intriguing concerns which arise are also pursued here and are formulated in these lines: How does hip hop accommodate the needs of a highly commercial theatre show, and how does it cater for the demands of the standard Broadway audience? How does the story that music in Hamilton offers its spectators interrelate with the official history of the nation’s first treasurer? Had it not been for the exclusive resources of hip hop what would have gone missing from this dramatic and theatrical approach of the critical historical moment of the American Revolution? What is the task that Hamilton recognizes for itself in a sociocultural context whose “alarming and pathological [inability to deal] with time and history” (Jameson 20) has already been thoroughly detected and identified over the course of more than four decades now?

Last but not least, does the play do justice to the history of a currently immensely popular idiom on global scale, but also and undeniably so of the music that “register[s] [first and foremost] both the aspirations and frustrations of the first generation of African American youth to come of age in a desegregated and awkwardly integrated, post-affirmative action America” (Rabaka 8)?

Before all else, it is important to note that the honesty with which Hamilton lays bare its purposes emerges as one of its primary and most prominent characteristics as a musical. The very first notes with which the audience is greeted and which are carefully placed to the service of the opening lines of the libretto bespeak clearly the work’s overall aims and distinctive qualities. In the opening number—noted for its absolute directness and highly intense rhythm in terms of both song and dance—the stage is populated by an impressively large cast of identifiable historical figures who introduce themselves as well as each other and whose presence openly seeks to tantalize, more than anything else, the spectators’ senses. It is in this vein that the title character’s historical political antagonist and lethal opponent raps the opening lyrics of the show.

Specifically, Aaron Burr introduces the U.S. first treasurer and is immediately followed by Alexander Hamilton himself but also by more figures such as John Laurens, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, all of whom participate in a slow rap performed against a piano riff that gradually escalates in tempo and intensity and eventually transmutes into a typical Broadway dance melody that the entire company picks up. In perfect harmony and absolute unison, the lyrics that accompany this act place emphasis on what can prove spectacular and sensationalist about the historical. The following lines delivered by Burr and Laurens, respectively, are thoroughly revealing of the show’s outlook:

AARON BURR: How does a bastard, orphan, son of a whore and a / Scotsman, dropped in the middle of a forgotten / Spot in the Caribbean by providence, / impoverished, in squalor, / Grow up to be a hero and a scholar?”
JOHN LAURENS: The ten-dollar Founding / Father without a father/ Got a lot farther by working a lot harder (16)

Evidently, what underlies the overall endeavor that the opening number epitomizes is the conviction that in relation to historical matters the collective memory and sensibility can be enticed in sensationalist modes and via techniques which ultimately lead to a consequential popularization of the past. The play clearly taps into and contributes to a further strengthening of the mythologization of the founding period.

Alexander Hamilton, Portrait by John Trumbull, 1806. Photo: National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution; gift of Henry Cabot Lodge. Wikipedia. Accessed April 28, 2020

Scholar Lyra Monteiro justifiably relates the play’s input to the more general tendency identified as “founders chic,” which seeks to glorify the particular historical moment “while also humanizing the founders” (89). For his part, Philip Goldfarb Styrt accurately observes that “the history in which Hamilton is so invested is . . . the kind of popular, common, and familiar history typical of public monuments, text books, and mass-market biography, such as the (admittedly heavyweight) biography of Hamilton by Ron Chernow that served as Miranda’s inspiration” (3).

Nonetheless, it is instructive to note that despite their drawbacks and limitations and, at times, precisely because of them, aesthetic representations do manage to place their own claims on historical understanding. The “performative, figurative, aesthetic factors” (Writing History 1) whose dynamic LaCarpra insightfully explains are also operative in historical approaches that are in essence sensationalist and serve to reinforce a popularization of particular aspects of the past or even of entire periods.

Miranda’s work pursues its aims precisely through the power of the “aesthetic” that music renders possible onstage. Undoubtedly, the audience’s “emotional response” (27), seminally analyzed by Freddie Rokem, proves highly significant not only in radical and perceptive theatrical approaches of the historical, but equally so in this spectacle which aspires to cast Alexander Hamilton as the epitomic immigrant, whose story is directly pertinent to the present moment. The euphoric rapping that identifies his course as that of yet “another immigrant comin’ up from the bottom” (17) allows no room for a careful examination of the distance that separates the show from historical facts, as well as the fact that its libretto relies almost exclusively on a single and highly debatable source; that is, Ron Chernow’s biography of Hamilton, first published in 2004. As William Hogeland carefully highlights, “Alexander Hamilton was not an American immigrant, at least not in the sense intended by Chernow when he invokes the idea. . . . [T]he immigration archetype Chernow invokes refers to a late nineteenth-century phenomenon, beginning well after the demise of the British imperium” (24–5).

Similarly instructive is Howard Zinn’s point that Hamilton, George Washington’s aide, was first and foremost a member of “the new elite [whose constituents were] linked together in factions and compacts by business and family connections” (77, 81). Evidently, the musical’s scope covers no such problematics. Instead, the show capitalizes on the African American music genres and the non-white casting as it seeks to establish its story as an exemplary immigrant narrative. To this end, and in an almost epic tone, Hamilton himself raps defiantly in the second number that he is just like his country, “young, scrappy and hungry” (26), while towards the end of Act One he is joined by Lafayette to emphatically belt these words: “Immigrants: We get the job done” (121). It is indeed difficult to refute that, up to a certain point, there is a “subversive effect” (Goldfarb Styrt 14) in these dramaturgical and theatrical gestures, or that they may constitute efforts to reclaim aspects of “cultural citizenship [through the use of elements] associated with minority cultures” (Titrington Craft, “Headfirst into an Abyss” 431).

Video 2
Lin-Manuel Miranda performs “Alexander Hamilton” at The White House (2015). Accessed April 26, 2020

Yet, the question that can never remain unaddressed pertains to the exact type of historical understanding that such gestures promote. Hamilton offers its average spectator almost no incentive to abandon the level of the spectacle and to engage with a further and deeper examination of probing of its “performative, figurative, aesthetic factors.” As Monteiro sharply argues, “to have black and brown actors stand in for the great white men of the early United States [raises multiple and consequential questions] in a play that does not acknowledge that the ancestors of these same actors were excluded from the freedoms for which the founders fought” (93).

Indeed, the multi-leveled semiosis, the dramaturgical power and theatrical effect of the music employed in this case are the aspects that demand the greatest critical attention. In precise terms, studying the story that the music “tells” onstage and deciphering its message allow us to assess adequately the version of history the show communicates to its audience as well as the type of historical understanding that is thus supported.

In the printed edition of the libretto, Miranda adds several parenthetical notes in which he openly states that he wrote the score for Hamilton with the desire and aspiration to establish a dialogue with such towering figures of contemporary African American music as Tupac, Notorious B.I.G., Busta Rhymes. Yet, a careful examination of any given song in the show and, by extension, of the results that this implied dialogue yields onstage reveals that what is being employed in this case is nothing else than the outer shell of hip hop. In essence, the play taps into the tempo and the rhythm as well as the current world-wide popularity of this musical idiom. It is indeed no surprise that, on almost all occasions, hip hop swiftly transmutes here into all other kinds of music, most of all well-established and widely familiar Broadway tunes.

It is significant to note that Jeremy McCarter—the author’s collaborator—specifically explains that hip hop is used in the musical as “form, not content” (10). Furthermore, Miranda himself admits that on Broadway “no one wants to listen to hip hop all night, and we are not going to give it to him all night” (qtd. in Rumsey 258). For her part, scholar Phoebe Rumsey tellingly notes that the show “avoids overwhelming spectators with too much ‘in your face’ rap—a style of urban preaching that can dissuade members of the white, upper- and middle-class Broadway demographic if overused” (258), and she adds that Miranda “consciously measured the amount of rapping” (258) that is allowed onstage.

In essence, the “performative, figurative, aesthetic” distinctive qualities of Hamilton rely upon an implied dialogue with a wide array of sources. Thus, indicatively, the distance from a melody inspired by the Rodgers and Hammerstein classic South Pacific to an upbeat swing or pop-soul tune patterned upon easily-recognizable, highly commercial songs of the 2000s is not simply a short step for the show, but literally no step at all. In his insightful study of the rock musical from the late 1960s to the early 2000s, Scott Warfield notes significantly that “instead of the real thing, Broadway has [standardly] offered up a diluted pop sound. . . . In an environment where some form of watered-down pop-rock has become the lingua franca of Broadway, one might ask if a genuine rock musical in the spirit of Hair is still a possibility” (247).

In its approach and co-optation of hip hop, Hamilton contributes precisely to the empowerment of this particular Broadway lingua franca, since it offers its audience hip hop music which is deprived, nonetheless, of its very essence. In effect, the play is in absolute tune and synchronization with the phenomenon upon which Slavoj Žižek characteristically commented, at the turn of the millennium, in these words:

On today’s market, we find a whole series of products deprived of their malignant property: coffee without caffeine, cream without fat, beer without alcohol . . . Virtual Reality simply generalizes this procedure of offering a product deprived of its substance: it provides reality itself deprived of its substance, of the hard resistant kernel of the Real” (279).

Precisely because the “hard resistant kernel” of hip hop is thoroughly absent from Hamilton, the musical constitutes one of the multiple agents in mainstream culture that, as Reiland Rabaka shrewdly observes, approach and co-opt hip hop as “some sort of free-floating, ‘postmodern’ sonic signifier, and not as is most often the case, deeply connected to and undeniably indicative of the origins and evolution of African American musical history and culture” (13). As the scholar insightfully explains, “word wizardy, rhetorical acrobatics, aural innovations, and sonic experimentation of rap music and hip hop culture” (21) are not simply the component elements of a style; they are the core matter of “the spiritual, sexual, cultural, social, and political expression of an alienated and oppressed group which has historically had few other areas in which to fully express itself on its own terms” (41).

To an alarming extent, Hamilton betrays the very history of the music to whose power it resorts. The musical pays no service to the unique and highly consequential trajectory of African American music in time and fails to address, even elementally, the ways in which hip hop dramatizes and captures “the precarious position of black radical thought in the United States, even as African Americans have reached the highest levels of political power” (Nielson and Gosa 13). Veering consciously away from an exploration of the multiple ways in which music has perennially proven instrumental in “prob[ing] black consciousness” (Marcoux 2), the show establishes a genuinely apolitical and ahistorical outlook regarding hip hop. This approach of the music it employs informs also and is directly reflected in the way Hamilton casts identified pivotal moments in American history. Unfailingly loyal to its mode that endorses all elements of the historical that may prove spectacular and can offer a sensationalist popularization of the past, Hamilton raps the Revolution as an epitomic moment of crisis through the lyrics assigned to General Charles Lee: “Washington cannot be left alone to / his devices / Indecisive, from crisis to crisis. / The best thing he can do for the revolution / is turn ’n / Go back to plantin’ tobacco in Mount Vernon” (98). It is in the exact same vein that the second act of the play offers in the form of rap battles the cabinet battles in which Hamilton fought to convince his political peers, first, about the validity of his plan to assume state debt and establish a national bank and, second, about the nation’s neutrality in the 1793 conflict between France and Britain.

On the whole, hip hop music in Hamilton accommodates no historical probing of any depth or width. If there is one thing that its impressive and memorable “performative, figurative, aesthetic factors” do accomplish is to offer spectators vibrant incentives for research that may hopefully be carried out definitely outside and beyond the confines of the playhouse. To the very ending number, the show remains more than anything else a celebratory occasion for America, Alexander Hamilton, the genre of the musical and, last but not least, self-reflexively, of Hamilton itself, as the song delivered by Miranda himself in the original production clearly signifies: “America, you great unfinished symphony, / You sent for me. / You let me make a difference. / A place where even orphan immigrants can leave their fingerprints and rise up” (273).

Video 3
Hamilton stars give Vice-President Mike Pence a message. Accessed April 26, 2020

Finally, it is important to highlight that Hamilton is anything but devoid of political significance. However, what also needs to be explained is the fact that the show pursues its political ambitions in the exact, same mode in which it approaches hip hop music. Specifically, it is the emphasis on the spectacular that allows the play to emerge as a work which provides “connective tissue” (160) between the founding period and its own present moment, and which may constitute “a form of protest” (208) for minority rights during the years of Donald Trump’s presidency.

It is indeed impossible to downplay the fact that Hamilton remained thoroughly faithful to its nature as a Broadway musical and yet succeeded in addressing its famous motto, “Who lives, / Who dies, / Who tells your story?” (280) as a sharp comment on President Trump’s vision of social and cultural diversity and a particularly disturbing message for Mike Pence, who attended the performance as Vice-President Elect in November 2016. Nonetheless, this is achieved on a stage where there is very little, if anything, essential of what Eric Nielson and Travis Gosa define as “the continued power of music to engage and unify diverse populations across race, space/ place, social class, and generational lines” (18). African American music is co-opted in this case, yet its true historical and cultural dimensions are entirely eclipsed. As Elizabeth Titrington Craft explains,

it most certainly did matter that the founding fathers were white guys, and as the racially driven political divides of the Obama and Trump eras have laid bare, to say that all Americans have one another’s backs, without regard to race or other forms of difference, is more aspirational than factual. (“Headfirst into an Abyss” 440)

Equally so, Lin-Manuel Miranda’s dialogue with African American music is more aspirational than anything else. Undoubtedly, the fact that a work which “imagine[s] a black, rapping Thomas Jefferson” (Titrington Craft, “Headfirst into an Abyss” 441) is deemed by certain agents as threatening reveals a lot about the severity of the ever burgeoning conservative, populist agenda that defines the present moment on global scale and does not necessarily reflect the sheer value of the play itself.


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*Konstantinos Blatanis is Assistant Professor of American Literature and Culture at the Faculty of English Language and Literature, National and Kapodistrian University of Athens. His research interests lie in American literature, modern drama, popular culture, media studies and critical theory. He is the author of the book Popular Culture Icons in Contemporary American Drama (Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 2003) and co-editor of the volume War on the Human: New Responses to an Ever-Present Debate (Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2017).

Copyright © 2020 Konstantinos Blatanis
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