While my hat is off to my fellow writer, Mr. Diekemper, for his wonderful linguistic analysis of Hamilton, I must take umbrage with his statement that Hamilton surpasses 1776. Others have made this comment in passing, and some who only saw 1776 after Hamilton were less than impressed when comparing the two. Yet I think that reflects more on conflating enjoyableness with greatness, and how they are judging that greatness, than on the quality of 1776.
Now, don’t get me wrong; I’m not a hater—I really enjoy Hamilton. The writing is incredibly clever, the music masterful, and the use of repetition and refrain to carry over emotion is brilliant. Miranda makes you excited to hear about nerdy history and politics. The song “Non-Stop” makes you feel that Hamilton’s part in The Federalist Papers was one of the most epic things, ever. “One Last Time,” the song quoting Washington’s Farewell Address, almost brings me to tears. Every refrain of Angelica’s, that she will “never be satisfied” is heartbreaking.
Hamilton is absolutely a good musical, and certainly one of my favorites. To judge its greatness, though, especially in comparison with 1776, we must consider what Hamilton celebrates versus what 1776 celebrates.
Young, Scrappy, and Hungry
On the face of it, Hamilton celebrates the American Dream as known by black and other minority communities. It seems to be the first musical to tell this story with hip-hop in a historical setting, and it tells the story well.
In the end, though, that’s hardly lasting praise. Hamilton is not the first musical to juxtapose contemporary music with historical characters. Back in 2011, Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson explored the 7th President as an Emo rockstar, for example. Just as Miranda saw parallels between Hamilton’s life and the hip-hop genre, it’s easy to see the parallels between Jackson and the somewhat self-centered, angry emo rock:
and my life sucks in particular.”
Sure, it’s not near as clever as Hamilton, but for some songs, at least, that’s part of the point. “Populism, Yea, Yea” could be the theme song of this year’s political season, with just a few updates.
While innovation gets you some credit, it isn’t always lasting. Hair, premiering in 1967, completely changed the musical world by defining the new genre of “rock musical.” It also had racially integrated cast, not unlike Miranda’s use of minority casting in Hamilton—although that was a much more daring thing 1967. Yet today, for the non-theater crowd, it’s an obscure musical they’ve likely never heard of, much less listened to the music.
Beyond that, music changes. Today, Hamilton is the toast of the town, and the music is fresh and contemporary. Two decades from now, Hamilton’s synths will sound as dated as the soundtrack of Rent (a huge inspiration for Hamilton), which is complete with super 90’s titles like “Today 4 U.” Hopefully Hamilton will never sound as truly awful as that (which I contend was never good in the first place), but Rent does demonstrate how a musical smash hit that utilized contemporary music styles ends up as a relic of the musical past.
For the Revolution
Hamilton also celebrates American history and character. It’s a place where “a bastard, orphan, son of a whore and a Scotsman … impoverished in squalor” can “grow up to be a hero and a scholar” and immigrants can “get the job done.” That message resonates with people. It sings the praises of true virtues like innovation, hard work, and daring. Miranda captures the conviction and dedication to the principle of freedom. I wasn’t the only one to think of lyrics from Hamilton the moment Brexit became a reality, and the world turned upside down.
This is the side of Hamilton that makes it as good as it is, because it upholds an ideal that Hamilton represents: With hard work, someone from the worst of backgrounds can be a history maker. This is the ideal of America, which has nothing to do with the circumstances of your birth and everything to do with the ideas you hold dear.
Who Tells Your Story?
But the main thing Hamilton celebrates is, of course, Alexander Hamilton:
Every other founding father’s story gets told
Every other founding father gets to grow old
But when you’re gone, who remembers your name?
Who keeps your flame?
It is a story first and foremost about legacy, about Hamilton’s personality. It’s about his intelligent eyes in a hunger-pang frame, how he wrote like he was running out of time, and about not throwing away his shot.
It’s hard to pick favorite songs from Hamilton, but the most emotionally gripping ones aren’t about freedom, revolution, or principles. They are about the love of a sister in “Satisfied,” the pained ambitions of a man in “Wait For It,” the guilty, uncomfortable pleasure of an adulterous liaison in “Say No To This,” and the anguished rage of a betrayed wife in “Burn.”
Hamilton is very much a biography, and it does an excellent job exploring the virtues and faults of a complex man who helped change the world. I enjoy celebrating Hamilton’s life and accomplishments, grieving with his losses, and mourning the losses he cost others. In the end, though, he was only a man—not the best of husbands, not the best of men. My celebration of his life has limits.
John, You’re a Bore, We’ve Heard This Before
1776 is not artistically groundbreaking. In the movie and on stage, the actors are all white. They look and dress like the historical men they are portraying. Much of the dialogue and lyrics comes from actual correspondence and political discourses:
The music echoes the music of the time, with piccolo flourishes and a gloriously sarcastic harpsichord. “Cool, Cool, Considerate Men” might have elements of minuet in it, but without flocks of musically trained fans to obsess over it on the internet, I might never know.
1776 will be 50 years old in 2019. It represents an older school of art, where innovation is not king and ‘new’ is not good enough, for ‘new’ only lasts so long. Instead, what 1776 does, it does incredibly well. The music is catchy, pleasant, and memorable: Some songs do get stuck in your head, incessant-lee. It is amusingly irreverent:
A second flood, a simple famine
Plagues of locusts everywhere
Or a cataclysmic earthquake
I’d accept with some despair
But, no, you sent us Congress.
Good God, sir, was that fair?…
If you don’t want the voice of independency
Then God, sir, get thee to it
For Congress never will
and consistently witty:
Dr. Benjamin Franklin: Don’t worry, John. The history books will clean it up.
John Adams: It doesn’t matter. I won’t be in the history books anyway, only you. Franklin did this and Franklin did that and Franklin did some other damn thing. Franklin smote the ground and out sprang George Washington, fully grown and on his horse. Franklin then electrified him with his miraculous lightning rod and the three of them – Franklin, Washington, and the horse – conducted the entire revolution by themselves.
Dr. Benjamin Franklin [pauses]: I like it.
It also demonstrates that Hamilton was by no means the first to call out the Founding Fathers with rougher language:
Dear Sir, you are without any doubt a rogue, a rascal, a villain, a thief, a scoundrel and a mean, dirty, stinking, sniveling, sneaking, pimping, pocket-picking, thrice double damn no good son of a bitch.
1776 focuses on the writing of the Declaration of Independence, the principles behind that declaration, and the sacrifices the men of the Continental Congress and Continental Army made for it. It celebrates the fortitude of the American patriots, their passion for liberty, and the reasons for wanting that freedom. It is a play of ideas and debate that transcends time and place. It speaks to current political and philosophical realities, such as today’s debates over political correctness and micro-aggressions:
Well, in all my years I ain’t never heard, seen nor smelled an issue that was so dangerous it couldn’t be talked about. Hell, yeah! I’m for debating anything.
In 1776, you hear the arguments for freedom, the arguments for loyalty to Britain. You hear the arguments for allowing slavery to continue in the South, and the arguments against slavery as an institution. You hear men exhorted to put their causes before their ego:
Ben Franklin: The issue here is independence! Maybe you have forgotten that fact, but I have not! How DARE you jeopardize our cause, when we’ve come so far? These men, no matter how much we may disagree with them, are not ribbon clerks to be ordered about – they are proud, accomplished men, the cream of their colonies. And whether you like them or not, they and the people they represent will be part of this new nation that YOU hope to create. Now, either learn how to live with them, or pack up and go home!
In the end, 1776 is about staying the course and overcoming self:
Abigail Adams: Have you forgotten what you used to say to me? I haven’t. Commitment, Abby, commitment. There are only two creatures of value on the face of this earth – those with a commitment and those who require the commitment of others. Do you remember, John?
Is Anybody There?
1776 is great because it isn’t about one person, or even a group of people. Instead, it is about principles and ideas.
The main drama of the play does not revolve around the friendships, magnetic personalities, or poor personal choices of the Founding Fathers. Nor does the musical praise one character’s flamboyant personality as a positive attribute that sets him up for greatness. Instead, 1776 portrays John Adam’s idiosyncrasies as one of the biggest threats to independence. I’m not saying that good plays shouldn’t talk or focus on these things–but these things, in and of themselves, are not great and enduring topics.
Hamilton’s refrain centers on legacy and being remembered. The final question of the final song is self-focused:
Who lives, who dies, who tells your story?
In sharp contrast, 1776 turns the final question of the final song outward: Is anybody there? Does anybody care? Not about you, or John Adams, or even George Washington, who inspires the refrain:
Is anybody there? Does anybody care?
Does anybody see what I see?
I see fireworks! I see the pageant and Pomp and parade
I hear the bells ringing out
I hear the cannons roar
I see Americans – all Americans
Free forever more!
1776 transcends because it exhorts us to care about the future of America, about liberty, and the principle that we are endowed by our Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.