HAMILTON is amazing.
For those of you who’ve been living under a bridge for the last year, HAMILTON’s a hip-hop musical about the life of founding father Alexander Hamilton written by Lin-Manuel Miranda (who also wrote IN THE HEIGHTS).
As a writer, when I love something as much as I love HAMILTON–it’s pretty much the only thing I’ve been listening to for the last few months–I like to try to figure out what makes it so great. In this case, it has A LOT going for it. Catchy songs, talented & diverse cast, insightful themes, clever lyrics, and an engaging story based in fact (so you’re learning–yay for learning!).
But in my opinion the strongest element is the characters. I’m sure Miranda was drowning in information about the characters’ lives since they were all real historical figures, but he has made them highly relateable and sympathetic. Here’s how I think he did it*:
- Characters are boiled down to a few essential traits & motivations that are nearly universal.
- Alexander Hamilton: Humble beginnings; determined to succeed; outspoken and passionate about his beliefs
- Aaron Burr: Also determined to succeed, but as a foil to Hamilton his desire for ambition supersedes his beliefs
- Those traits are clearly conveyed through their actions, dialogue, and refrains.
- Hamilton: “There’s a million things I haven’t done, but just you wait, just you wait.”
- Burr: “Talk Less. Smile more. Don’t let them know what you’re against or what you’re for.”
- Those traits drive the story’s conflicts.
- There are multiple instances throughout the story where Hamilton and Burr come into conflict with each other or other characters because of their opposing motivations. In real life, maybe there was more to it. But as a story, it’s an elegant design. Burr wonders why his career is stalling while Hamilton rises; it’s because Burr is missing the key ingredient–something to fight for beyond himself. But at the end of the day, Hamilton dies for his beliefs while Burr survives. Most will probably view Burr as the bad guy, but in my opinion, it’s only a matter of perspective. Can you really fault Burr for fighting to survive (“He will not make an orphan of my daughter!”)?
I use Hamilton & Burr as examples, but I believe nearly all the other characters get this treatment. As someone who always loves character first and foremost in a story, this brilliant execution is why I’ll probably be listening to this soundtrack a million more times.