No one was surprised the other night when Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Broadway musical Hamilton racked up 11 Tony Awards out of its record-setting 16 nominations. The astounding part of the Hamilton phenomenon has been the tremendous popular success of such a language-heavy show.
In a cultural and political environment of violence and hollering, it’s easy to forget that poetry and rhetoric – words – still matter. A lot.
An earlier attempt at creating a Broadway musical out of rap music, Holler If Ya Hear Me, based on the songs of the late Tupac Shakur, tanked, despite much hype, after only a month of performances. The reasons were complex, but those who blamed the show’s failure on its rap essence just have to look at Hamilton‘s roaring success to see how wrong they were.
Shakur was a gifted artist and rhymster. So is Miranda. His brilliant, Tony-winning book – some of whose lyrics fly by almost too fast to make out – not only bear repeated listening; they leave other songwriters and lyricists open-mouthed in wonder and admiration.
More important, they mesmerize audiences. People hunger for the magic of language, whether they know it or not.
Hamilton has other good things going for it, of course. The music, for one. The production. And, surprisingly, the story. In today’s divided, hate-filled environment, people long for a story that combines personal triumph and tragedy (Alexander Hamilton’s) and national pride. Miranda’s inspiration for the musical was Ron Chernow’s 731-page biography Alexander Hamilton. There aren’t quite that many words in Hamilton: An American Musical. But word there are, and plenty of them.
Talking about Hamilton’s youth, Miranda puts these lines into the mouth of the show’s Aaron Burr (played by Leslie Odom Jr. in a Tony Award-winning portrayal):
There would have been nothin’ left to do
For someone less astute
He woulda been dead or destitute
Without a cent of restitution
“Less astute…destitute…restitution” – it’s a rap fan’s dream, and an English major’s. Only those who’ve spent the last few decades paying no attention whatsoever to rap and hip-hop would be surprised that people – a couple of generations of people now – respond to language like this.
Soon after (in the show), young Alexander Hamilton, an immigrant newly arrived in New York from the West Indies, echoes Tupac’s line amid a blaze of internal rhymes:
The problem is I got a lot of brains but no polish
I gotta holler just to be heard
With every word, I drop knowledge!
I’m a diamond in the rough, a shiny piece of coal
Tryin’ to reach my goal. My power of speech: unimpeachable
Only nineteen but my mind is older
These New York City streets get colder, I shoulder
Ev’ry burden, ev’ry disadvantage
I have learned to manage, I don’t have a gun to brandish
I walk these streets famished
The plan is to fan this spark into a flame
Hamilton deserves its Tony Awards. Audiences deserve, and need, their language-rich Hamilton even more.