There is a long tradition of portraying the immigrant experience on stage. And with immigration again one of the most hotly debated issues in American politics today, it’s only fitting that the most popular show on Broadway right now is the hip-hop musical Hamilton, which celebrates one of America’s most remarkable immigrants, Alexander Hamilton. One line from Hamilton (which just won a Grammy for Best Musical Theater Album!) succinctly summarizes one of its important messages: “Immigrants / We get the job done.” In exploring the life of Alexander Hamilton, the show certainly goes far to show how he got the job done and to establish his importance in our history.
Written by In the Heights creator Lin-Manuel Miranda (who attended my high school and college!), this musical about our nation’s youngest founding father answers the question:
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?
It seems like the answer contains seeds of the traditional immigrant story:
The ten-dollar Founding Father without a father
Got a lot farther by workin’ a lot harder
By bein’ a lot smarter
By bein’ a self-starter
With those opening lines the quick-paced musical, inspired by the eight-hundred page biography by Ron Chernow, follows the life of Hamilton, one of our lesser-known Founding Fathers. In reading Chernow’s book, Miranda recognized themes that he believed were perfect for hip-hop: “Hamilton’s childhood, Miranda said, made him think of Jay Z’s early days in the Marcy Houses in Brooklyn, and Eminem’s upbringing in Detroit.”
Born in the Caribbean, Hamilton traveled by boat to America as a teenager after his community, impressed by an essay he wrote regarding a hurricane that destroyed his hometown, raised funds to send him overseas to study. Lin-Manuel Miranda’s musical, based in hip-hop, R&B, pop, and jazz, recounts Hamilton’s many accomplishments: immigrant scholar, revolutionary, right-hand-man and strategist to George Washington, New York delegate to the Constitutional Convention, primary writer of the Federalist Papers, Secretary of the Treasury, Creator of the Coast Guard, Founder of the New York Post, and the list goes on. Throughout the play we are reminded that Hamilton’s status as an immigrant was crucial to his character and actions. He repeats his mantra:
I am not throwing away my shot!
Hey yo, I’m just like my country
I’m young, scrappy and hungry
And I’m not throwing away my shot!
In the first act of the play, we also meet Marquis de Lafayette. An aristocrat from France, he was a close friend of George Washington, Alexander Hamilton, and Thomas Jefferson. “America’s favorite fighting Frenchman” had a huge impact on the success of the American Revolution. As the song “Guns and Ships” explains, Lafayette convinced France to join the American cause, which ultimately led to the new country’s success:
I go to France for more funds
I come back with more
And so the balance shifts
Without Lafayette’s help, America’s crucial win at the Battle of Yorktown may not have been possible. Although Lafayette eventually returned to France, he is remembered fondly as “an immigrant you know and love who’s unafraid to step in.”
In Hamilton, Lin-Manuel Miranda manages to capture the essence of the immigrant experience: the deprivation and hardships triggering a move to a new country, the promise of a new life, and above all the drive to achieve great things and make the most of the opportunity. In his dying words, Hamilton echoes these sentiments:
Legacy. What is a legacy?
It’s planting seeds in a garden you never get to see
I wrote some notes at the beginning of a song someone will sing for me
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
I’m running out of time. I’m running, and my time’s up
Hamilton brings attention to the positive influence that a single immigrant (or two!) can have on an entire country. As Kendra James of The Toast so accurately writes:
Democrat or Republican, it should be impossible to deny the impact immigrants have had and continue to have on the political landscape of America. Hamilton arrives in the midst of a conversation about immigration that too often devolves into an Us vs. Them narrative – a framework that seeks to deny and outright dehumanize the full American immigrant experience. In Miranda’s show, Alexander Hamilton constantly reminds us that he too is an immigrant, looking to have an impact in his adopted country.
Not only does Hamilton tell the story of a bright young immigrant who has greatly affected the history of the United States, the musical’s primarily non-white casting reflects the diversity that is so valuable to this country. Oskar Eustis, Artistic Director of the Public Theater, which originally produced the show, explains: “By telling the story of the founding of the country through the eyes of a bastard, immigrant orphan, told entirely by people of color, [Miranda] is saying, ‘This is our country. We get to lay claim to it.’” The musical teaches an important lesson, Edward Delman writes in the Atlantic: “American history is not just the history of white people, and [the musical’s] frequent allusions to slavery serve as constant reminders that just as the revolutionaries were fighting for their freedom, slaves were held in bondage.” Miranda, who portrays Hamilton himself, adds: “Our cast looks like America looks now, and that’s certainly intentional. It’s a way of pulling you into the story and allowing you to leave whatever cultural baggage you have about the founding fathers at the door.”
And drawn into the story we are. It is a compelling narrative told with passion and in a unique voice. The Smithsonian sums it all up nicely:
Of the founders, Hamilton burned brightest and briefest, dead before he was 50 years old … He feuded with the most powerful politicians of his time, and suffers for it two centuries later. He opposed slavery. He imagined the United States as a manufacturing powerhouse and world financial leader, as a great nation of great cities with a strong, pro-business central government. Alexander Hamilton, immigrant, is the architect of the America we stand in today and the biggest star on Broadway.
Hamilton has reinvigorated my interest in the time period, and I get excited any time I’m assigned something even tangentially related to it in my American Legal History class. Like many others, I am obsessed with the soundtrack and I discover something new every time I listen to it. I’ve seen the musical twice, and unfortunately for my wallet, I’m sure that number would be higher if I weren’t in Michigan for law school. It’s absolutely worth the price of admission if you can snag a ticket… as long as you are wary of counterfeits.
The last song in the musical asks, “Who lives / Who dies / Who tells your story?” As the daughter of immigrants myself, I am proud that Lin-Manuel Miranda has chosen to tell Hamilton’s story. In the midst of all the negative news reports concerning immigrants around the world, I am thrilled that Miranda has turned our focus to the positive impact that immigrants can and have made in this country.