While Hamilton is not necessarily connected to the topic of the Civil War, the smash Broadway hit has been the talk of the town among historians since it opened and I finally got the opportunity to see it. As a spectator I found it masterfully done; as a historian I found it thought-provoking and intriguing. Hamilton is not a historically accurate portrayal of the life of Alexander Hamilton (although the historical context was pretty spot on in most places), and it was never meant to be. The choices made by the writers, production team, and performers sends many layers of meaning about history, race, diversity, and the relationships between people both then and now.
Theatrically, there were some really interesting choices made by the management of the show that worked very well. The show was done on one set and there were no major set changes during the entire show. This two-story set was done in rustic, wooden tones with a balcony that wrapped around the back and sides of the stage and had to represent everything from a ship to homes to battlefields. Smaller set pieces and props were brought in, such as tables and chairs, but often it was the staging and choreography that set up the scene for the audience. The more high-tech notes were provided by programmed lights and a turn-table set into the stage, but those elements did not detract from the simplicity of the set. The costumes were also very simplistic with most characters having one costume, with the exception of the few principle characters that evolved during the show. The corps’ base costume were white and neutral tops and breeches with high boots that acted as a canvas for the character they played in the moment; these actors could add or subtract costume pieces depending on the scene: a skirt for a female dancer at a wedding or a blue Continental Army jacket in a battle scene, for example. While the corps’ costumes remained abstract, the principle characters were dressed in more period correct attire and I appreciated how the styles evolved appropriately as the show progressed through time. I also liked the choice to let the performers keep their natural hair and not try to style it to the time period. This fit perfectly with the costume choices but was also another way to subtly highlight the unique casting of the production.
The simplicity of the staging was masterful and let the focus be on the words and how the actors told the story. The use of spoken word and rap might have been jarring at first to those used to more typical Broadway musicals, but I was able to quickly tune into how they were using these styles to convey the story. Similarly, the choreography did not match the styles of either the eighteenth-century or typical theatrical genres, but highlighted modern and contemporary styles with nods to Africa-American and Latin-American dance. The use of these dance styles, rap, and spoken word as a medium of story telling was another way the show placed the experience of minorities into the story of Hamilton.
Even with all the buzz surrounding the show, I went in with a very vague understanding of what the show was about. While I knew the subject was Hamilton and the foundation of the United States, I was somewhat surprised to find that the show was intended to be a biographical presentation of Hamilton’s life. There was a lot of historical context behind how they presented Hamilton’s life that I really appreciated. Some things were altered or left out of the historical timeline, but as someone who has a background in both history and theater I could understand why the writers chose to do that and I think they did a very good job balancing accurate history and the entertainment aspect of theater. I will say that I probably understood the show much more than my parents, who while more versed in history than many are not historians. I was able to pick up on more of the historical mentions and subtle pieces of information included than they were to create a more complete picture of the context behind the show.
The thing I was most surprised with in this regard was that the show did not push the controversial messages I had heard about in the ways I expected. With all the buzz about how the show pushed issues of race and equality, I found that the storyline itself did not address those bluntly. The very casting of the show, to feature performers of color instead of casting all white actors to portray the historical figures, was itself part of this message, as were choices about costuming, hair, music, and choreography. The show takes populations of Americans—people of color—who were largely left out of the history told about the nation’s founding and places them as the historical actors. Creating a show cast almost exclusively with performers of color and making design choices that highlight that casting, sends a message about history but also about diversity in theatrical casting.
Beyond that though, I really thought that the show would stress more openly the obvious inconsistencies between the founding ideals of America—liberty, independence, equality—with the institution of slavery. There are very subtle nods to this, a line here and there and a mention of plans to recruit units of black soldiers in the south during the Revolution, but nothing that really called out that inconsistency of history. My impression from all the buzz was that these themes were pushed more forcefully on the audience and I found that there were far more subtly included. This did not by any means diminish my enjoyment of the show or the impact of the performance, I was just surprised that it was not more forefront considering what I had heard about the show.
I think my favorite thing about the show was that it did not end with the infamous duel between Hamilton and Aaron Burr. From the very beginning, the audience knows how Hamilton’s story ends; they might learn a lot about his life and the founding of the nation during the course of the show, but most people know about the duel that ended his life. The presentation of the duel, his death, and his relationship throughout the story with Burr was fitting and really shed light on how their relationship ended in gunfire. But the show did not end there (spoiler alert!). At this point Eliza Hamilton, Alexander’s wife, takes center stage. Eliza Hamilton plays a leading role throughout the show, but was always in the shadow of her husband, which was very typical of the time. She is portrayed in the second act of the show as a wife torn by the infidelity of Alexander and the death of their son, also in a duel. There is a powerful moment in the show, after Hamilton reveals his affair with another woman, where she declares that she is removing herself from his story and burns letters and documents from their marriage (a historian’s real nightmare). Alexander seeks to repair that relationship in the final years of his life, and at his death Eliza takes the spotlight in the show. She decides to put herself back into the historical narrative and shape her husband’s legacy after the duel. It is Eliza that puts Hamilton as a central Founding Father and preserves his work from the Revolutionary War through to the early national period, including revealing Hamilton as the author of many pieces of writing that came from Washington. The final part of the show reveals this work and also highlights the philanthropic and community work that Eliza continued until her death fifty years after the loss of her husband. While much of the message of Hamilton centers on race and diversity, this was a powerful moment that highlighted the role of a strong woman in a society where she was meant to be overshadowed by men.
The second part of this powerful ending was the core message of the final song: “Who Lives, Who Dies, Who Tells Your Story.” This had to be my favorite song of the show, both in terms of the lyrics and composition and the message. This song is the background to this final chapter of Hamilton’s story, where Eliza shapes his memory and legacy, but it is also a core truth to history itself. While history is composed of “facts,” those people and events that have shaped the human experience from pre-history to today, the actual telling of history is full of interpretation. People are historical actors, they are also the shapers of how that history is told and remembered. Every generation remembers history a little bit differently and chooses who and what should be center stage in the history told in generations to come. The theme of “Who Lives, Who Dies, Who Tells Your Story” is how one woman made sure that Hamilton’s memory lived on, but it is the essence of that revolutionary message so subtly hidden in the masterful direction of the whole show. While the song talks about how Hamilton almost faded from the historical narrative due to his early death [“Every other founding father’s story gets told; Every other founding father gets to grow old”] only to be saved from being forgotten due to Eliza’s efforts, in reality those mostly forgotten by history were women, African-Americans, Native-Americans, and other minorities who were not included in the historical narrative for a very long time.
In the past several decades, historians have begun to recapture these voices and weave them into the familiar tapestry of American history. Only now are these stories being told by historians seeking new voices and new lenses through which to analyze history. For the longest time, the “great white men” of history have been favored most by historians and public alike, but now those forgotten by history are receiving attention. This is part of the message conveyed by casting actors of color as historical characters that the audience knows were of European descent. Historical actors do not have control over who tells their story in the future—we cannot control “Who lives, Who dies” as history is unfolding—but we can dictate whose story gets told. History is as complex a picture as human beings themselves, and it is up to historians to make sure that the entire story gets told, from figures such as Hamilton down to the nameless slaves who built the foundation of America. This final song serves as a post-script to Hamilton’s life, but it is the essence of why Hamilton is revolutionary and captures the attention of its audiences.
This brings up the charge of historical revisionism, which is considered in a positive or negative light depending on who you are talking to. In my opinion, Hamilton is not a highly revisionist presentation of history since they really did focus on Hamilton’s life; it was more of a theatrical choice, rather than a historical one, to utilize casting, lyrics, choreography, and costuming in the unique ways that they did. But even if it was, it probably would not be a bad thing. Revising history is a natural progression as historians find new topics to research and different ways to study history. How else could historians produce hundreds of books on a similar topic—such as the Civil War—and still find new things to write about? Of course, revising history can go too far in cases where people try to erase or fundamentally alter historical interpretation away from what happened. However, revisionism for the most part is simply adding to our understanding of history to give a more complete picture of the human experience. Sometimes this can be an uncomfortable process, such as the line included in Hamilton about Jefferson and his relationship with Sally Hemmings; sometimes the public, and even some historians, push back against any change in the status of historical “heroes.” But for the most part, revisionist history does not erase or diminish the achievements of historical actors already included in the record, it just adds the messy complexity that truly represents history and adds a rich diversity of experiences that acknowledge all the populations that created the world we have today. As I said before, some of this revision was included more subtly than I expected, and some historical context was condensed or smoothed over for the sake of time and presentation. However, Hamilton succeeds in one major way—it brings widespread interest in history from audiences that might not usually care to pick up an academic book or spend a few hours in a museum or historic site. Anything that will spark interest and debate on history among the public and allow historians to engage with those outside their circles is a fantastic opportunity; the fact that it is a spectacularly good show just makes it all the better.
Dr. Kathleen Logothetis Thompson graduated with her Ph.D. from West Virginia University in 2017. She earned her M.A. from West Virginia University in 2012 and her B.A. in history with a Certificate in Revolutionary Era Studies from Siena College in 2010. In addition, Kathleen was a seasonal interpreter at Fredericksburg & Spotsylvania National Military Park from 2010-2014 and has worked on various other publications and projects.