SALT LAKE CITY — When Benjamin Park got his first glimpse of “Hamilton” in 2009, he knew it was going to be big.
A YouTube clip of “Hamilton” creator Lin-Manuel Miranda performing what eventually became the musical’s opening song at a White House event captured Park’s interest. At this point in time, “Hamilton” was then only conceived as a hip-hop concept album.
Park, who will be a visiting scholar for Brigham Young University's Neal A. Maxwell Institute for Religious Scholarship this summer, currently teaches an “Age of Hamilton” course at Sam Houston State University, weaving Miranda’s music into a course that examines the life of the United States’ first secretary of the treasury.
“I have very few hipster claims, but ‘Hamilton’ is one of them,” Park said. “I saw (the White House video clip) and I’ve been showing it in my classes … ever since. I would always tell my students, ‘Watch this, it’s going to hit and it’s going to hit hard and you’re not going to be ready for it!’”
And hit hard it did. Since its Broadway debut in August 2015, “Hamilton” has earned 11 Tony Awards, with tickets selling out fast in every city it visits — Salt Lake City being no exception.
The Eccles Theater has now been “the room where it happens” for about a week, and history buffs are among the many flocking downtown to see the highly anticipated production.
To celebrate “Hamilton’s” three-week run in Utah, the Deseret News spoke with local history professors about their takes on “Hamilton” and the phenomenon of its popularity.
The strength of ‘Hamilton’
According to University of Utah professor Eric Hinderaker, one of the musical's greatest strengths is its source material: Ron Chernow’s 2005 best-seller “Alexander Hamilton.” While George Washington and Thomas Jefferson have been subjected to a variety of biographies, those about Hamilton are generally written by his champions who often end up whitewashing his character, said Hinderaker, who will also attend “Hamilton” during its three-week Utah run.
Chernow’s book, however, is what the professor called “a real warts and all biography.”
“Hamilton is not portrayed as a saintly figure — he’s a complicated figure — but he is also somebody that you can really kind of empathize with,” Hinderaker said. “One thing Chernow does that informs the musical so strongly is (that) he figured out Hamilton’s origin story in a way that nobody else had, (he) really tracked down the details, and that obviously is the cornerstone for Lin-Manuel Miranda.”
Hinderaker pointed to an interview where Miranda discussed reading Chernow’s book while on vacation, quickly coming to discover the parallels between his own father, a Puerto Rican immigrant who made a home in New York, and Hamilton.
“A Puerto Rican-American guy seeing his own father’s immigrant story in Alexander Hamilton’s life,” Hinderaker said. “Chernow set the table for that in a way that no previous historian was able to do.”
In addition to showing the complications of its title character, "Hamilton" also stays close to the politics of the era. Unusual for a musical, "Hamilton" doesn't gloss over the political battles that Hamilton and the other Founding Fathers were engaged in — something Hinderaker said it does so well thanks to its musical styles.
“How much information (‘Hamilton’) conveys, how much it gets into the weeds on policy matters, … the brilliance of Lin-Manuel Miranda's wordplay and the complexity of rap as a form just allows for a much wordier kind of exposition than you could do in any other sung format,” he said. “(Hamilton) is a guy who lived through the Revolutionary War, lived through the drafting of the Constitution and was involved in the first presidential administration. The scope of this musical is really breathtaking.”
As someone who grew up listening to and loving early '90s rap, BYU political science professor Brandon Dabling believes Miranda's predominant use of rap music helps capture the excitement surrounding the founding of the nation. But according to the professor, that music also tells a story of its own.
“(Miranda) gives nods to different types of genres and also the history of rap throughout the musical,” Dabling said. “It’s cool to see how he blends that history throughout with the history of the country. And oftentimes he uses the two to tell the stories simultaneously. When Jefferson comes back he’s still singing jazz when everyone else is rapping, and it takes him some time to catch up to everything that’s happened while he’s been gone in France.”
And while “Hamilton” familiarizes audiences with American history, it also draws attention to the subjectivity of that history.
“The very line, ‘Who lives, who dies, who tells your story?’ — that raises the question in your mind that history isn’t direct facts from the past where we know exactly what happened, but it’s actually crafted by people and it’s framed,” Park said.
And just as history can be subjective, Miranda’s “Hamilton” serves as yet another framing of the American timeline, according to Christopher Jones, who teaches early American history at Brigham Young University and who saw “Hamilton” on April 12.
“You're not getting an objective history when you go and see ‘Hamilton’. You’re getting an interpretation of Hamilton and his life and its significance,” he said.
What'd ‘Hamilton’ miss?
While it’s not the job of a musical or other work of pop culture to be “obsessive” about historical accuracy, Hinderaker said, there are a few elements about “Hamilton” the professors find problematic.
While the musical features a multicultural cast — including an African-American Jefferson in the cast visiting Salt Lake City — the story of “Hamilton” largely leaves slavery out of the picture.
“Slavery is acknowledged in a handful of lyrics, but you can never really sense that enslaved individuals were active participants in the American Revolution itself. …They were, and I think that their actions were crucial to understanding that period,” Jones said.
This omission creates an irony for “Hamilton,” a musical Park said prides itself for being diverse and inclusive.
“It’s telling the Founding Fathers in a glorified story (that) erases the presence of people who were there,” he said. “Besides an offhanded reference to Sally Hemings in the “What’d I Miss” song, there’s not a single black person referenced or a Native American or any minority figure referenced … and those minority figures are in the history. In ‘the room where it happens,’ where these fundamental decisions of America are made, there are enslaved Africans, there are Native Americans, there are women and yet they’re being pushed off.”
But for Hinderaker, the multiracial cast is part of what makes the production so compelling.
“It makes you re-envision the story. If (‘Hamilton’) was a musical that was done with all white men in powdered wigs, you would see it very differently,” he said. “But a big part of the reason why it seems so powerfully meaningful and relevant to a contemporary audience, I think, is because of the casting choices they’ve made … in allowing a multicultural cast to embody these characters and to articulate these ideas.”
Also contributing to the problematic portrayal of slavery is the musical’s depiction of Hamilton as an outspoken abolitionist — a stance the professors said in reality wasn’t so clear-cut.
“He might have had some tepid anti-slavery views, but they were never strong enough for him to act on,” Park said. “To the contrary, he built a financial empire that was dependent on the slave system in the South.”
• Hamilton vs. Aaron Burr
According to Dabling, the rivalry between Hamilton and Aaron Burr is overemphasized in the musical, with “the burning rivalry that dominated Hamilton’s political life” being with Jefferson.
“Miranda paints the feud as being, ‘Well, Hamilton just thought that Burr didn’t have any fixed principles and that he was wishy-washy,'” Dabling said. “That was true, and that was one of the things that Hamilton didn’t like about Burr, but he also just thought he was a scoundrel, and he thought he was somebody who could not be counted on to defend the republic.
“You see this even in the last moments of their lives when they’re negotiating the fued. It’s clear from everything that Hamilton says that he’s worried about the future of the country, he’s worried about his family and he’s also worried about doing what’s right. … But the last thing Burr talks about is (instructing) his daughter to burn letters to his mistress because he’s worried about the incriminating information that’s in there. These are two very different men, and Miranda doesn’t capture why the feud existed. He makes it sound as if Hamilton was just more successful in rising up and achieving political power, which is certainly a big part of it, but Hamilton didn’t argue against Burr and fight against his political prospects because he just wanted to keep Burr down. … He argued against Burr because he thought that he was a scoundrel.”
• Hamilton’s politics
Since its Broadway debut, “Hamilton” has been at the center of pop culture — tickets for the musical’s run in Utah sold out in a matter of four hours. With such a high level of interest surrounding the production, there are elements that make the production more palatable for contemporary viewers — including the watering down of Hamilton’s politics.
As Park teaches in his “Age of Hamilton” course, the Founding Father espoused views that likely would not be accepted in modern political discourse, such as lifetime appointments for the president and the Senate and a deep distrust for the popular vote.
“Hamilton’s politics are mostly absent except for a few very general statements on banking and finances,” Park said. “In some ways, his political views were much more extreme than what we’d be comfortable (with) and yet, that doesn’t appear because we want to make Hamilton this liberal hero of the 21st century.”
“I do think that there are ways in which Lin-Manuel Miranda kind of wants to make (Hamilton) a person for our times,” Hinderaker said. “He’s bending Hamilton’s sensibilities a bit in the direction of the 21st century to make that work.”
The start of a movement?
Regardless of what “Hamilton” includes or excludes, one can’t deny that Miranda’s production has sparked greater interest in American history among students. Earlier this year, as part of the Utah Department of Heritage and Arts’ New Nation Project, Utah students wrote letters to state legislators describing an issue and proposing a solution for a shot to see the production for free. On April 19 and 21, nearly 250 of these students will travel to the Eccles Theater to see the production. Additionally, about 2,300 Utah students and teachers are involved in the Hamilton Education Program, also known as EduHam, that incorporates Hamilton and the Founding Fathers into high school history class curriculum. These students will get to see the production on May 4.
So what historical figure should we see on stage next? With "Hamilton's" pop cultural dominance, it's natural to wonder who else from American history could headline a musical.
"Hamilton was great because he had kind of become not totally a forgotten figure before the Chernow biography and the musical, but definitely sidelined,” Dabling said. “So that was one of the cool things about the musical, that (it) almost single handedly saved Hamilton’s place on the $10 bill and also just his spot in the American memory. So if I’m going along those lines, maybe we could have a good musical devoted to (Supreme Court Justice) James Wilson or Calvin Coolidge … (or) a musical about Lincoln — that would be the obvious candidate.”
Having recently finished reading Erica Armstrong Dunbar's book "Never Caught," about Washington's pursuit of his runaway slave, Ona Judge, Jones would like to see writers look outside the standard historical figures.
"There are so many enslaved people during the Revolutionary era who played crucial roles in the American Revolution. … I would love to see them get a Broadway musical so … the general public could be introduced to their stories," he said.
But for now, it is Hamilton's story getting sung on stages, and Salt Lake City's shot to hear that story has arrived.
"It’s just really interesting to see how powerfully Lin-Manuel Miranda was able to reimagine (Hamilton) as not just a smart guy but as a kind of a popular hero of the Revolutionary period for our age," Hinderaker said. "It’s so improbable in a way, but when you see the way it’s executed, it’s not that improbable, it’s more like, ‘How did it take this long?’"