Hamilton: A beginner’s guide to the hit musical
Ivan Radford | On 03, Jul 2020
This weekend marks the worldwide premiere of the filmed version of Hamilton on Disney+. Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Broadway musical has been a smash hit across the Atlantic and in London’s West End, introducing audiences to the story of the USA’s forgotten Founding Father, Alexander Hamilton, and his rise to power against the backdrop of the American War of Independence.
If you’re already starting to wonder what all those words mean, don’t worry: US history doesn’t get taught much in the restricted UK school curriculum. So we’ve pieced together a beginner’s guide to help keep track of what’s going on and who’s who in Hamilton – because while you could listen to the songs before watching, that would only spoil the fun of seeing and hearing them in the show:
So Hamilton’s a big deal then?
Yes, Lin-Manuel Miranda’s musical is officially a big deal, winning 11 Tony Awards, a Grammy Award and a Pulitzer Prize. Its cast includes Daveed Diggs, Anthony Ramos, Leslie Odom Jr and Lin-Manuel Miranda, all of whom you’ll have since on your screens at some point, and that’s just mentioning a few of its star talents. (Miranda, if you don’t know, has done everything from compose a song for Moana to star in Mary Poppins Returns and BBC One’s His Dark Materials.)
Why all the fuss?
Featuring a score that blends hip-hop, jazz, R&B and Broadway, the show is a radical piece of theatre, one that speaks to all kinds of issues surrounding culture, politics, and education – and does it through catchy, dizzyingly witty lyrics and music. Based on the book Alexander Hamilton by Ron Chernow, it brings to life the story of a man who is on the $10 bill – one of two non-presidents to be featured on the currency – but isn’t on Mount Rushmore and was, before the stage production, rarely discussed. By casting actors of colour in each of the roles, the musical makes a bold statement about the history-makers and the writers of the history books. Lin-Manuel Miranda first performed songs from his planned album (The Hamilton Mixtape) at the White House in 2009, which cemented its powerful impact and appeal and paved the way for its Broadway debut.
Who is Hamilton exactly?
Alexander Hamilton was an orphan who grew up on the Caribbean island of St Croix, but made it New York where he ended up writing most of the Federalist Papers – the foundation of the US Constitution. He also established the entire US banking system. He died in his 50s, shot by a man named Aaron Burr.
Isn’t that a spoiler?
Not really – it’s declared in the opening overture, by Burr himself when he is introduced to the audience. The pair were rival politicians and lawyers. Burr was Vice-President under President Thomas Jefferson.
Who else is in the musical?
George Washington, the first President of the United States, who was a mentor to Hamilton, and John Adams, the second President. Also important is Jefferson, who clashEs with Hamilton in the form of a rap battle. Jefferson is also the primary person behind the US Declaration of Independence, which brings us to the role that England plays in the show…
What does England have to do with it?
One of the key running plots in the film is the War of Independence, as America looks to break away from England to become its own nation. That’s represented by repeat appearances from a threatening King George III, who might put Brits’ noses out of joint, if he weren’t so entertainingly treated as a pantomime villain.
What about Hamilton’s personal life?
Hamilton married Elizabeth Schuyler, of the Schuyler family, who were known New York socialites. Eliza founded the first private orphanage in New York, and had several children with Hamilton, most notably including Philip, who went on to meet a tragic fate.
How accurate is all of this?
Lin-Manuel Miranda does take dramatic licence with history, boiling down the 12 Schuyler siblings into three sisters, for example, but the large part of it is all true, making for a powerful educational tool among younger generations of Americans – and, now it’s on Disney+, Brits too.
When was it recorded?
Director Thomas Kail filmed the stage show in three days back in 2016, capturing the original Broadway cast in their final performances. Nine cameras and 100 mics around the theatre produced a two-hour-plus film that was going to be released in cinemas – until the coronavirus pandemic led to theatres closing, prompting Disney+ to drop it online instead.
Is it safe for kids?
Disney has given it at 12 certificate, due to a number of swear words in the lyrics – although two of the three notable naughty words have been censored to make it more family-friendly. The cultural and educational value, though, can’t be overstated
How much is Disney+?
At the time of writing, Disney+ costs £5.99 a month or £59.99 a year.