Why Hamilton Matters

Joan Marcus

A young man stands in the dark, waiting to take his shot. It is May 5, 2009, and Lin-Manuel Miranda is listening at the back of the East Room for his cue. The administration of the newly elected president, Barack Obama, has invited him to the White House to perform a song from In the Heights, his Tony Award–winning Broadway musical. The organizers figured he would be a bright addition to an evening of spoken word, poetry, and hip-hop — so bright, in fact, that they asked him to close the show.

Miranda has accepted the offer, but with a twist. He’s nervous that night, standing in the dark, because he’s about to perform a song that nobody has heard before, for the fanciest crowd he’s ever faced. He can see the president and first lady in the front, silhouetted in the stage light, and the enormous portraits of George and Martha Washington peering at whatever’s about to go down.

You can watch what happened next on YouTube.

Miranda tells the audience he’s writing a hip-hop concept album about the life of Alexander Hamilton, which makes the audience laugh, because that’s a ludicrous combination of words, and then he starts rapping, which makes them laugh even more, because it really is a funny notion — a young Nuyorican spitting verses about the nation’s first Treasury secretary (in the East Room, no less, the chandeliers and gold drapes, George and Martha looking down) — but then Miranda raps faster, and with more conviction, and now nobody is laughing, because they see that he’s not joking, that he’s very serious, that this fusion of unlike parts is yielding something new and potent, something amazing, and when he’s done they leap to their feet, cheering as one, the president leading the way.

Those highly implausible four minutes are a pretty good distillation of what has happened to Miranda’s Hamilton idea ever since.

Those highly implausible four minutes are a pretty good distillation of what has happened to Miranda’s Hamilton idea ever since. The audience’s cycle of laughing, then listening intently, then breaking into wild applause has been repeated many millions of times. Hamilton has become the hottest ticket on Broadway, which is just about the least interesting thing about it. Its actors have become celebrities. Its catchphrases have crept into common usage. Its cast album just went gold. Less than a year into its run on Broadway, it has become a once-in-a-generation cultural phenomenon. Questlove, one of the album’s executive producers, cites Thriller as a point of comparison for the show’s exceptionally broad appeal — a comparison, he acknowledges, that he would call hyperbolic if somebody else had made it.

Years from now, the aspect of that White House performance that might loom largest is the identity of the president who watched it. For the most part, it’s just a coincidence that the seven years of Hamilton’s development coincided with the eight years of the Obama administration. Miranda was going to write “The Room Where It Happens” no matter who sat in the Oval Office; Obama has taken no governance cues from a Broadway musical, even if the first lady does call this one “the best piece of art in any form that I have ever seen in my life.” But that encounter in 2009 has turned out to be not a one-time connection, but the start of a relationship; not two lines intersecting, but a double helix, drawing near again and again. Now that Hamilton is fully fledged, and Obama is entering the final months of his presidency, we can see what they share, and what each reveals about the other.

To point out the affinities between Hamilton and Obama is not to make a partisan claim. Miranda didn’t write Hamilton to sync up with present-day politics; it doesn’t match the priorities of Republicans or Democrats. (If the show takes the side of any political party, it’s the Federalists, and they dissolved 200 years ago.) What the show shares with Obama lies deeper than political affiliation. It echoes an idea that has been crucial to his message since before he became president. In fact, the president, like the show, has picked up a melody that runs all the way back to the founding of the republic — the era that Hamilton revives onstage.

Gilbert Stuart / Wikimedia Commons

I got to see the connections between Obama and Hamilton from up close, and not as a neutral observer. My friend Lin told me about his crazy Alexander Hamilton idea in the summer of 2008, while he was still reading Ron Chernow’s Hamilton biography. Three years later, after I had joined the artistic staff of New York’s Public Theater, I introduced Lin to my boss, Oskar Eustis, in hopes that the Public would help to develop the show. During the middle years of the Obama presidency, as the show took shape at the Public, I was in the script meetings and set meetings and production meetings where Hamilton grew into the phenomenon we see today. When the cast performed at the White House this spring, I was there, too. The first lady said that visit felt like coming “full circle.” She meant the trajectory from 2009 to 2016, from a single song at the beginning of the presidency to a finished show near the end of it. That’s true. But to hear those songs being sung for that president, in that room, with George and Martha looking down, felt like the closing of a much bigger circle than that.

Another night, another crowd, another young man preparing for his shot. It is July 27, 2004, and Barack Obama, a little-known state senator, stands backstage at Boston’s FleetCenter, listening as he is introduced for the biggest speech of his life.

He steps onstage, smiles, tries to be cool. Which is not easy.

As the keynote speaker of the Democratic National Convention, Obama has two knotty tasks. The first is to make the case for John Kerry and his vice presidential nominee, John Edwards. The second is to make the case for himself. For this is his big break: a once-in-a-lifetime chance to establish himself as a national political figure.

But how? His career in politics has been brief: He spent much of his adult life as a community organizer and a professor. He brings no policy victories to the lectern, no Big Issue attached to his name. All he has is his own story, and an idea about America, and a vivid way of connecting the two. It may or may not be enough.

“I stand here knowing that my story is part of a larger American story,” he tells the crowd. “In no other country on Earth is my story even possible.”

“In no other country on Earth is my story even possible.”

We’ve had 12 years to get used to the message that Obama first imparted that night — years in which he has elaborated and developed it, but never really changed it. So it takes some effort to recall how bracing that message was in 2004. The audience watching him had lived through a stretch of grim years: the calamity of the 2000 election recount, the horror of 9/11, the fear and anger encoded in the Patriot Act, the nightmare in Iraq. They had heard the word “freedom” a lot, usually as an explanation, justification, and self-contained ideal rolled into one: It’s the thing the terrorists hated, and the value that America stood for, and what the 3rd Infantry Division would bring to Baghdad.

Obama, facing the cameras — a little jittery, understandably — puts his emphasis elsewhere. He unfurls the broad vision that will come to define him.

“Alongside our famous individualism,” he says, “there’s another ingredient in the American saga: a belief that we’re all connected as one people. If there is a child on the South Side of Chicago who can’t read, that matters to me, even if it’s not my child. If there is a senior citizen somewhere who can’t pay for their prescription drugs, and having to choose between medicine and the rent, that makes my life poorer, even if it’s not my grandparent. If there’s an Arab-American family being rounded up without benefit of an attorney or due process, that threatens my civil liberties. It is that fundamental belief — I am my brother’s keeper, I am my sister’s keeper — that makes this country work. It’s what allows us to pursue our individual dreams and yet still come together as one American family. E pluribus unum: Out of many, one.”

Hamilton, Richard Rodgers Theatre.

Frank Ockenfels

He’s making a subtle allusion: Without naming a name, he’s connecting his vision to Martin Luther King and inviting us to look at present-day wrongs in the light of King’s gospel of brotherhood. “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere,” Dr. King wrote from his jail cell in Birmingham in 1963. “We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny.” King’s ideal is a familiar refrain in politicians’ speeches, but Obama makes it sound newly vital that night — as he does E pluribus unum. While any political figure can riff on these values, almost no political figure seems to embody them. Obama is the self-described “child of a black man and a white woman, someone who was born in the racial melting pot of Hawaii,” someone whose multihued heritage makes his Christmas dinners look like “a meeting of the U.N. General Assembly.” Out of many, one.

So when he turns to address “those who are preparing to divide us,” it seems that “us” includes, well, everybody. “I say to them tonight: There is not a liberal America and a conservative America — there is the United States of America. There is not a black America and a white America and a Latino America and Asian America — there’s the United States of America.”

The crowd begins to chant his name. He keeps going.

“The pundits — the pundits like to slice and dice our country into red states and blue States: red states for Republicans, blue states for Democrats. But I’ve got news for them, too,” he says, not so jittery now. “We worship an awesome God in the blue states, and we don't like federal agents poking around our libraries in the red states. We coach Little League in the blue states, and, yes, we’ve got some gay friends in the red states. There are patriots who opposed the war in Iraq, and there are patriots who supported the war in Iraq. We are one people, all of us pledging allegiance to the stars and stripes, all of us defending the United States of America.”

Whichever America Obama was describing, we didn’t quite live in it yet.

By that night in July, the election was already showing signs of being a long, bitter trip back to 1968 and the culture-war fights of the baby boomers. (Taking the stage the next night, Kerry will evoke his wartime heroics by saying he’s “reporting for duty,” saluting the camera.) But Obama can’t refight Vietnam: He’s too young for it, and too plainly interested in moving beyond the last generation’s feuds. The November election, he says, will be a choice between “the politics of cynicism,” which expects little of the future and therefore paralyzes action, and “the politics of hope,” which expects much, and thereby empowers. His own choice is obvious, of course. He gives the impression of already living in that future America: optimistic, multiracial, all-inclusive. By the time he answers his own question, the audience is roaring.

“Hope!” he shouts. “Hope in the face of difficulty! Hope in the face of uncertainty! The audacity of hope!”

Obama didn’t just preach hope that night — he created it. That made November sting all the more. Though he won a seat in the U.S. Senate, Kerry lost the presidential election — brought down, in part, by relentless attacks on his heroism in Vietnam. Whichever America Obama was describing, we didn’t quite live in it yet.

A cold, bright afternoon at the Capitol, the president gazing at the crowd, nearly 2 million faces gazing back. “On this day, we gather because we have chosen hope over fear, unity of purpose over conflict and discord,” he says. It is January 20, 2009, and Barack Obama has just taken the oath of office.

His winning campaign — another phenomenon that went from extreme implausibility to world-beating phenomenon — had put the vision of his 2004 speech to the test. He needed a diverse new coalition to form ranks and support him: It did. He needed young people, those coming of age in the new century, to rally to his message of hope: They did. He needed small donors to give, and they gave — enough to beat the reigning family of Democratic politics and the assembled forces of the Republicans. Of course, however broad his coalition, a national election is bound to deepen divisions in the country. So in his victory night speech in Chicago, Obama enlisted the greatest reconciler in our history: “As Lincoln said to a nation far more divided than ours, ‘We are not enemies, but friends. … Though passion may have strained it must not break our bonds of affection.’”

Looking back from 2016, we can see how quixotic Obama’s hope would turn out to be. We all learned, and quickly, that plenty of red states were happy to stay red and blue states were happy to stay blue; that the bonds of affection can be very weak, and passion very strong.

Obama has faced a solid wall of opposition at every turn. His signature victory, health care reform, passed with no bipartisan support. Increasingly he has turned to executive orders to govern — the opposite of the kind of common endeavor he described in Boston, in Chicago, and at the Capitol.

There’s nothing new about partisan opposition, of course. What’s new is the cultural upheaval that came with it. The tea party, in its name and its iconography (the tricornered hats, the actors impersonating the Founding Fathers at rallies), sought to turn a political disagreement into a debate about the nature of America. That sounds extreme, but then Obama had done the same thing, just without the hats. On election night in 2008, he claimed his victory as a sign that “the dream of our founders is alive in our time.” Because he seems to embody the kind of country that he wants America to become, it follows that he is, himself, an argument that needs rebutting. In a feverish bit of metaphor running wild, the validity of his birth certificate was called into question: The man who argued for a more encompassing Americanism had his own Americanism challenged.

Even now, in the closing months of his presidency, this backlash hasn’t abated. The New York businessman who played so outsize a role in attacking Obama’s citizenship has become, improbably, a leading candidate to succeed him. But maybe this was inevitable. Maybe the jolt that Obama gave to our notion of the country and its sense of itself back in 2004 had to inspire an answering jolt. Maybe, to put it lyrically, every action has an equal opposite reaction.

Congress kept voting to repeal Obamacare; Miranda kept writing songs. His first rap at the White House reflected his original insight, one that had come to him while reading Chernow’s biography: This guy led a hip-hop life. Hamilton was fiercely ambitious, he wrote his way out of poverty, he clashed with friends and foes alike, he died in a gunfight. By setting the nation’s founding to the dominant music of the 21st century, Miranda made it feel as timely as your Twitter feed.

The more Miranda wrote, and the more plots and characters he needed to depict, the wider the sonic palette became. On January 11, 2012 — Hamilton’s birthday — he and some friends offered the first performance of a set of Hamilton songs at Lincoln Center’s American Songbook series. There was plenty of hip-hop, sure — including the first performance of one of the Hamilton/Jefferson cabinet rap battles — but there was also Britpop (“You’ll Be Back”), R&B (“Helpless”), and countless flecks of other styles.

Charles Sykes / AP

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