Hamilton: How The Musical Led Me To The Graphic History
Over the last few years, I’d heard about a musical called Hamilton. I’m sure at this point you have too. I knew it was written by Lin-Manuel Miranda, that the music was contemporary hip hop, the cast was diverse and that it had something to do with American history, and that people were going batshit crazy about the thing. I had no idea why it was garnering such rabid fans, but I was convinced it wasn’t something I’d be into. I mean, this English metalhead who’s interest in American history has always been pretty much confined to the Wild West/Frontier times could see nothing about Hamilton that tickled my fancy. It was a story set about a hundred years before my interest began, and was about the life of the first treasury secretary Alexander Hamilton. At the time I couldn’t care less about the play.
And so I ignored it when my friend, a musical fan, would bring it up in conversation and suggest that my wife and I listen to the soundtrack. But still, we had no real interest in Alexander Hamilton and his role as a founding father of the United States, so despite repeated entreaties and recommendations to listen to the play, we never pressed play on the soundtrack.
And then the musical landed on Disney +, but we still ignored it.
However after a few months, and mostly spurred by lockdown boredom, my wife decided that we were going to find out what all the hype was about, and so one Sunday afternoon we pressed play and settled in for the show. Honestly, I wasn’t that taken with it. I didn’t hate it, but had no intention to ever watch it again. My wife, however decided to put it on again a few nights later. I sat on the couch with a book and half listened to the music. I’ll admit to enjoying the songs a little more the second time through, and so when my wife sheepishly asked if I minded if she watched it again on the weekend I had no complaints. I picked up my book again and settled in to listen to the music as I read. I glanced up early in the musical (during the first song, I think) and realized she had the subtitles on so she could catch more of the lyrics which turned out to be a game changer.
I didn’t read my book during this viewing, and was glued to the screen as I absorbed the words that bombarded my ears and eyes. The next time she put it on, I didn’t pick up my book (or my phone). I later asked her why she wanted to keep watching it, and she told me that it was partly to understand what was going on but also because the music caught her and so she wanted to watch it again to see whether she’d like it a bit more.
And she did (so did I).
At this point, so many months since we started down the rabbit hole, we’ll often play the soundtrack for background music or have the TV on with Hamilton playing in the background as we clean, read, craft or in my case work. Needless to say, we’re both big fans of the musical. Something that I never expected to happen.
Perhaps an unintended consequence of the musical, is that both my wife and I have become curious about the historical accuracies and story telling liberties within the musical. Over the last few months, I’ve read more about Alexander Hamilton, Aaron Burr (sir) and Eliza Schuyler Hamilton than I would have ever expected after my first viewing. My wife once spent an entire evening researching Angelica and Peggy after wondering who Angelica’s husband was. Suffice it to say, we’ve spent far more time learning about Hamilton’s place in the American Revolution than either of us would have ever expected.
I’ve come to realize that while the play is a work of genius (from the way the words balance and weave away from each other to the melodies that recur within the play to the choreography – there is so much to take in that there’s no wonder that people fall deeper and deeper into their Hamilton fandom); there’s a few liberties taken with the historical record.
The upside to the obsessive areas of the fandom is that many fans also tend to research the actual historical events and people that we see in the play – my wife and I aren’t unique in having done this.
While Miranda does take some liberties for the most part he gets the essence of the history right (regarding some of the inaccuracies: Angelica was married before she met Hamilton in real life but after in the play; Hamilton met Aaron Burr in 1773 rather than in 1776; there’s more, but if I try and list them then I’ll probably miss one or two and ultimately that’s not the point of this paragraph). But Hamilton, as with so many other movies based on history, was never going to be a one hundred percent historically accurate retelling (it does have to entertain the audience after all) – but it’s close enough so that when you inevitably do decide to do a bit of research you won’t notice any glaring inconsistencies. Given how well the music falls into place the small details he took creative liberty with are more than forgiven in my eyes.
All this is to say that after picking up a few books on Alexander Hamilton, my wife found me a graphic history of the man titled, funnily enough, Alexander Hamilton written by Jonathan Hennessey with art by Justin Greenwood. The reset of the credits includes inking and background assists by Matt Harding, colors by Brad Simpson, and letters by Patrick Brosseau.
The book isn’t a graphic novel or comic in the typical sense, which I found interesting. The majority of the book is told in narration bubbles with the odd supplemental dialogue/speech bubble, which is at odds with modern comics’ tendency to focus on dialogue or internal monologues. The speech bubbles that are in the book tend to be more of an extension What Alexander Hamilton does do is convey the details of the founding father’s life in a very informative and conversational way, and never shies away from depicting Hamilton the man as a less than perfect man. Hennessey puts forward that while Hamilton was a great man, he wasn’t necessarily a good man. He made mistakes, he made decisions that allowed people to take advantage of others, and he was arrogant almost to a fault.
Hennessey’s book gives a lot of context to Miranda’s play, giving more context to lines such as “and the evidence suggests you engaged in speculation.” Speculation was the process of buying the war bonds given to ex soldiers at a pittance hoping the government would pay full value for the pieces of paper that were effectively worthless to the ex-soldiers. With this context, and Hamilton’s position as treasury secretary, it’s much easier to understand why the accusation would be so damning had Hamilton been engaging in the practice. Context such as this would have been hard to include in the play itself, but this is why the book is such a valuable tool – that it’s also easy to read with nice artwork is an added bonus.
Since Hamilton debuted on Disney +, I’ve mentioned to people that I’ve watched it and listened to the soundtrack quite a bit. What they don’t expect is just how much I’ve listened to the soundtrack or watched the movie. I don’t have an exact figure because Disney + doesn’t track it, nor does the old iPod I use in the car and because I’ll use an Alexa device and also Spotify on my phone, I’ve no way to track the exact number of times the songs have played. If I had to guess, I’d wager it’d be close to 500 times between the show and the sound track. Which is crazy when you think about it. Utterly insane.
And yet, I know I’ll watch and listen to it again (probably today).
But I also know that I’ll be going back to that graphic history again because although there’s a lot of truth in the play, I think it’s important to be able to tell where the storytelling takes over – and Alexander Hamilton is a fantastically informative piece of work that taught me new things about the man and his role in shaping America today.
It’s also a really good book, and I’m a sucker for a comic book teaching me history. .