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Introduction: Hamilton and the Poetics of America

Melenia Arouh and Aikaterini Delikonstantinidou

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Who lives, who dies, who tells your story?
(Hamilton: An American Musical, Lin-Manuel Miranda)

1For those following the course of its reception since its premiere in 2015, there is little doubt that Hamilton: An American Musical is not just theater. Rather, it is a theater-inflected cultural phenomenon embedded in America’s efforts to make sense of a national selfhood in crisis and an increasingly beleaguered image, which probably also explains why it has been so variably understood and contested. The way Hamilton has reflected, fed into and off these efforts does not have to do only with the musical as a “self-contained” work of art—if such a thing ever existed; that is, its inception, design, composition, or presentation. Perhaps most importantly, it correlates with how the work of art has been negotiated in the realm of popular culture and beyond, in international public discourse; that is, its reception, broadly understood. Hence the main premise of this issue of the European Journal of American Studies: how Hamilton has been talked and written about, the remarkable range of response it has attracted within America, and throughout America’s geocultural ambit, signposts attempts at fathoming America’s shifting poetics; in other words, the intricate ensemble of meaning-making tools and procedures by which the functioning of contemporary American culture can be accessed and assessed.

2There is a special place reserved in the theater for people whose life, though grounded in verifiable fact, has slid into the orbit of myth. Founding Father Alexander Hamilton is one such case. And Lin-Manuel Miranda, the creative genius behind the musical, approached him precisely as a liminal mythic figure, and thus as a cultural text of distributed authorship, because that is what mythic figures truly are. Hamilton the musical, then, can be safely construed as an instantiation of Hamilton the myth, a thread woven in the mythic matrix of America’s beginnings. As an instance of reception that has itself been generatively received to the point of becoming a cultural phenomenon, Hamilton arguably betrays more about the context in which—and the intentions from which—it sprang and on which it landed than about the primary mythical material itself. Although it gestures back to the past, its strengths, its importance lie with how it speaks to its (our) own present, while also hinting at the future.

3The origins of the musical are well-documented both in the published material accompanying its release and in Miranda’s interviews. In 2008, while on holidays, Miranda read Ron Chernow’s biography of Alexander Hamilton. Soon after, he conceived of Hamilton’s life story as a hip-hop concept album that adapted the biographical material to retell the foundational myth of the American nation through the rise and fall of its first treasury secretary. In 2015, Hamilton: An American Musical, the descendant of that earlier album, opened on Broadway, setting new records for ticket sales and prices. The popularity of the musical started to peak following the 2016 Tony Awards, when it won 11 of its 16 nominations, yet it was the release of the cast album that consolidated Hamilton’s place in popular culture. The album, which included the majority of the staged performance, allowed audiences other than the theater-going elite to access the production. Importantly, it also allowed for an American cultural phenomenon to become viral around the world. Indeed, international audiences proved eager to consume anything directly attached to the show. Within and without the U.S., the public’s imagination was wooed by the narrative of the flawed but charming central character trying to survive and succeed through sheer will and determination; a perfect embodiment of the American Dream. Popular culture enthusiastically embraced the lyrics, tunes, personae, and new spins on the central themes of heroism and antiheroism, marking the musical as a seminal cultural work for the new millennium.

4Hamilton’s reverberations have rippled throughout popular culture, as the musical turned into cultural capital for celebrities, who heartily endorsed the show and participated in the #Ham4All challenge: singing their favorite parts to raise money for the Immigrants: We Get the Job Done Coalition. Other creative offshoots followed both in the realm of professional artistry and of fandom, in fan-driven online spaces where action and participation varied, including interpretations that deviated from the main narrative, artistic activities, even illegal distribution of bootlegs. Yet, the politics of Hamilton’s reception are not limited to the queer fan readings, and other politically progressive alt-treatments it attracted, but extend to the musical’s political positioning given Miranda’s public support of the Democratic party and his open criticism of Donald Trump’s first nomination. Not only was the cast recruited for the 2016 pro-vote campaign, but it also responded to the visit of Vice President-elect Mike Pence by directly addressing him at curtain call and urging him to consider their message of diversity and inclusion. The “BoycottHamilton” Twitter trend that Trump supporters initiated immediately afterwards proved that, in the polarized climate of the 2016 election, it was impossible for a cultural product of such sweep to remain neutral. Hamilton’s political impact extended to Joe Biden’s inauguration as President, as the poet laureate Amanda Gorman incorporated Hamilton lyrics in her recital; to the pre-recorded performance of Dear Theodosia during a congressional event for the one year anniversary of the January 6th attack on the Capitol; to even Queen Elizabeth’s Platinum Jubilee celebrations in the U.K. Evidently, there is a connecting line to be drawn between the political disputes over federal powers dramatized in the musical, Miranda’s message of political optimism, and the polarizing actions that shaped and came to define the political period since 2016.

5Today, the Hamilton phenomenon is not limited to the constellation of creative products and processes, official or fan-made, bearing its “trademark,” nor to the dynamics of audience reception, both celebratory and hostile, that have been woven in and around the said products. Artists and scholars, as well as professionals and practitioners from various realms of culture, knowledge, and praxis have been gravitating in increasing numbers toward the field of forces that is Hamilton, thus further amplifying the phenomenon. The critical discourse that is centered and expands on the many strands of history, agency, representation, and access constituting Hamilton as a cultural text—but also on its implications for the very political and social ecologies that inform it—is rapidly multiplying and diversifying. However, despite the array of productive effort at gauging what Hamilton reveals about America to itself and the world, as well as how and why it does so, this discourse remains dispersed and fragmented in reports, social media posts and threads around the world wide web.

6This special issue of the European Journal of American Studies was conceived as an attempt at accommodating the said discourse in its interdisciplinary complexity. That is why we invited researchers and scholars from within and without the arts and humanities to tease out the historical connections on which Hamilton rests; put forward intersectional readings of the many identities and categories of difference compiled in it; reflect on its import in terms of aesthetics, ethics, and/or politics; interrogate it as a site where rehearsals of social and cultural change involving America but also the rest of the world are currently performed. Readers will find that the five authors whose articles comprise this issue expound on an exciting variety of topics.

7In the first article of this issue, “‘I Put Myself Back in the Narrative’: Hamilton as Founders Fanfiction,” Jeremy Brett begins by explaining that Hamilton the musical is not designed as an accurate depiction of the founding father’s life. Rather, it is part of Miranda’s own perceptions and reflections on Hamilton’s life story, in which he inserts his own, and his family’s, experience. Miranda, true to his lyrics, places himself in the narrative, places people of color in the narrative. In this regard, for Brett, the musical follows the modality of fan fiction. Following this particular lens, Brett explores how musical numbers, such as “Satisfied” and “Helpless,” explore different points of view, offering varied interpretations of the same events. As he explains, this becomes commentary on the subjective nature of history and of the intrinsic conflicts between canonical and fan interpretations. It makes sense, then, that the musical omits several core parts of Hamilton’s legacy; this, for Brett, is a statement on interpretation and re-imagining of what was to meet expressive and narrative demands. Miranda’s Hamilton is a new Hamilton; one who encompasses Miranda’s own understanding and asks primarily: “What if Alexander Hamilton were a particular kind of upwardly mobile and striving immigrant, one like Miranda’s own parents?” To answer this question, the narrative of the musical must engage with a variety of issues pertinent to the American experience and embrace the interpreting and re-interpreting that needs to occur for a satisfying result. And this, in turn, inspires a whole new set of imaginings and fictions, of both Hamilton and Miranda, by both the audience and Miranda himself.

8Ismael Lopez Medel, in his article “Social Media Will Tell Your Story: The Digital Strategy of #Ham4Ham,” explores the ways in which the campaign #Ham4Ham assisted in establishing Hamilton as a worldwide phenomenon. Although not unique in Broadway’s history, this campaign allowed fans to experience the performance during the peak of its success satisfying both fan demand but also extending the show’s presence in popular culture. As Lopez establishes, the campaign became the “perfect vehicle for communicating the brand's values through social media by speaking the show's language, offering genuine content for the fans, creating original performances, and bringing the cast members and musicians close to the fan base.” Marathon Digital, the company behind the campaign’s success, employed a unique methodology, “Creative Proximity,” that utilized and coordinated the show’s content, social media channels, and the fan bases’ enthusiasm. Lopez takes the time to describe the original lottery process, the intentions and creative impulses that led to its expansion, and the warm response by the public. Even if not all fans won the golden tickets, they still experienced a performance intended specifically for them. If anything, this was a community building enterprise that succeeded in establishing a connection between audiences and performers. Given the proliferation of digital spaces for fan communities in the last ten years, it is reasonable that the next phase of this campaign draws the most attention in the article, and Lopez thoroughly accounts for its loose nature and inclusion of both the cast and other contemporary celebrities. Independently of other considerations, Lopez highlights Miranda’s sui generis intentions that established him, more than anything else, as a creative and marketing genius; as someone willing to connect with the fans and link his work to the present moment.

9Hannah Schoch continues the discussion in her article “Grasping the Complicity and Multiplicity of Hamilton. An American Musical: Genre Circulation and the Politics of Pop Culture Pedagogy,” by exploring the complex nature of Hamilton through the lens of genre theory and in relation to the pedagogical possibilities that opened up as the show became a major force in popular culture. This popularity allowed educators to utilize Hamilton as a versatile tool set to a variety of subjects and topics; the musical became an entry point for education. To explain this, Schoch reviews the broad range of genres constituting the fabric of Hamilton, identifying their capacity to connect with a variety of audiences at different points of entry. In her stellar analysis, Schoch proposes a multidiciplinary approach to genre that will allow us to conceptualize it not simply as taxonomy but as capable of multiplicity and regulation at the same time. To this end, she relies on film, literary, and media study, social science and philosophy, linguistics and dialogic communication to understand the magnitude and complexity of genre, its role in our studies, and in the formation of meaning both for the individual and the community. The value of such a multidisciplinary approach is that it succeeds in understanding a dynamic at the very core of Hamilton as a cultural text. To understand Hamilton we need to understand genre, and to begin to understand genre we need to acknowledge the multiplexity of its nature. Schoch examines not just the musical but all the transmedia offsprings and reiterations through the same theoretical lens to locate their presence, influence and capacity to engage a diversity of audiences because of the complex genre network the musical itself carries.

10Anne Melissa Potter, in her article “1776 and Hamilton: Comparing “Founding” Histories in Musical Theater,” proposes an analysis of both texts in their respective historical context, noting the political specificities that dictate their narrative of these founding myths. Both musicals comment on controversial matters, and as Potter writes early on, both texts take part in Founders Chic, attributing leadership and greatness to the founding fathers of a nation built on the principle of liberty, establishing them as the great men of history. However, how does this mythologizing tackle the tension between slavery and a nation founded on liberty? Potter argues that 1776 is more critical of this in terms of narrative, although written and performed by white men, whereas Hamilton avoids the subject in its narrative but addresses it through the cast and musical style. Yet, these musicals were written at different periods—the Civil Rights era of the 1960s and the alleged post racial society of our present; their historical present dictates how they will interpret and criticize history. Potter’s analyses of both musicals are detailed and attend to both the form and content of these texts. For instance, she notes the characters included, the music and lyrics, to reveal the complexities of the stories and the underlying issues. Potter also spends considerable time discussing the endings of the shows, noting how Hamilton concludes with a more traditional musical finale, which, however, positions Hamilton’s wife Eliza at the center of the narrative and pushes Hamilton to the silent margins. In this finale, Potter well-observes the importance of bodies of color on stage and the kind of hopeful signal the musical offers by allowing Eliza, as the interpretation goes, to see how far her story of his story has traveled.

11In the final article of this issue, “Young, Scrappy and Hungry Immigrant Hustle: Entrepreneurship through the eyes of Hamilton,” Geoffrey M. Graybeal places the musical within the context of entrepreneurship as this relates to the history of the U.S. in general and Alexander Hamilton, the first Treasury secretary, specifically. Graybeal rightly places the origin of this exploration to Miranda’s early performance in the Obama White House, noting both Miranda’s risky move to perform something like that, and the instant virality of the youtube video that cemented the popularity of the work even before the work was finished. Within this context, Graybeal explains the intertwining natures of hip-hop and hustle culture as these are defined and shaped by what is generally understood as the U.S. entrepreneurial spirit. By establishing such a context of analysis, the writer successfully explains Hamilton as a type of celebration for a self-made American entrepreneur. What proves very intriguing in Graybeal’s synthesis is the inclusion of Miranda himself, as the main creative force, in this context. He notes Miranda’s own origin story and evident (and self-confessed) hustle ethic; he seems to bear all the marks of a true entrepreneur. This line of thinking opens up the discussion to the subject of immigration, linking Miranda, Hamilton, and Hamilton to a specific blend of U.S. politics (past and present) and entrepreneurial spirit; an idealized version of the American Dream, of idealism and opportunism, both lived and imagined. Graybeal’s decision to frame the musical within a context of entrepreneurship offers a plethoric and effective lens that manages to bring together U.S. history, its political present, and the economics behind Hamilton’s success. This blend seems to transcend the limits of the specific work of art as Miranda’s entrepreneurial spirit built and promoted a small empire of endeavors and creatives that are still central and popular in American popular culture.

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References

Electronic reference

Melenia Arouh and Aikaterini Delikonstantinidou, Introduction: Hamilton and the Poetics of AmericaEuropean journal of American studies [Online], 18-1 | 2023, Online since 19 February 2023, connection on 24 May 2024. URL: http://journals.openedition.org/ejas/19221; DOI: https://doi.org/10.4000/ejas.19221

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About the authors

Melenia Arouh

Melenia Arouh (MA, Ph.D.) is Associate Professor at the American College of Greece—Deree College, and currently serves as the head of the Communication department. Her teaching includes courses in film and television studies, American cinema, and the philosophy of art. Her publications are mostly on film aesthetics and philosophical approaches to the study and interpretation of films. Her research interests extend to media studies, fan activity, and popular culture.

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Aikaterini Delikonstantinidou

Aikaterini Delikonstantinidou (MA, MEd, Ph.D.) teaches in the Department of Theater Studies, University of Athens, where she also completed her postdoctoral research focusing on applications of myth-based digital theatre in adult education settings. Her monograph, titled Latinx Reception of Greek Tragic Myth: Healing and Radical Politics was released by Peter Lang in 2020. Her research interests include theatre and the performing arts, myth’s multi/transmedia reception, education, and the digital paradigm.

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The text only may be used under licence CC BY-NC 4.0. All other elements (illustrations, imported files) are “All rights reserved”, unless otherwise stated.

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