At this point, everyone knows about Hamilton, the hit Broadway hip hop musical by Lin-Manuel Miranda. If you’ve been living under a rock (which is fine, I won’t judge you; there are some very nice rocks in the world), conjure up everything you know about Alexander Hamilton and toss it away in the bit of your brain that’s reserved for potential Jeopardy! answers. You won’t need it here.
Miranda’s musical is an alternate-universe reimagining of the Founding Fathers, where all the major characters are people of color and the American Dream is in full force for everyone, regardless of class or skin color or anything other than fierce determination and a moral compass. But it’s also a world where the future is uncertain and unthinkable horrors can strike even those closest to us—just like the world that we live in. It’s a world with elements of a utopia that we millennials are desperately hoping for. And yet it’s also sharp reality, the pain of work that comes to nothing, trying to convince people that you’re capable, trying to convince yourself.
I graduated last May, and Hamilton has been my chief playlist since December.
Here’s one thing that everyone tells you, but you never believe until you’re living it: postgrad life is hard. You have these dreams, and you have a strong work ethic, but you also have very little money and the wrong kind of experience. “Work hard, and you can achieve anything!” we’re told as children living in the fabled nation of the United States. But this isn’t quite true, not when you’re a postgrad with one foot still stuck in the recession.
At the same time, even as you’re getting turned down for jobs, you’re also battling a sense of guilt. You were one of the lucky ones; you were able to go to college. You know you don’t deserve the dice that fate rolled you any more than Americans without those opportunities. But you still want to make something of yourself. You still want the world to be a place where hard work will get you to a place of success.
Hamilton covers a lot of ground—love, death, war, music, all the greatest themes of what it is to be human—bbut the story at the heart of everything is the tension between Hamilton and Aaron Burr, two men with very different ways of living in the world. Hamilton is all action, buzzing with words and ideas and activity. He comes from nothing, but by the time we meet him, he’s already worked his way to New York, purely by the effect his writing had on his community. He epitomizes hard work and furious ambition and bull-headed authenticity, but he also stands for impulse, for anger, for decisions that we make too fast to see what they’re really doing to us. These forces battle each other without reprieve until the duel that ultimately ends his life.
Burr, on the other hand, says: “I keep all my plans close to my chest/I wait and see which way the wind will blow.” His first piece of advice to Alexander is “talk less, smile more/Don’t let them know what you’re against or what you’re for.” In short, Burr is a schmoozer. He manages to be successful—though never as successful as Hamilton—through his people skills, through hiding who he really is, through keeping his emotions under tight wraps until his fatal mistake at the end of the show. But at his core, he’s vulnerable and he loves deeply and he dreams big, just like Hamilton. Burr’s difference is that he thinks you need to wait for success, to gradually ingratiate yourself with people and gain their approval in order to move up in life. Hamilton barrels ahead, says what he thinks, and is loathed by as many people as he is loved by.
It’s exactly the same dichotomy that so many postgrads are struggling with. Should we be ourselves? Should we hide our personalities under thick layers of elegant agreement? Should we work as hard as we can towards personal goals that we might never achieve? Should we accept the status quo and wait for the wind to bring us something better?
There aren’t any answers in life, and Hamilton doesn’t give us answers, either. It simply shows us what plays out between these two men and these two different ways of living.
The other way that Hamilton appeals to recent graduates is much more visceral—it gives words to the strongest and fiercest emotions that affect us at this time of life. We’ve got the love and expectations of our parents in Dear Theodosia. We’ve got our hopes and worries about romantic love in Helpless, Satisfied, and Burn. We’ve even got a song about those lucky people who are good at networking in Washington on Your Side.
But the quality that underpins every single song in the musical is Hamilton’s wild, desperate, burning ambition, and as a recent graduate, that’s the thing that’s kept me listening at my lowest points. When I make my way to a job interview, I listen to My Shot on the T. When I have to do really hard things—things that scare me—I listen to The Battle of Yorktown until my heart starts beating more slowly. When I send out query letters for my novel, Right Hand Man plays in the background. And the song with the most listens—the song that will always have the most listens—is Non-Stop.
How do you write like you’re running out of time?
Write day and night like you’re running out of time?
Every day you fight like you’re running out of time…
I think we millennials do often feel like we’re running out of time. In this economy, there’s this sense that if we don’t get where we want to go soon, we’re going to be stuck forever, doing things that don’t matter to us, that don’t matter to the world. For me, the most emotional moment of the song comes at the very end, during the all-skate, when Hamilton reprises My Shot. He raps the chorus a couple times, and then, with all the emotion of someone who’s trying as hard as they can and is still not certain that they’re good enough, cries “I AM –” and is suddenly cut off by the chorus.
That emotion—that cry—that’s us. That’s where we are; that’s where we’re starting; we know that the fact that we’re alive is a miracle, but we’re not sure that it’s enough. That line makes my heart hurt every time, but it also makes me determined to keep trying and to try even harder.
And I think that’s why Hamilton has struck such a chord with us, with this generation. It’s not a reflection of the American Dream as much as it is a reframing of it. We’ve been tasked with rewriting the world’s perspectives, like every generation before us, and we’re realizing just how heavy that responsibility is. But also how beautiful.