The Story And Impact Of Hamilton With Jeremy McCarter
From the camps of the Continental Army in the early days of the republic, to the rickety fishing wharf where the country’s most committed radicals helped to invent modern American drama, to the 21st-century juggernaut of Hamilton, American theater has exerted a powerful impact on American life.
As a cultural historian, Jeremy McCarter has studied the role of theater in winning the Revolutionary War and in resolving the contradictions of American life.
As a producer, a veteran of the Public Theater in New York, and the co-author, with Lin-Manuel Miranda, of Hamilton: The Revolution, he has seen firsthand how a play can affect an audience and thereby begin to remake the world. He offers insights on how a theater accrues this unique power and why theater artists have the responsibility to use it
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The Story And Impact Of Hamilton With Jeremy McCarter
This is the full presentation of Jeremy McCarter’s talk titled, Setting the Stage. This is from the 2019 Coca-Cola CMO Summit.
I should say first off that all the lies in this story will be metaphorical. It feels like you’re being rent to limb from limb when your show doesn’t work on Broadway. There are no actual lies in the story. My name is Jeremy McCarter. I’m here to tell you a little bit about the show that you’re going to see. I’m interested, has anyone in the room seen Hamilton? Has everyone listened to the cast album at this point? Is anyone listening to the cast album right now? I’m excited to be with you as you were talking about the power of stories. This is something that’s been on my mind a lot lately and maybe it’s my imagination but I feel like this is something that people are waking up to more and more, the way that stories can build empathy and understanding. The way stories can be fuel for our imaginations. There’s this great line I read a couple of years ago that I never get tired of saying. John Dewey, an American philosopher from the early part of the 20th century talked about the power of imagination.
He said and I quote, “The aims and ideals that move us are generated through imagination.” One of the things we should think about is this capacity that we have to imagine a different world. That is where a better world is going to come from if we’re going to get it. My take on this lately is coming through my experience with Make-Believe Association. It’s a nonprofit that I started here in the city. We create an audio drama podcast and then give people a chance to talk about it. If you need something to listen to on your flight back home, wherever that might be, you can go to the Make-Believe Podcast and listen to it. These specific stories I want to talk about is about Hamilton. Briefly by way of introduction, the way I got connected with this show.
The Birth Of Hamilton
When I was young, I was a drama critic. I was writing for New York Magazine and I wouldn’t say it’s one of the benefits, one of the responsibilities of being a young critic is that you get to pick fights about things. One of the fights that I decided to pick was why is it that musical theater, which is this very live art form, does not feel very connected to what’s going on in the pop culture around it. Why do things feel so closed off? The specific place where I decided to make my stand was on the issue of hip hop. Why is there not more hip hop around Broadway musical theater? It’s a form of storytelling. It’s lively. It’s the dominant youth culture of the planet. There was this vital breakdown between what was going on outside and what was making it inside.
What that sign me up for was years and years of seeing everything that opened in New York City that had any relationship to hip hop. The batting average was not great but I had to go. One night, in the spring of 2007, I went to this Off-Broadway musical by people I’d never heard of in a theater I’d never been to, not expecting a great deal. Within five minutes that night, I recall pointing to the stage and my mind and thinking, “That’s the guy.” The guy was Lin-Manuel Miranda. The show was In The Heights. It was the first thing that Lin had written. It announced to me and soon announced to everybody that something was about to change around the American musical theater.
I wrote a review. I tried to express my enthusiasm for the show and for him. Lin liked the review. A publicist for the show fixed us up. One night, we met for drinks and in that very first conversation, which now would have been the summer of 2008, I asked Lin, “What’s next?” One drink by that point had led to drinks plural. Neither of us is exactly sure what we talked about that night because of how plural the drinks were. We do know that he answered my question. He said, “I’m interested in making a hip hop mixtape about the life of Alexander Hamilton.” I said that was insane because that is insane. Even now, even though it is one of the biggest hits in the entire history of the art form that is a crazy-sounding idea. There’s something special about Hamilton.Broadway sounds different than it did a few years ago because of Hamilton. Click To Tweet
There are a lot of crazy ideas and we get used to them. They no longer seem all that novel. With this one, we know exactly how crazy it seemed at the time because there’s video. Has everybody seen the White House tape? This was from 2009 when Lin went in the early months of the Obama administration to perform at the White House. He tells them what he’s going to do and what is their reaction? They laugh. Everybody laughs at the guy as I laughed at the guy and not just because we were super drunk at the time. If you’ve seen the tape, you know what happens, which is pretty soon they stop laughing. They start listening really intently. As soon as he’s done, they are all on their feet led by the President and the First Lady, giving him a standing ovation. He sent me that tape as soon as they sent it to him. It was on my mind that something was going on here.
Fast forward a couple of years, I joined the artistic staff of the public theater in New York. One of my jobs is to bring in artists to propose projects that we might develop at the theater. The first artist I decided to propose to my boss was my friend Lin-Manuel, who had had this insane-sounding Alexander Hamilton idea. He came in. He met my boss, Oskar Eustis. They fell in love as I knew that they would. The most important thing about those meetings in the summer of 2011 is that Lin gave me the demos from the songs that he had written so far. He gave them to me on a CD, which will tell you how long ago that was.
This is back when I talk to students, have to explain to them, we need to plastic at one point to trade songs with each other, but he gave me this CD. I remember going home and listening to it and the song I specifically remember is Helpless. All of you who’ve listened to it know it. If anyone hasn’t at this point, Helpless is a duet from Act 1. It’s where Alexander and his beloved Eliza meet and they fall in love. The thing about a demo is that Lin was singing all of the voices. He was doing his voice as Hamilton. He was also doing Eliza’s voice up in falsetto range, which was pretty funny to listen to. When it was over, I remember feeling completely knocked out by it.
I remember thinking that it was a perfectly turned pop song, the way Crazy In Love is a perfectly turned pop song. That also covered an extraordinary amount of narrative distance and that is hard to do. Think about when Helpless starts, where the story is and think about when Helpless ends, where the story isn’t. All of the narrative distance that has so effortlessly been traversed in those 3.5, 4 minutes. That day, I listened to that song and I remember thinking, if he finishes this thing, it’s going to be the best musical written in our generation. A lot of people will think that that is in fact what it is.
The World Premier
Fast forward a couple of years, the public theater is doing the world premiere of the show in January of 2015. That night, Lin says to me, “There’s going to be a book about the show and you should write it.” My response was, “No, thank you.” I was working on a different book project at the time. I didn’t understand how you can make a book that would be fit to stand alongside the show that he had made. We did figure it out and we made this book together. Here’s a life lesson about the early days of Hamilton. At this point, the show has opened Off-Broadway. There is a lot of confidence that they’ve turned into something good. Good things were happening. I remember even after opening night Off-Broadway, the reviews had run. There was still an open question about whether this show had any life ahead of it. Would Hamilton find an audience on Broadway?
The decision to move uptown when they moved it was a gamble on the show. They thought it would be able to find an audience. Thank God, it has. The best part about the gig honestly is that, since then I’ve been able to talk to lots of students about it, try to get them excited about what this show can mean for them. How they connect to it. This phenomenon, what exactly it is that you’re going to see, everyone’s got the facts, but if anyone is lagging, these are the headlines. That summer in 2015, the show opened on Broadway and won eleven Tony Awards. It won the Pulitzer Prize for drama. Lin won the MacArthur Genius Fellowship and most importantly of all, Lin was named two People’s Sexiest Man Alive.
In some individual tributes, Dick Cheney came to see it at the public theater and had a good time. Michelle Obama also saw it and said and I quote, “The best piece of art in any form I have ever seen in my life.” The cast album has gone triple platinum. What I like better is that at one point the cast album of this Broadway musical was the number two album on the Billboard rap charts. It was only number two because the number one album was the Hamilton mixtape, which was the album of covers and songs inspired by the show.
Hamilton is a genuinely international phenomenon. It is being performed on stage on the West End of London, which I being Irish love. Because it means among other things, Lin has written a show so good he is making 1,500 British people every night cheer the end of a war that they lost. I’ve had a lot of occasions over the last few years to think about this question and as you’re watching it, I hope you’ll think about this too. What makes this phenomenon? Not just for the British cheering when they lost but for everything. What is it about this show that is making this story have this effect on so many people in the world? I have some theories and these are all things that you can test as you’re watching it.
How Hamilton Affects People
One is thinking about this as you’re watching this story about the Founding Fathers on stage. When have you seen these guys on stage or onscreen before? There is this weird blind spot. Every year, there’s a new shelf of thick biographies about the Founding Fathers. They’re on our money, they’re in our textbooks, the oil paintings. We all can picture on the backs of our eyelids, but have you seen the founding of this country dramatized? I can give you a couple of examples to get you started. There was the John Adams mini-series on HBO. There was that Mel Gibson movie years ago. There’s a show for kids, the name of which escapes me. There’s 1776, the other Broadway musical about the Founding Fathers.
Am I missing any? That’s insane. As you’re watching it, think about what a neglected piece of cultural real estate this has been. Part of the thing that we’re responding to is we have these associations because of the money and the textbooks and everything else. He’s now found a way to make us invested in what happens to them. That’s all drama is. It’s watching someone make choices that have stakes where there’s a risk of disaster if the choices go wrong. He makes us take these figures that we’ve spent our entire lives looking at and assuming that everything was going to work out for the best and make us wonder, it’s not going to work out for the best.The real value of stories is social, that there is the power of the story as you experience it. Click To Tweet
That’s one, the neglected story and the fact that you’re going to be seeing these characters depicted maybe for the first time dramatically. The second thing is to think about the way that the show collapses the distance between the material and the people who are taking it in. As you look around at the many different people in the audience, the many different people who we know have fallen in love with the show. It is extending a hand intentionally to many different people. You will hear in the music. If you listen closely, you’ll hear little references to the Beatles. There are lyrical quotations in there from the golden age of hip hop. People who love Broadway musicals will catch some of those references to Rodgers and Hammerstein and others.
Lin intentionally wanted to open all the doors and all the windows to give people a chance to have access to this. The biggest way that they did that is through the casting. This is something that we all take for granted as the way that the show had to happen with this cast of actors who do not look like the characters that they are depicting. The way that this came about, remember in the early days, Lin thought he was making a mixtape. He didn’t think of this as something that was going to be on stage. The look of the actors doesn’t matter. He’s thinking about voices. He’s thinking about the people who can do the hip hop and R&B songs that he’s primarily writing in those days.
He’s thinking about people like the rapper Common to play George Washington. He’s thinking about friends of his who can play other roles in the workshops that he wants to do. Before long, it’s clear that the actors who are best situated to play these roles are going to be primarily actors of color. It was Tommy Kail, the show’s director, who raised that to a principal. He said that Hamilton was going to be, I’m thinking I’m getting this quote right, “A story about America then, told by America now.” You can see in the reaction, particularly in these student groups where there are public school students coming to see it, to see people on stage who look like them playing these roles is an enormous and beautiful benefit of this show for the society.
One of the things you’ll see on stage that you can infer backward from there that is as important as anything else to why it is this phenomenon is a certain quality in the collaboration. The way that the people made it work together to get that thing on stage and be as concise and as tightly constructed as it is. There’s this paradox about Hamilton. It’s worth spending a minute on. This is a single-handed achievement like few in the entire history of this art form. Lin had the original concept. He composed the music, he wrote the lyrics, he wrote the libretto and he performed the lead in the original company. Those are five hats and it is not at all intuitive that anyone would play more than one or two of them maybe three.
There are a handful of people in the last 130 or 140 years of American theater who can say that they’ve done something like that. On the one hand, it’s an incredible single-handed achievement. On the other hand, it’s a perfect expression of collaboration. Lin had a group of people around him that he called his cabinet, his director Tommy Kail, the choreographer Andy Blankenbuehler, and the orchestrator and music director Alex Lacamoire. He relies on these guys to take the ideas in his head and find the ways to express them theatrically, to stage the actors, to flesh out the orchestrations, all the things they get from what’s in his head to what you’re going to see tonight. The complexity of this show is staggering and if you look closely, you’ll see it.
As Tommy Kail said because these guys had all worked together In The Heights, their shorthand is very short. It was the only way that they get this show staged. What you’ll see the product of that collaboration, the word that I have come up with for it is virtuosity. There is something you can’t turn away from when you were watching a bunch of people working at the very top of what they can do with their craft and doing it with total commitment. I encourage you. It is always so tempting to watch the lead actor, the one who’s singing the lead vocal. If you can now and then look to the ensemble actors, the ones who tend to wear the parchment-colored costumes, watch how the stage is almost never still behind the primary action, the way you’ll see people very intentionally moving in and out of the space to move a chair, to watch, to listen to what’s going on.
There’s a reason for this. There isn’t this vitality that Andy Blankenbuehler, the choreographer wanting to capture on stage. He knew that most people were never going to notice why an actor is in a certain position sitting on that step instead of that step or why the cross happens on this line instead of that line, or even on this word instead of that word. The total effect of it is something that resonates with people emotionally, even if they don’t know exactly why it’s doing that. I would say the specific place I hope you’ll watch, everybody knows the song The Room Where It Happens in Act 2. This is Aaron Burr’s incredible Act 2 show stopper.
People sometimes ask me, “What’s your favorite song on the show?” Helpless will be my favorite song because I will always hear Lin’s voice in my head, singing Eliza in falsetto. When I see it live, it’s The Room Where It Happens because of how dazzling the choreography is. I want you to think about the last chorus as you’re watching it. There’s a point where the room where it happens could end and everybody would think it was a great song. There’s one more chorus that, if I remember it, it was Andy Blankenbuehler and Alex, the orchestrator asked Lin for one more time around the chorus so they could put a big button on it.
What you see here is a pure expression of how this collaboration, this mind-meld of these people led to this astonishing moment of musical theater. There aren’t many in this show or any place else. People seem to like the show. It seems to be having a good long run around the country. What is it leading to? What are the results of this show? What is it doing to people? To me, when I think about the effect of the phenomenon, I start with the people who are inside the machine as it was starting to move. I think about the original actors. What they told me, it meant to them to be doing this show. I think about Leslie Odom Jr. The astonishing actor who created the role of Aaron Burr and won the Tony for Best Lead Performance for it.
He told me that as a result of doing this show, whereas before he had only felt connected to African-American history, he now felt connected to American history, including the Founders. He said it was a result of walking in their shoes. Daveed Diggs told me that if he had seen someone who looked like Chris Jackson playing George Washington when he, Daveed, was fifteen years old, he said a lot more things would have seemed possible to him in his life. Some of the first people who got to see this show were young people, the students from junior high schools around New York City who came to see it. A lot of them are first or second-generation American. What was their response to this phenomenon?Hamilton is a pure expression of collaboration where people’s mind-meld led to the astonishing musical theater moment. Click To Tweet
Their teachers ask them and I got to talk with some of them. What they said are things like, “It meant a lot to me to see people who looked like me up there. It meant a lot to see the story presented in a way that resonated with me and at least a couple of them had this view that it makes me feel like I belong here. That is a very beautiful and very potent thing these days. What I would submit to you about this phenomenon that you’re about to take part in is that we are still, now, 40 plus years into it, much closer to the beginning than to the end. Every hit musical after it’s been around for a few years gets licensed so that schools and amateur groups can do it. I talked to the people who specialize in licensing musicals to schools. What’s going to happen when this one gets licensed? They were unanimous and feeling like it is going to be the most licensed show in America some years, hence no one knows exactly how many. The producer knows how many.
What does that mean? That means that now where you’ve got 6 or 7 professional productions. You’ve got people having this potent emotional reaction to it. A few years from now, you’re going to have 800 productions of Hamilton happening around the United States. The year after that another 800 and these are going to be teenagers and college-aged students who are going to be having maybe the kinds of experiences that the original actors did and that those students saw had when they came to see it early on. What I want you to think about tonight, imagine you are let’s say 16, 17 years old. Imagine that you are watching your friends up on stage, your best friends, and the drama club kids are getting to do this. Imagine what it would feel like to see them being the ones who are putting on this pageant of the founding of the country. Even more if you have a very active imagination, imagine that you are up there doing it and how it might feel to be singing those songs or watching people sing it.
Hamilton: The Revolution
Imagine it would make you feel about the country to be part of something like that and to be going through what is going to be like a high school rite of passage of the 2020s. There’s a crazy way, it seems so crazy that we’re a few years in and still feels this but I genuinely don’t know exactly what this show is capable of doing. I don’t know what its ultimate effect is going to be on the country. As you see it, be thinking ahead to that because we know that at some point that’s coming. There’s this idea behind calling the book Hamilton: The Revolution. Revolution has two meanings. The show, Hamilton, is about the American Revolution of the 18th century. All of these things I’ve been describing now, the show is itself a revolution. Broadway sounds different than it did a few years ago because of the show. The lives of the people who made the show are very different than they were a few years ago. The people who have seen it have very different lives than they did.
There’s a specific way though that these two revolutions are one and the same revolution. The first editor of Alexander Hamilton’s papers said that the dominant purpose of his life was to try to create a national sentiment. Let’s try to make Americans think of themselves as part of something bigger, a unified project. When I look around and see all the ways that people have responded to the show, the ones who have gotten to be part of making it, the ones who have reacted to it with such love and affection. I think about the show as in a real way, a continuation of Alexander Hamilton’s mission, that project, that creation of a national sentiment.
The Real Value of Stories
That all goes into overdrive when it becomes like the hit High School Musical of the 2020s. There’s one more thing I want to talk about before I go. It’s a parting wish. It’s not a piece of information I can deliver because I’m not so sure of it yet. I guess it’s more of a question that something that maybe you can all think about with me as you’re watching the show and in the days ahead. This whole conference is about the power of the story. It’s possible this has already come up. When I talk at the beginning of this speech about the value and the power of stories, the things I went to were all individual things about building a capacity for empathy, about building our understanding, about making a connection.
I have this idea lately more and more, especially as I’ve watched the Hamilton Phenomenon from very up close. It’s possible that the real value of stories is social, that there is the power of the story as you experience it. Singular but that the real power is that you experience it plural or the point of a story is that we are having this experience in the same place at the same time. I have seen crowds moved to crazy euphoria by this show. One in particular a night that I happened too late to go into the Hamilton book. I can try to give you a sense of what I mean. This was in April of 2016. It was towards the end of the Obama administration. The President and Mrs. Obama decided to invite Lin back and now to bring everybody to perform essentially like a command performance of an hour of material from the show. The closing number that day was One Last Time. This is Washington’s farewell address. The numbers were performed in the East Room of the White House. I want you to try to picture this.
You’ve got Chris Jackson playing George Washington. He created the role on Broadway. Chris is an African-American actor from Cairo, Illinois. You’ve got Chris standing about here. Here’s Chris. Here is the 8-foot-tall Gilbert Stuart portrait of George Washington. When you close your eyes and picture George Washington, that’s what you picture. Here is Chris. Here is George Washington. George Washington, the slave-owning first president. Chris Jackson, the African-American actor singing the actual words of George Washington’s farewell address in the East Room of the White House, which is already a crazy thing to be thinking about fact and fiction colliding this way. Right here is Barack Obama. From where I’m sitting, without even having to turn my head, it’s like this insane fusion of past and present of what’s real and what’s dreamed. The things that would have seemed impossible at one point are happening right here.
My favorite thing about it is that this whole side of the room back here is high school students and they know it as well as I do. What they’re seeing is something astonishing about American possibility. All jumbled up inside of itself like this. Those experiences that we share are the ones that are hard to talk about because you don’t get to go ask everybody what they thought. I submit that it is this creation of the you plural and the experience that we have that is somewhere deep down in the power that this show has. It’s funny that Boyd’s talk before mine was the world that he was describing.
I’ve seen this statistic recently that’s been on my mind a lot where Hamilton is concerned. This is from EO Wilson’s book, The Origin Of Creativity. It’s short and super interesting if anyone is interested in these subjects. The statistic that anthropologists spend time with people who lead lives close to the ones that are far back ancestors lived, hunting and gathering. Here’s what they found from listening to the way that these people talk to each other. During the daytime, when the work of the group must be done, what they say to each other is only 6% of stories because there’s no time. There are more important things, so to speak that must be discussed. At nighttime, around the fireside, the talk that they share with each other is 81% stories. This thing that happens when people take in a story together and are moved by it together and have this point of reference to talk about. It seems to me it’s not a stretch to say that there’s something essential to our humanity that the power of a story is in all of us taking it in together.
Wilson’s gloss on this is that we should understand the birth of the humanities that happened by the firelight of the earliest human encampments. I hope you have a good time. People seem to when they see Hamilton. Chances are it’ll get a standing ovation. Be ready for that. If you have a chance, find a way to talk about it. Find a way to compare notes on the experience you had with the people that other people, the experiences that the other people around you. I guess there’s tomorrow. You’ll all be together again tomorrow. There’s breakfast. You maybe need something to talk about. You start with Hamilton because if you’re coming from lots of different places, your background is not going to be the background of anyone, even someone very close to you. It seems to me that it is precisely through its ability to bring lots of different people. To open up this intersection where we can all find each other and try to make sense of the world around us. That the real power of Hamilton and of all stories laps. I appreciate you giving me some of your time. I’ll be at the dinner if anyone wants to talk about any of this stuff. Thank you.
About Jeremy McCarter
Jeremy McCarter is the coauthor of the #1 New York Times bestseller Hamilton: The Revolution, with Lin-Manuel Miranda. In the book fans have dubbed “the Hamiltome”, McCarter takes us behind the scenes of the groundbreaking musical that Michelle Obama called “the best piece of art in any form that I have ever seen in my life.” A common thread in McCarter’s work is the power of storytelling to drive social change.
With his newest book, Young Radicals, McCarter turns his attention to the passionate idealists of the early twentieth century, whose stories resonate with today’s politically engaged generation. Ron Chernow, author of Alexander Hamilton, called Young Radicals a “poetic, impassioned book… just the literary antidote we need in the Age of Trump.”
In 2017, McCarter launched the Make-Believe Association (www.mbelieve.org), which presents free readings followed by “meaningful town halls”—places to build the kind of community ties that a deeply divided America needs. Make-Believe Association launched Make-Believe Podcast in December 2018, sharing audio dramas and audience conversations recorded live.
During his years at New York’s Public Theater McCarter created and directed Public Forum, a series exploring the intersection of art and society. He has written on culture and politics for The New York Times, Newsweek, and New York Magazine.
In his talks, McCarter draws on the lessons of Young Radicals and his involvement with Hamilton to unpack how dreamers and storytellers drive social change.