Hillary Clinton is, so far, the only declared Presidential candidate known to have seen “Hamilton”: she attended a performance of the show at the Public Theatre, in March, to which she responded with evident delight. The musical—as the world knows by now—draws on rap, pop, jazz, and a variety of other musical genres to tell the story of Alexander Hamilton, the first secretary of the Treasury, tracing the arc of his life from his illegitimate birth in poverty, in the Caribbean, to his death, in a duel, at the hands of Aaron Burr, the sitting Vice-President. The show, which was composed and written by Lin-Manuel Miranda, who also takes the title role, was conceived at the start of Barack Obama’s Presidency; its transfer to Broadway, this summer, coincided with the beginning of the end of the Obama years. With its youthful, almost entirely non-Caucasian cast, and its celebration of the possibilities inherent in building a new nation, the poetry of “Hamilton” is a reminder of the gleaming sense of hope that the election of 2008 engendered—still salutary to recall, despite some inevitable disappointment at the reality of prosaic governance during the past seven years.
The remaining candidates can now listen to “Hamilton,” even if they are too busy visiting Iowa to make a trip to Manhattan: today sees the iTunes release of the “Hamilton” cast album, executive-produced by the Roots, with the CD version to follow in October. This week, NPR has been streaming all two hours, twenty-two minutes, and thirty-five seconds of it on its Web site. Hip-hop aficionados have been scanning the songs for embedded references, while Miranda—whose protean talents include a mastery of the art form known as Twitter—has been retweeting amateur listeners’ efforts at singing snatches of his songs, under the hashtag #Hamiltunes.
For the large field of candidates who think themselves fit to run the country, the history of Hamilton—and the history of “Hamilton”—makes the album well worth playing while driving along in the campaign R.V., or at least worth delegating to a bright young staff member to listen to. (Among many other things, “Hamilton” is a celebration of the bright young staff member: it was as General George Washington’s military secretary in the Revolutionary War that the unknown, unconnected Hamilton first rose to any degree of power.) The show will certainly not appeal to all: John Kasich, the governor of Ohio, is on record as having found a CD by the Roots so offensive that he threw it in the trash, a surprisingly wasteful act for a fiscal conservative. And Chris Christie, the pugnacious governor of New Jersey, has plenty of reason not to be amused by the show’s comic-derogatory references to his state: “Everything is legal in New Jersey,” Hamilton and his son, Philip, sigh in unison, before the latter heads off to fight a duel on the western bank of the Hudson. For others, though, the way that the show filters the concerns of the late eighteenth century through the lens of the twenty-first could make for enlightening listening.