A few weeks ago, my family watched “Hamilton” the musical (on Disney+, for a whopping $8.99/month). Even my dad, who has never cared for musicals, loved it. It’s an incredible production and a work of creative genius. Although its popularity and cult following will inevitably wane, it has already become one of America’s greatest myths in this past decade.
My first taste of Hamilton took place the day before Thanksgiving of freshman year. During a three hour car ride with my sister, we decided to play to the soundtrack, in order, and see how far we could get. It required some focus, and I’m sure I missed bits the first time round. But the story stuck with me, in a place deeper than mere entertainment. Looking back, I can say it was those songs that fueled in large part my own ambition, which surfaced soon thereafter. (I am not sure if that was a positive turn, since it took several years to tame my ambition enough to allow contentment back into my life.)
Still, my engine has been revving and I can draw it directly (though not completely) to the soundtrack of a musical about a man who died hundreds of years ago. And I was just one teenager in the sea of excitement that has been the hype around “Hamilton.” I can only imagine how many others have been influenced, even in tiny amounts, towards ambition, honor, and a life devoid of passivity. The impact on American society must be massive.
The musical succeeds because it is not just the retelling, but the modern retelling of America’s rise. There is certainly well-crafted commentary on this, but “Hamilton” takes certain key topics of today’s discourse, namely immigration and the history of slavery, and keeps them in clear view. But it’s more than just history matched to today’s society.
Hamilton is the modern myth of the founding of the country. As Lewis and Tolkien understood, myths are the bedrock of society, and without strong myth, there can be no strong culture. Over the years, critics and revisionist historians have been taking down the American founding fathers one by one, emphasizing their faults and imperfections to destroy any mystique around them. But the myth is an incredible one that cannot lightly be forgotten - it is the foundation of a nation that grew, for better or worse, into an international superpower.
To clarify, by “myth,” I don’t necessarily mean a story that is not true. I’ll poach Jordan Peterson’s notion that a myth is, in many ways, more true than the physical world. It is the culmination of things we feel subconsciously and collectively, the ideals and dreams we somehow know to measure ourselves against, represented in story medium. Also, a myth can very well be a physically and historically true event - some lives required little poetic license to become captivate an audience.
“Hamilton” presents a story of ambition, of rising from nothing to become the face of the $10 bill. There is courage, determination, infidelity, repentance, forgiveness, tragedy both understood and unexplainable. And in every case, the audience comes to understand how one can deal with these elements, to see the mistakes and corrections made throughout. As myth, it creates a common narrative against which we can measure ourselves. Crucially, Hamilton’s key phrase, “I will not throw away my shot,” is very well one of the most powerful in the play, in American society, and in the dream that keeps the country striving.