Even though Entertainment Weekly has called Hamilton “the biggest cultural smash on Broadway this decade” it can be hard to convince people to give the two and half hour, 46-song musical soundtrack a shot. For the sake of the joy and inspiration everyone is guaranteed to find in the story of Alexander Hamilton as told by Lin-Manuel Miranda, I’ve created a Cliff Note’s version of the musical’s story, links to key songs included.
[Side note: You won’t see the actors while listening to the cast album, but I think it is extremely important to note that the majority of the actors and actresses are people of color. Miranda himself is Puerto Rican, and the men who play Aaron Burr, George Washington, and Thomas Jefferson are black. Hamilton’s wife and her sister are played by a biracial Asian woman and a black woman respectively. I am so in love with Miranda’s goal of telling the story of America’s past with the voices of America’s present.]
Alexander Hamilton was born on a Caribbean island, the bastard son of a Scotsman and a prostitute. He becomes an orphan when his dad skips out and his mother dies, and the cousin who takes him in winds up committing suicide. When he was a teenager, a hurricane devastated his hometown, and after writing about his experience, a fund was collected to send him to America. Dude has a serious chip on his shoulder, and he is determined to prove his worth by demanding everyone’s attention and hiding his self-doubts (“Alexander Hamilton“).
As a new American immigrant, he makes some revolutionary friends – Laurens the abolitionist, Mulligan the tailor, and Lafayette, who is America’s Favorite Fighting Frenchman – and together they decide they’re going to change the world (“My Shot“)!! He also meets Aaron Burr, who is much more reticent to like, take on the world’s most powerful country because of some inconvenient taxes. This might be a smart position, but then we meet King George, whose smarmy abusive boyfriend songs are some of the best moments in the musical (“You’ll Be Back“). Despite the hilarity, though, I’m not going to let him rule me from across the ocean!
You can’t have war without love (or is it the other way around – don’t worry, that’s coming), so when the Revolutionary War breaks out, Alexander gets married! In an extremely clever musical twist, we follow the standard happily ever beginning when Alexander meets Eliza Schuyler at a ball and they quickly get married (“Helpless“). In the very next song, we get Eliza’s older sister’s perspective (“Satisfied“), and Angelica’s story fills in gaps we didn’t know existed in the previous song. Basically, Angelica and Alexander were all flirty, and she totally dug him, but she’s the oldest sister whose familial duty is to marry rich. Hamilton is dirt poor, so marrying him would be impossible. When Angelica realizes Eliza loves him too (who, as a younger sister, doesn’t have the financial obligations Angelica does), she selflessly arranges for the happy couple’s meeting. By the end of the song, everyone’s heart hurts as Angelica toasts to the health of the marriage of her sister to the man she loves but cannot have.
Okay, back to war! George Washington recognizes Alexander’s talent with words and makes him his right hand man who writes a lot, but doesn’t fight. Instead, he promotes Charles Lee – “I’m a general, wheeee!” – who is just as incompetent as that line suggests (“Stay Alive“). Lee winds up accusing Washington of being a terrible general, so Laurens challenges him to a duel. Hamilton and Burr are seconds in the duel, and it is hella obvious foreshadowing (“Ten Duel Commandments“).
Eventually Hamilton is given a command, and he joins Lafayette – “Immigrants, we get the job done!” – in winning the battle of Yorktown and therefore, the Revolutionary War (“Yorktown (The World Turned Upside Down)“)! Hurray! With the war over, Hamilton and Burr can return to their respective homes and sing sweet fatherly songs to their children – Burr’s daughter Theodosia and Hamilton’s son Phillip (“Dear Theodosia“).
The two work together as lawyers (“Non-Stop“), but Hamilton is quickly brought into the political inner circle, while Burr remains on the outside. Hamilton becomes Washington’s Secretary of Treasury, and he gets in constant arguments with Thomas Jefferson, which in the musical are portrayed as rap battles, and it is just as awesome as it sounds (“Cabinet Battle #1“).
Eliza, Alexander’s wife, is getting tired with his workaholism. She probably thought she’d see more of him once the war was over, but instead, he’s busier than ever. On top of that, he’s writing sexy-by-1700-standards letters to her sister Angelica. As listeners, we are prepared for him to slip up and sleep with his sister-in-law, but when she joins the family on a vacation, Alexander stays home and winds up sleeping with a rando (“Say No to This“)! Maria’s husband blackmails Hamilton, saying he can totally keep sleeping with his wife so long has he pays up. Hamilton does, and we are all disappointed.
Back to politics! Burr is increasingly jealous of Hamilton’s success (“The Room Where It Happens“) so he easily allies himself with Jefferson and Madison. They know something fishy is happening with Hamilton’s money, and since he’s Secretary of Treasury, they assume he’s embezzling the country’s money. When they confront him, he’s all, “I’m not treasonous! I’m just an adulterer!” (“We Know“).
Oh shoot, also by this point Washington has stepped down (“One Last Time“) and Hamilton is not getting along quite so well with John Adams (“The Adams Administration“). So anyway, despite Burr, Jefferson, and Madison’s promise not to tell anyone about Hamilton’s adultery, he decides the safe thing to do is….write a public essay describing his affair with Maria Reynolds and the subsequent blackmailing (“The Reynolds Pamphlet“). People are not as forgiving as he naively assumes, and his political career tanks. On top of that, Eliza has to find out about her husband’s affair at the same time as every other U.S. citizen, and her horrified pain makes everyone feel things (“Burn“).
Amazingly, things get worse! Hamilton’s son Phillip is all grown up now, and he challenges someone to a duel in order to defend his father’s honor. Hamilton urges Phillip to aim at the sky, since that is the gentlemanly thing to do, and he doesn’t want his son to live with the weight of having killed someone. Only the other dude in the duel is NOT gentlemanly, and he winds up killing Phillip (“Stay Alive (Reprise)“)!! It is so sad!! Alexander and Eliza move uptown to get away from it all, and in the slowest song in the whole musical, they mourn and she slowly forgives him for everything (“It’s Quiet Uptown“). This is also so sad, but also touching.
“Can we get back to politics?” “Please!” “Yo.”
Jefferson and Burr are running against each other for president! Despite his political suicide, people want Hamilton’s opinion. He has fought continuously with Jefferson for years, but that matters less to him than Burr’s willingness to switch parties to get more votes. Hamilton supports Jefferson, and Burr is pissed (“The Election of 1800“). He challenges Alexander to a duel, and the end is near.
In the most heart-wrenching of all heart-wrenching songs, Burr shoots Hamilton. In the greatest of musical ironies, the man who so frequently sings that he will not throw away his (metaphorical) shot – at coming to America, at joining the revolution, at forming a nation – winds up throwing away his (literal) shot when it counts. Hamilton aims at the sky, the same advice he gave to his son, which Burr realizes too late (“The World Was Wide Enough.”) It’s so sad, guys.
Burr has been narrating the whole thing until now, but with this great regret on his conscience, the last song is given to Eliza, who lives another fifty years after her husband dies. She devotes her life to fighting for social justice and telling Alexander’s story. She is awesome, and she reminds us all that we only have a limited amount of time to make sure our own stories are worth telling (“Who Lives, Who Dies, Who Tells Your Story“). It’s a poignant way to end the show, and we realize that we too can learn from Hamilton’s passion and do what we can to change the world!
For a longer description of Hamilton, check out the blog post I wrote as I listened to the cast album for the first time and emotionally reacted to each song.
Okay. Did you listen to any of the songs? Are you going to buy the whole album and listen to it on repeat? The only acceptable answers to these questions are “yes, of course.”