The arrival of the filmed version of Hamilton on Disney Plus opened the musical up to a vast new audience. In the five years since the show debuted on Broadway, it’s been a cultural phenomenon. But due to access limitations — the high cost and the way shows are limited to a few cities at a time — only around 2.6 million people have actually seen Lin-Manuel Miranda’s historical musical on stage.
Over the weekend, though, the recorded version debuted to more than 50 million subscribers on Disney Plus — and that’s not even counting the new members who signed up for the service just to find out what all the Hamilton fuss is about. Millions of Hamil-fans who only interacted with the show via the soundtrack, individual one-off performances, and ancillary online material now have plenty of new grist for their fandom mills, and a renewed interest in examining the show. At the same time, millions of first-timers are also coming into the fold, driven by curiosity, but possibly lacking any of the deep-dive steeping in Hamil-lore that would help them understand the history behind the show — either the American history it interprets and observes, or the history behind its creation.
Fortunately, there’s a terrific resource for “Hamilton lyrics, explained”: the extensive Hamilton notes archive at Genius.com, particularly the notes from writer, creator, and star Lin-Manuel Miranda himself. Miranda has always made it clear that writing Hamilton involved an obsessive, nerdy steeping in hip-hop hits and historical sources, and when the play first debuted, he put some of that nerdiness online, annotating his own lyrics at Genius by discussing his sources, references, inspirations, and intentions.
In the years since, his commentary has been somewhat overshadowed by other contributors, who explain virtually every line in every song in depth. Genius solved for this by highlighting his contributions in green — it’s easy to look through any given Hamilton song and either read all the notes, or just find out what Miranda had to say about it. Or you can just look through his own commentary archive and see all his Hamilton notes, not in song order, but isolated from anyone else’s observations.
Some of the better finds in the mix include this note on a section of “Hurricane,” the song where protagonist Alexander Hamilton explains his own backstory in the West Indies. Miranda lays out where both Hamilton and Hamilton originally came from:
I read the “Alexander Hamilton” biography in 2009, and in the second chapter I realized that I was going to turn this into a play. In that chapter you see how Hamilton had this Dickensian early life that consisted of constant trauma.
After a hurricane destroys St. Croix — the island he was from — he wrote a poem about the wreckage; consequently, wealthy people on the island recognized how good the poem was and were like: let’s get this kid an education, he shouldn’t be working behind a desk.
After that, I decided I had to write this play. Hamilton literally wrote a verse to get him off an island — that’s the most hip-hop shit ever. He transcends the struggle, and if you look at your favorite rapper, that’s most likely what they did.
And here, when Angelica sings in “Satisfied” that she has to marry a rich man because she has to be the heir to her father Philip Schuyler, Miranda admits to eliding reality a bit:
I actually forgot that Phillip had 15 children. But I think that my brain wanted me to forget because it’s stronger dramatically if societally she can’t marry you. And in reality, she was married when they met.
She was married when Hamilton came into the Schuyler sisters lives. Moreover, “Helpless” and “Satisfied” are a microcosm for the whole story which entirely depends on who tells it.
To me, it’s extremely effective to see the courtship from Eliza’s perspective, then rewind the whole thing and then tell it again. Angelica, while she and Hamilton are soul mates, she reads him in a second and knows she can’t marry him so she lets her sister marry him to keep him in her life. I definitely had to take a dramatic license.
For “Ten Duel Commandments,” Miranda lays out the link to the Notorious B.I.G. song “The Ten Crack Commandments,” and explains why he wrote the song in the first place:
This song started with a dramaturgical impulse. The audience needs to understand what dueling was like back then.
This was not drive bys. This was not heated people taking their guns out outside of bars. This is not what happens today with our gun control issues. This wasn’t beef in the same way beef is today.
It was super codified; there was a ritual about it. It was like legal arbitration — with guns. So, I came up with the idea of doing “Ten Dual Commandments” because “Ten Crack Commandments” is a how-to guide for illegal activity in the 90s. And this is a how-to guide for illegal activities in the 1790s.
And in “That Will Be Enough,” Miranda quotes his source material and interprets it, liberally:
Hamilton wrote Eliza saying he wanted a son:
You shall engage shortly to present me with a boy. You will ask me if a girl will not answer the purpose. By no means. I fear, with all the mother’s charms, she may inherit the caprices of her father and then she will enslave, tantalize, and plague one half [the] sex, out of pure regard to which I protest against a daughter.
So, just to put that paragraph into 21st century terms: “You’re pretty and I can’t keep it in my pants so if we had a daughter she would inherit both those things and we would have a tramp on our hands.”
Miranda has talked a great deal over the years about what went into creating Hamilton, and there’s no dearth of interviews or support material for the show. But the Genius version of the commentary has the advantage of being highly targeted, so newcomers to the musical can find out what one given song or line of their choice is referencing, or can just browse through, looking for the gems and the surprises in the explanations. It’s a rich resource, and it’s enough to spark yet another viewing of Hamilton after all the reading is done, just to see how it plays with this much extra knowledge in tow.
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