Lexicon Valley

Hamilton Through the Lens of Language  

Lin-Manuel Miranda attends a workshop with students in the State Dining Room of the White House in Washington, D.C., on March 14. 

Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images

Sure, the musical Hamilton has racked up a record number of Tony nominations, gets props from the first family, and helped keep the “ten-dollar founding father” on the ten-dollar bill. But among the endless accolades, there was one moment that was particularly sweet for those involved in the production: when 1,300 high schoolers from low-income areas of New York City descended on the Richard Rodgers Theatre last month for the first in a series of student matinees.

In the morning, students from the 12 participating high schools took the stage to perform their own takes on historical figures from the revolutionary and founding eras, using a curriculum especially designed by the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History. The show’s playwright and star, Lin-Manuel Miranda, served as emcee along with Christopher Jackson, who plays George Washington, and they were visibly gleeful as the student performers spun their own verbal creations in the form of raps, songs, and poems.

After a Q&A with the cast, the students got to watch a performance that is by far the hottest ticket on Broadway (but only cost them $10 each, thanks to funding from the Rockefeller Foundation). Now it was the students’ turn to be gleeful. One thing was clear from their genuine elation: The students felt a visceral connection to the play, and particularly to the language of the play.

Hamilton is, as Jackson told the students, “all about the words.” There are more than 20,000 of them over the course of the play, delivered at a dizzying pace of 144 words per minute, according to a FiveThirtyEight analysis. As I observed in the Wall Street Journal, that includes some challenging vocabulary, like polymath, obfuscate, protean, and intransigent. The play also quotes directly from primary sources, such as Washington’s Farewell Address. But for the students at the matinee, the language of Hamilton was no stumbling block. Quite the contrary, the attendees I talked to seemed to revel in the play’s verbosity, seeing it as a kind of time machine taking them from their own vernacular to the language of the Founding Fathers more than two centuries ago.

What follows are some glimpses of Hamilton through the lens of language, based on my conversations with some of the people closest to the production, including author and historical consultant Ron Chernow, producer Jeffrey Seller, and cast member Daveed Diggs.

Freestyle Rap Meets Sondheim

The language of Hamilton swings vertiginously from literary to colloquial, from high-flying to down-and-dirty. But at its root, it reflects Lin-Manuel Miranda’s lifelong fascination with the power of words in two seemingly disparate cultures: musical theater and hip-hop.

To get a sense of how Miranda effortlessly bridges these performance styles, it’s worth listening to his podcast conversation with Public Forum director Jeremy McCarter from June 2013, two years before Hamilton’s debut. At the time, Miranda had seen success with his first musical, In the Heights, and when he wasn’t busy hatching Hamilton, he was performing with the hip-hop improv troupe Freestyle Love Supreme, a crew that included his future Gen. Washington, Christopher Jackson. Miranda breaks down in fascinating detail how he can come up with freestyle rhymes on the fly—a dizzying talent that he would later show off for a national audience on The Tonight Show and in the White House Rose Garden.

When McCarter asks him which came first, his love of hip-hop or his love of theater, Miranda responds, “They were one and the same to me. … If you love wordplay, why wouldn’t you love both of these things?” Tellingly, on his list of favorite rappers he makes room for Harold Hill, the patter-slinging con artist from The Music Man. And as he tells McCarter, he has provided something of a rap education to fellow wordplay lover Stephen Sondheim, sharing songs with him that are heavy on verbal pyrotechnics, like Aesop Rock’s “No Regrets.”

Sondheim was clearly on board with Miranda’s vision in 2011 when he published the book Look, I Made a Hat. “Of all the forms of contemporary pop music, rap is the closest to traditional musical theater (its roots are in vaudeville), both in its vamp-heavy rhythmic drive and in its verbal playfulness,” Sondheim wrote. He lauded Miranda for melding the two forms in In the Heights. “Rap is a natural language for him and he is a master of the form, but enough of a traditionalist to know the way he can utilize its theatrical potential.” Sondheim saw that potential coming to fruition in Miranda’s next project: “a piece about Alexander Hamilton.”

Hamilton, the Man of Words

As is already Hamilton lore, Miranda was inspired to create a hip-hop–infused telling of the life of Alexander Hamilton after reading Ron Chernow’s biography on vacation in Mexico in 2008. When Chernow saw In the Heights later that year, he went backstage and learned of Miranda’s Hamiltonian obsession. Soon they were talking over all things Hamilton at Chernow’s home in Brooklyn Heights.

“My earliest conversations with Lin really revolved around language,” Chernow told me. Miranda viewed Hamilton’s life as a “classic hip-hop narrative”: He was like a rapper who used the power of words to lift his way out of poverty and obscurity and into fame. Miranda “saw Hamilton’s rise as inseparable from his command of language,” Chernow said. Hamilton, the “bastard orphan” immigrant from St. Croix, rose to power on the strength of his words, but his verbal ingenuity was a double-edged sword that also precipitated his downfall.

While Chernow did not initially appreciate how the idiom of hip-hop could be a vehicle for Hamilton’s story, Miranda set about educating him as he had done for Sondheim. Chernow learned two things right away. First, “with hip-hop, you can pack an enormous amount of information into the lyrics,” he said. And second, hip-hop’s reliance on rhyme, both rhymed endings and internal rhymes, allows for all manner of wordplay to delight audiences. Chernow realized that what Miranda was constructing was no less than a return to the verse dramas of an earlier age, when people would “sit all evening listening to rhymed couplets and quatrains,” immersed in the pleasure of language.

Chernow recalls Miranda sitting on the couch, snapping his fingers and performing the first fruits of his labor, a rap he called “The Hamilton Mixtape,” which with a few changes would become the opening number of the show. “It was the most extraordinary thing I had ever heard,” Chernow said. “He was creating a unique idiom that was a blend of standard 18th-century speech and 21st-century slang.”

Chernow was struck immediately by the heightened language in the first stanza introducing Hamilton’s story: “by providence, impoverished, in squalor.” And then the second stanza takes a turn for the colloquial, with the “ten-dollar founding father without a father, who got a lot farther by working a lot harder.” “It’s delightful how the language keeps shifting back and forth,” Chernow remarked.

When Miranda unveiled “The Hamilton Mixtape” at the White House Poetry Jam in 2009, he put Hamilton’s linguistic derring-do front and center. “I think he embodies the word’s ability to make a difference,” he said by way of introduction. Of course, Miranda’s own words would prove equally captivating.

An Ingenuitive Performance

As Hamilton morphed into a full-fledged musical, hip-hop ended up being one of many elements in its eclectic mix of performance styles. But it has a pride of place: The characters who are the most quick-witted, such as Hamilton himself and his sister-in-law Angelica Schuyler, spit rapid-fire rhymes that would make the most precocious rapper proud. As Hamilton boasts in “Non-Stop,” “I’ll be Socrates/ Throwing verbal rocks at these mediocrities”—a line that manages to highlight Hamilton’s classical education while echoing similar rhymes from both Wicked and the Wu-Tang Clan. (See Forrest Wickman’s thorough catalog for more of the musical’s allusions to hip-hop and R&B.)

Hamilton often engages in expert wordplay, as when he punnishly turns the words of loyalist Samuel Seabury against him in “Farmer Refuted.” Seabury’s staid message against the Revolution is upended by Hamilton’s counterpoint by means of homophony and assonance: Seabury’s “Heed not the rabble …” is met with Hamilton’s “He’d have you all unravel …” In the recently published companion book, Hamilton: The Revolution (known as the Hamiltome to fans), Miranda notes that this kind of linguistic dismantling “felt like the kind of superpower Hamilton could deploy to impress his friends.”

The word from the play that best describes Hamilton is one that you’d be hard-pressed to find in any dictionary: ingenuitive. The Marquis de Lafayette, played by Daveed Diggs, praises Hamilton as “ingenuitive and fluent in French” in the musical’s fastest-paced number (at 6.3 words per second), “Guns and Ships.” In the companion book, Miranda reveals, “I thought everyone knew this word, yet I don’t know where I’ve heard it.” He and his collaborators argued before deciding to keep it in. “It’s apparently a super-archaic word,” Miranda writes. “I really don’t know where I met it, but it was there for me when I needed it.” It turns out it’s not all that archaic, dating only to the turn of the 20th century in the written record, but there is no doubt it is le mot juste, as Lafayette might say.

And it is fitting that Diggs-as-Lafayette is the one who gets to use the word. When we first meet Lafayette in “My Shot” at the beginning of Act One, he stumbles over pronouncing the word anarchy, but by the time of “Guns and Ships,” he is, as Miranda puts it, “a speed demon.” His newfound fluency is intended to demonstrate how the character has come into his own as a war hero. “Doesn’t hurt that Daveed is one of the most technically gifted rappers I’ve ever met, so I knew I could build him tapestries,” Miranda writes in the Hamiltome.

Diggs, who also plays Thomas Jefferson in the second act, told me that he connected with the language of the play immediately because of his background in hip-hop. (He is a member of the Los Angeles–based rap trio Clipping and also joined with Miranda and Jackson in Freestyle Love Supreme.) “One of the things that hip-hop does really well is it gets the most out of contemporary vernacular. Rappers compress a lot of information into short amounts of time,” he said.

The verbal gymnastics can also convey character development, Diggs observes. Just as Lafayette undergoes a transformation in the first act, Jefferson’s rapping grows more sophisticated in the second. Jefferson is initially bested by Hamilton in two Cabinet confrontations done in the style of rap battles. Eventually, though, he triumphs through the power of words in the song “Washington on Your Side,” culminating with his resignation as secretary of state: “If Washington isn’t gon’ listen to disciplined dissidents, this is the difference: This kid is out!” Diggs identifies that line as “when we get a real virtuosic rap moment from him.”

Bringing the Language to Students

The plan for student matinees was hatched before Hamilton moved to Broadway, soon after it opened at the Public Theater in early 2015. At one show, Chernow, who attended many performances, spotted Lesley Herrmann, executive director of the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History. When he asked what she thought, Herrmann exulted that “this is the greatest opportunity in our lifetime to interest schoolchildren in American history, and we have to take advantage of it,” Chernow recalled.

Chernow introduced Herrmann to Hamilton’s producer, Jeffrey Seller, who was immediately on board with the idea of having the Gilder Lehrman Institute design a curriculum for New York City high school students and getting as many as 20,000 of them to attend matinees. Seller told me he had developed a similar matinee program when he produced Rent, in which students presented performance pieces onstage based on the play’s themes. “It was always my goal to share Hamilton with students,” he said, and he found kindred spirits at Gilder Lehrman, which endeavors to make American history come alive by using primary-source documents.

Seller hoped that Hamilton could serve as a linguistic bridge to reach a diverse audience of young people. “It’s a marvelous barrier breaker, because the language of the play gives us the information we want and need,” he said, adding that it gives students a foundation that allows them to go back to primary sources without being intimidated by antiquated verbiage.

In the lead-up to the first student matinee last month, I got to spend time with teachers and students at Brooklyn’s Fort Hamilton High School, one of the 12 participating schools. (And no, they weren’t selected simply because of their Hamiltonian name.) Using the Gilder Lehrman curriculum, students had come up with performance pieces based on historical figures, fusing linguistic styles on the model of Hamilton but applying their own idiosyncratic stamp.

One Advanced Placement U.S. History student, Hannah Almontaser, delivered a rap as King George III with Kanye-like swagger. Three of her classmates added a dose of Beyoncé to their “Women Formation,” in which they portrayed Abigail Adams, the black poet Phillis Wheatley, and Hamilton’s wife, Eliza, as proto-feminists.*

At the matinee, 160 students from Fort Hamilton joined with more than 1,000 others from around the city, and the excitement was palpable. Chernow was in attendance and got something of the rock-star treatment from students who asked him to sign their programs, T-shirts, and Hamiltomes.

Afterward, Chernow marveled at how enthusiastically the students engaged with the show and its language. “It was absolutely fascinating to watch what the students responded to,” he said, especially the humor, the romance, and of course the rap battles. The wordiness was hardly an impediment, he noted. “It’s a very sophisticated and erudite show, but I felt they were picking up everything. It didn’t go over the heads.” A vital link had been forged through the power of language: Words can indeed make a difference.

*Correction, May 10, 2016: This post originally misspelled Phillis Wheatley’s first name.