The year is 2020. In the midst of a global pandemic, an economic recession, and social unrest unlike anything during my lifetime, I open up my brand new Disney+ account (which was created for this and this alone) and click play on Hamilton: An American Musical.
There’s so much about this moment that I couldn’t have possibly imagined when I first discovered Hamilton almost five years ago during the fall of my freshman year of college. The world is an unimaginably different place, and I’m different too. Hamilton doesn’t mean the same thing to me now as it did then, yet what I feel about it now is a culmination of everything that came before.
First, allow me to give you some context. If you knew me in 2015/2016, you knew how obsessed I was with Hamilton. From the moment I first listened to it, I was helpless. I played to the songs on repeat, I watched every clip I could find (including all the #Ham4Ham and backstage videos), I talked about it nonstop. It’s a good thing I didn’t have a blog back then, because I would have made a minimum of ten Hamilton references per post. I don’t think I listened to any music in 2016 other than the Hamilton soundtrack, and I watched the Tony Awards performance of “Yorktown” on repeat. When I went to New York City for the first time in 2017, I spent an entire day visiting all the Hamilton-related spots I could find (the Richard Rogers theatre, his grave at Trinity Church, his house in Harlem). I shared memes and read analysis and buried myself in everything Hamilton related I could find, and I reached a level of obsession that I have achieved very few times in my life.
(found from five minutes of scrolling through my Snapchat memories circa 2016)
I still don’t know if I have the words to properly describe why it meant so much at that point in my life, but Hamilton wasn’t just a musical for me. Not only did I love intricate twists of language, the complex characters, and the musical motifs that revealed more and more layers the longer I examined them, but there was something about it that just…spoke to me.
Turning 19 in 2016 (you would not BELIEVE the number of “I’m only 19 but my mind is older” references I made), I was gearing up to vote in my first presidential election. I was so excited — my first election, and I got to help vote a woman into office. Following the election closely, I was frustrated but not too worried about what I saw in the news. High on Hamilton, high on the optimism of the American dream that this country was built upon, I believed that all of us “young, scrappy, and hungry” voters could make a change.
Then November 2016 came along, and we all know how that happened.
I don’t want to act like my obsession with Hamilton made me blind to the problems in my country that have existed long before 2016. I’d known well before then that the so-called American dream that the founders strove for was imperfect and exclusionary, and that this country, built on the backs of slaves and murdered Native Americans and silenced voices, has never been great. But Hamilton is about revolution, about rising up, about young people who want to turn the world upside down. I saw my own chance to do that in the 2016 election, and then I watched my idealism thrown to the ground and stomped upon.
And, well, I don’t need to rehash the last four years, because we all lived through that. My Hamilton obsession eventually lowered to a simmer, to the point where I could have normal conversations without slipping in references at every opportunity. I finally got to see it on stage in Chicago in 2018, which was just about the most magical experience of my life.
Now we’re here in 2020, the world is on fire, and Hamilton is available for streaming on Disney+. What a time to be alive.
I’m not the same person I was the first time I listened to Hamilton. I’m angrier, more tired, and I’ve learned so much since then. I certainly don’t have that same idealism going into this year’s election. And the world feels wildly different to the hopeful, Obama-era America during which this performance was recorded.
I watch this show in 2020 with the memory of those years of obsession and there’s a part of me that can’t help but mourn the optimism I once felt. What I wouldn’t give to go back and feel that invincible hope that I could change the world by believing hard enough. What I wouldn’t give to trust once again that a rapist couldn’t be elected into the highest office in this country.
This show feels like a time capsule for all of those memories and that optimism, as well as the crushing disappointment and anger that followed. These past four years have been rough on all of us, and sometimes I forget that it wasn’t always this bad. There was a time when I could listen to Hamilton and, for a moment, almost feel proud of being American if it came with this legacy of fighting for what you believe in.
So what does Hamilton mean to me in 2020?
It’s been a long time since I’ve felt anything but disgust for my country, and watching a musical that celebrates its origins feels a little strange what with, you know, everything. Why should I cheer as the characters cry, “We won!” when the country that’s formed from that is such a horror show today?
There’s this line near the end of the musical, during Hamilton’s final monologue before he dies, when he says, “America, you great unfinished symphony, you sent for me.” When I watched the show this time, that line struck me harder than it ever has. July 4, 2020 marks 240 years since the Declaration of Independence, yet America still feels like an unfinished symphony, and it’s up to us to, if not finish the symphony, then play the next notes and play them right.
Hamilton probably means something different to every person who watches it, but for me in 2020, it’s not a celebration of America. It’s a celebration of fighting with your life for what you believe in, which means it’s a celebration of protesters who are striving for a better country and the activists who still want to change the world.
I’m not proud of my country. I will never be proud of a place whose history is soaked with the blood of so many innocents. But I can still use my time here to make this country, this great unfinished symphony, slightly better for the ones who come after me. I’m still hopeful, but it’s not the same as in 2016; it’s an angry kind of hope.
I did not imagine when I clicked play in Hamilton yesterday, excited and weirdly nervous, that all of these feelings would come flooding through me. I didn’t think this would be my major takeaway from the musical that defined the better part of two years of my life. But it’s 2020 and the world is a nightmare and it’s time to turn it upside down. Lin Manuel Miranda, as usual, said it best: “We’ll bleed and fight for you, we’ll make it right for you.”
In conclusion, register to vote, and #YayHamlet.