Susan Birne-Stone PhD, LCSW
Systems Therapist, Private Practice & Kingsborough Community College
A review of Hamilton An American Musical
Book, Music and Lyrics by Lin-Manuel Miranda, Richard Rogers Theatre, New York
When I heard about an up-and-coming musical that was leaving The Public Theater to head to Broadway, I decided to take a shot and buy tickets. After leaving the Richard Rodgers Theatre in late August wanting to see it again, I discovered that I would have to wait at least 10 months because it was already sold out. Just three weeks after it opened on Broadway, Hamilton was a national phenomenon. Since then, I have thought a great deal about what has made this show a cultural phenomenon. In addition to being discussed across most media outlets and winning many awards, the show has attracted audiences of diverse ages and cultures, including those who have never had a particular interest in musical theatre.
As I listen to the Cast Recording, I wonder how a show based on the historical biographical account of an American founding father could be one of the most inspirational theater experiences I have ever had. I am reminded of the concept of “cinematic elevation” that Niemiec and Wedding (2008) discussed in their work on movies and the experience that viewers have when they observe characters utilizing their strengths and virtues. Show creator Lin-Manuel Miranda brilliantly portrays and emphasizes a multitude of character strengths throughout the show. In fact, the show opens with a question that is a major theme:
How does a bastard, orphan, son of a whore and a Scottsman, dropped in the middle of a forgotten spot in the Caribbean by Providence, impoverished, in squalor grow up to be a hero and a scholar?
As the story unfolds, Miranda answers this question by highlighting the strengths and virtues Hamilton used to “rise up.”
Many scholars, particularly in the field of Positive Psychology (e.g., Peterson & Seligman, 2004, Niemiec, 2014), have discussed the importance of positive character traits, strengths and virtues. Many strengths and virtues are displayed throughout the show in ways that are entertaining, moving and inspiring. Using a multicultural cast and rap music to retell history, Miranda enables a diverse audience to relate to a common theme of rising above challenges and struggles.
As Hamilton sings about not throwing away his shot we see his courage, perseverance, and zest. Supporting characters sing about Hamilton’s never backing down, always speaking his mind, and the hours he spent reading and writing. This, in combination with his wisdom, knowledge, love of learning, and sense of justice enable him to earn the admiration of many and “rise up.” After the death of his child, the ensemble sings about dealing with the unimaginable, love, kindness and forgiveness. In the final song, themes related to transcendence emerge. We not only learn about the legacy of Hamilton and others, we are also inspired to think about our own. This is a must see show. I cannot wait to see it again!
Niemiec, R. M. (2014) Mindfulness & Character Strengths A Practical Guide to Flourishing. Boston, MA: Hogrefe Publishing
Niemiec, R. M. & Wedding, D. (2008) Positive Psychology at the Movies Using Films to Build Virtues and Character Strengths. Cambridge MA: Hogrefe & Huber Publishers
Peterson, C., & Seligman, M.E.P. (2004). Character strengths and virtues: A handbook and classification. New York, NY: Oxford University Press