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“Who Tells Your Story?”: Hamilton and the New Evangelization

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Last week, composer Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Pulitzer Prize winning musical Hamilton, which tells the story of “ten-dollar founding father” Alexander Hamilton through rap and hip hop, made history of its own when it received sixteen Tony nominations, more than any other Broadway musical.

Unlike any other musical in recent memory, Hamilton has transcended the somewhat niche audience of Broadway lovers, finding a firm foothold in popular culture and capturing the imaginations of those who love traditional music theatre, those who love rap and hip hop, those who love American history, those who love a good underdog story, the list goes on and on.

This phenomenal reception begs the question: what is it about this show? Why has Hamilton struck such a chord in the hearts of those who have been lucky enough to see it or (in a far more likely scenario since the show is sold out until January 2017) those who have been listening to the Original Cast Recording on repeat for months now?

For one thing, Hamilton is, quite simply, artistically excellent. The ways in which Lin-Manuel Miranda has crafted the show’s 46 (yes, 46) songs consistently display his incredible musical virtuosity and his gift for nuanced storytelling. In addition, Alex Lacamoire’s impeccable orchestrations somehow manage to capture and combine the sonic worlds of both 18th and 21st century America in surprisingly seamless and beautiful ways. In one recording, we hear everything from a traditional diva belt number to the fastest rap ever written for the stage, from sampled record scratches to a hammered dulcimer to the world’s most ingenious use of banjo maybe ever. Start to finish, this is just exceptionally good music, crafted and performed by exceptionally talented artists.

But delving beyond the purely musical and theatrical considerations brings us to the real reason why this show has turned the world of music theatre and beyond upside down: Hamilton presents audiences with an old narrative—the founding of the United States of America—in an utterly new way. Not only is this newness the result of utilizing rap and hip hop to proclaim the narrative, but it is also due to the fact that White historical figures are being played by Black, Asian, and Latino actors and actresses. As composer and star Lin-Manuel Miranda has frequently stated in interviews, “This is the story of America then, told by America now.” The deliberate choice to feature an ethnically diverse cast in portraying founding fathers like George Washington and Thomas Jefferson is no mere gimmick; rather, Miranda is giving permission to Americans of all ethnicities to find themselves in the infancy narrative of the country they call home. Moreover, in the process of this new presentation, the narrative itself has reawakened and recaptured the imaginations of those who encounter it in this new way.[1] Indeed, in a recent interview with Time Magazine, Lin-Manuel Miranda stated, “Having a cast that reflects what our country looks like, it eliminates distance between the contemporary audience and this story that happened over two hundred years ago.”

For those interested and invested in the work of the New Evangelization, Miranda’s statements should make us sit up and take notice. The entire Christian life is geared toward eliminating the chronological distance between ourselves and an event that took place 2000 years ago in order to encounter within our daily lives the mystery of Jesus Christ, crucified, died, risen, ascended to the Father, alive now and forever. “The story of America then being told by America now” could very well be rephrased: “The story of the Gospel then being told by the Church now.”

In Pope Paul VI’s apostolic exhortation Evangelii Nuntiandi we read time and time again that evangelization today consists in proclaiming the Gospel in new ways that resonate with the particular audience whom one is trying to reach. Paul VI writes:

“The conditions of the society in which we live oblige all of us therefore to . . . seek by every means to study how we can bring the Christian message to modern man. For it is only in the Christian message that modern man can find the answer to his questions and the energy for his commitment of human solidarity.” . . . It is absolutely necessary for us to take into account a heritage of faith that the Church has the duty of preserving in its untouchable purity, and of presenting it to the people of our time, in a way that is as understandable and as persuasive as possible.
(§3, citing a 1973 address to the Sacred College of Cardinals, emphasis added)

Put simply, Hamilton offers us a model for the New Evangelization. This isn’t to say someone needs to create a modern musical adaptation of the Gospel—we already have Jesus Christ Superstar and Godspell, and one could debate whether or not these retellings are effective tools of evangelization (particularly given that each contains theologically problematic content). Rather, Hamilton as a concept shows us new possibilities for the task to which every member of the Church is called: taking a 2000-year-old narrative—the life, death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus Christ, the sending of the Spirit, and the birth of Christianity—and presenting it to others in a new and engaging way, such that hearts are opened in the hearing and lives are transformed by an encounter with him whose story we tell.

Those who profess belief in Christ, who are members of his Body the Church, “have the task of assimilating the essence of the Gospel message and of transposing it, without the slightest betrayal of its essential truth, into the language that these particular people understand, then of proclaiming it in this language” (EN §63). Jesus is no longer present to the world in the same way he was to his Apostles; he is present now only in the people who continue to proclaim him and who are united to him through Baptism. We can perhaps learn from Hamilton how to “transpose” the Gospel into a language that people today long to hear, so that those with ears to hear may begin to discover their own narrative within the narrative of Jesus Christ and may begin to see that, in fact, it is only in the light of the Gospel narrative that their own narratives make any sense at all.

Hamilton asks the question, “When you’re gone, who remembers your name? Who keeps your flame? Who tells your story?” When we were claimed by the Church in the name of Christ at our Baptism, when we received the flame of faith from the Paschal Candle, we were entrusted with the story of salvation and commissioned to “proclaim the Gospel to every creature” (Mk 16:15). Herein lies the vocation of every Christian, for “the presentation of the Gospel message is not an optional contribution for the Church. It is the duty incumbent on her by the command of the Lord Jesus, so that people can believe and be saved” (EN §5). We are compelled by virtue of our Baptism to tell the story of Christ. Perhaps the story of the “ten-dollar founding father without a father” can teach us how to tell Christ’s story more effectively in a world that needs to hear it more than ever.

Featured Photo: Jennifer M. Cimino; used with permission.

[1] See, for example, the 20,000 New York City public high school students studying American history who not only saw the musical (thanks to a partnership with the Rockefeller Foundation), but also created original papers and poetry and rap, appropriating and retelling the narrative of America’s founding in their own words. According to New York City Schools Commissioner Carmen Fariña, this experience allowed the students to “experience American History in a unique way while connecting to the class curriculum and [it] will cultivate a deep love of learning.”