Recontextualising Hamilton: a literary linguistic perspective

Unless you’ve been under a rock lately, or you’re Donald Trump, you are already aware that Joe Biden has won the 2020 US Presidential Election, by both the popular vote and the electoral college votes. We watched the election here on our side of the pond: late-night CNN marathons (see this tweet which sums it up), refreshing the state map on the New York Times app, taking a little light relief from Saturday Night Live’s parodies (here: before and after the election. Freakin’ hilarious), and memes of Nevada: especially love the one of Nevada as the sloth official in Zootropolis.

We’re way more familiar with CNN anchor names (hello, Chris Cuomo, Phil Mattingly, John King) than we ever expected to be and I will now carry to my grave the names of Clark County, Nevada; Allegheny County, Pennsylvania; and Maricopa County, Arizona.

I think because of the way this year has gone (I don’t need to say it), and, actually, the past few years (Trump, Brexit, Johnson), we expected Trump to win again. We were set for a depressing result, particularly at first before those all-important postal votes began to be counted. When it became clear at some point on Wednesday – probably just after the premature (but as it turns out, irrelevant) calling of Arizona for Biden – that things weren’t necessarily doomed, I felt something unfamiliar: hope. An emotion I had forgotten about, really; a bit like when you’re in the middle of winter and forget what it’s like to feel warm sun on your face.

My children are pretty engaged with current affairs for their age – they follow elections, and despair at the government along with us (they also now, at 13 and 10, know some of the names of those US counties and states). What I hadn’t realised, until a few days ago when Beloved Husband pointed it out, was that they haven’t experienced an election that went our way. They have experienced the Brexit vote, countless UK General Elections where hopes were beaten down by the Tories again and again, and some frankly baffling decisions on The Great British Bake-Off, but never have they seen an election where people reacted with such joy as they did this time.

I got goosebumps from videos of people dancing in the street in Philadelphia when Biden took the lead in Pennsylvania and of celebrations of the state finally being called for Biden (this one genuinely made me well up a bit), and of celebrations across the country and even on the other side of the world when the networks declared Joe Biden as the President. We stayed up until 2 a.m. to watch Kamala Harris and Biden give their speeches in Wilmington, Delaware.

This was always going to be a bitter election; there was too much at stake, and questionable, from our perspective, decisions have led to too many people feeling disenfranchised from causes both within and without the government’s control, between voter registration rules and the restrictions of COVID-19. We witnessed a push from all sides to encourage voters to register and to use their vote, including various sectors of the arts – bringing us nicely to the actual topic of this post.

One of the campaigns which personally hit home with me was the reunion of the original Hamilton Broadway cast, via video call, to use a song from the show as a call to vote. That song is The Room Where It Happens from Act II of Hamilton (lyrics here if you want them).

In the show, the song is performed (mostly) by the character Aaron Burr, Hamilton’s arch-nemesis. Whilst he is, on the surface, describing the details of a political compromise between Hamilton and Jefferson, in expressing the point of view of an outsider locked out of the negotiations, he is in fact expressing his personal frustration with Hamilton’s ability to get into positions of power while Burr himself feels unrecognised and overlooked. He sets up the negativity and bitterness of the song from the beginning, with the line ‘Two Virginians and an immigrant walk into a room’ – this is a popular set-up line for a joke format, which listeners will immediately recognise, starkly at odds with his facial expressions and the dark tones of the music. It’s also expressing disrespect for Hamilton, Jefferson and Madison, who all rank above him but are reduced to joke tropes.

Over the course of the song, the refrain ‘I want to be in the room where it happens’ progresses from a specific regret that Burr hasn’t managed to get invited to the dinner party with Hamilton, Jefferson and Madison – where they negotiate the site for the nation’s capital (see ‘The Room Where It Happens‘, Hamilton: The Revolution 2016, Lin-Manuel Miranda and Jeremy McCarter, p.186) – to a bigger overview of his political ambitions. Linguistically, this change is demonstrated deictically in the subtle shift from the specific reference to the dinner deal, referred to in the past (‘no-one else was in the room where it happened‘) to the general and non-specific, using the present voice: ‘we just assume that it happens, but no one else is in the room where it happens‘. That dinner was then; he’s talking about now; ‘no one else’ is everyone, but most of all him. It builds to a climax where Hamilton and the company ask Burr with increasing energy and pace, ‘What do you want, Burr? What do you want, Burr? If you stand for nothing, Burr, what do you fall for?’ and Burr replies, slowly and quietly before building to a crescendo, ‘I wanna be in the room where it happens…I’ve got to be in the room where it happens’.

The 2020 version of this song, reuniting the original cast as mentioned above, changed no words – but the context of the presentation changes the meaning and, more substantially, the impact of the song. You can watch the video I’m referring to here and a clip from the Broadway production here.

The first notable difference from the show production, aside from the most obvious, it being several video call participants rather than onstage, is that replacing a short introductory dialogue between Hamilton and Burr is a call to vote by Joe Biden, against a backdrop of the Constitution. The backdrop is blue (the Democrat party colour) and Biden himself wears a small pin badge of the US flag – all important but subtle context, which helps to position Biden, the Democrat party, and by extension the video about to play, as upholding the values of patriotism and democracy. Perhaps implying that this is in opposition to what is offered by Trump and the Republican party?

The next thing to note is that the participants are not in character. So instead of Hamilton, Jefferson, Madison and Burr, we have as themselves (respectively) Lin-Manuel Miranda, Daveed Diggs, Okieriete Onaodowan and Leslie Odom, Jr., who particularly takes the role of an ‘everyman’. The company, who appear in bubbles overlaid over the main singer when they’re not performing, are moving to the music, rather than acting in role. Viewers watching this video are then more easily positioned to identify themselves with those shown.

After Odom Jr’s introductory verse, the video cuts away from his face to show the first of several montages of people voting and registering to vote, accompanied by the first chorus of ‘no one else was in the room where it happened’. It is important here to remember two pieces of context for this as a piece of discourse:

  1. Americans are feeling disenfranchised (see above)
  2. This video is explicitly a call to vote; Biden’s speech at the start emphasises the power of democracy: ‘Just make sure you understand, you have it in your control to determine what this country’s going to look like the [sic] next four years’. That phrase, ‘in your control’, is a powerful theme that changes the underlying impact of the song and is directly addressed to the viewer. The viewer is an explicit participant in the dialogue occurring here.

The first chorus ends with ‘No one really knows how the game is played, the art of the trade, how the sausage gets made; we just assume that it happens, but no one else is in the room where it happens.’ The negation in ‘no one’ creates a sense of mystery and distance between the listener and the ‘game’ of politics being played. However – the interplay between the music and the images is very important here. Watch at 0:58, where a cast member demonstrates the filling out of a form (implied to be either a voter registration form or a mail-in vote – it’s difficult to see). She points at the form, fills it in, then gives a confident smile and thumbs up to the camera as a silent response to Odom Jr singing ‘No one really knows how the game is played’. The images and the words here form a dialogue, implying for the viewer both that this is how the game is played, and that they can do it easily themselves.

The next verse features Daveed Diggs re-enacting his role as Jefferson, with an interjection from Miranda as Hamilton, before returning to Odom Jr once more singing the chorus over a new montage. This video features another cast member completing an absentee ballot – this is clearly shown to the camera as the ballot paper is held close to the lens. Again, the words ‘no one else was in the room where it happened’ take on another new significance when paired with the explicit context of a postal ballot – voting can happen at a distance. This is a particularly important context in 2020, given the pandemic, reminders of which appear in the video montages as people wear masks in public to cast their votes or register, or, as here (1:57), to post their mail-in vote.

The next section, a dialogue between Onaodowan/Madison, Jefferson/Diggs and the cast provides a little light relief before returning to a montage of postal votes being cast to the company singing the chorus. Perhaps the combination of the bigger chorus along with the images of several different votes being cast combines to create a sense of solidarity? That might be stretching it a little but it’s worth considering.

After a bridge, there is direct dialogue between Odom Jr and Miranda in split screen. When Miranda takes over for a few lines, the screen expands to give him, and his message, prominence at exactly this line:

When you got skin in the game, you stay in the game.
But you don’t get a win unless you play in the game
Oh you get love for it, you get hate for it
You get nothing if you wait for it

Video: 3:16

Without the visual, this risks being just another line in the song; with the visual cue (and its specific, careful timing) of this message taking central importance, it underscores the point made by Biden at the very beginning to refute any feelings of disenfranchisement. It leaves behind the retelling of Hamilton’s political ambitions, and makes a point about public engagement in the political process. And whilst this point can be heard in the show’s regular perfomance, either via the soundtrack or the onstage visual, the contextual cues that have been building during the video give this section a new, central importance. Instead of the vague, negative situation described by ‘no one else is in the room where it happens’, Miranda addresses the viewer directly: ‘you don’t get a win unless you play in the game… you get nothing if you wait for it’. The voter is in the room. It continues:

God help and forgive me,
I wanna build something that’s gonna outlive me
What do you want, Burr?
What do you want, Burr?
If you stand for nothing, Burr, what do you fall for?

Video 3:27

Miranda delivers these lines, with increasing intensity, directly to the camera/viewer. If we go along with the idea that Odom Jr is playing an everyman figure, representing the common feeling of being disenfranchised, then Miranda’s direct address to him as Burr is indeed a direct appeal to every viewer to participate in something bigger – ‘I wanna build something that’s gonna outlive me…If you stand for nothing, what do you fall for?’ This intensity builds as the company members join in with Miranda’s appeal.

As Odom Jr answers and the song comes towards a climax, the video montages feature the word ‘vote’ or ‘voter’ over and over. The effect is to blend the wish ‘I’ve got to be in the room where it happens’ with the image/concept of ‘vote’ to produce a unified message of empowerment through democracy.

The final bridge, expressing a need to put faith in political leaders (‘The art of the compromise: hold your nose and close your eyes; we want our leaders to save the day, but we don’t get a say in what they trade away; we dream of a brand new start, but we dream in the dark for the most part. Dark as a tomb where it happens; I’ve got to be in the room where it happens’), is answered with a return to the central message; the repetition of the chorus combined with a new montage of voters acts as a riposte to the doubts expressed in the bridge. At the end of the song Miranda wraps things up with the imperative: ‘Vote’.

The entire video finishes with Kamala Harris:

When we vote, things change. When we vote, things get better. When we vote, we address the need for all people to be treated with dignity and respect in our country.

Kamala Harris, video 4:54

It’s important to note, too, that the central message is not ‘Vote Biden’ or ‘Vote Democrat’. Although there is an obvious slant, with the bookending of Biden/Harris, the only overtly partisan reference throughout the video is one cast member (Jonathan Groff, who played King George III in the original Broadway cast) wearing a crown saying Biden/Harris.

The key message of this video is delivered not solely to Democrat voters, or even exclusively to Americans, but to all eligible members of a democracy wherever in the world they are watching: to vote, and to participate in their electoral system, as that is the key to being in the room where it happens.