Hamilton: An Armenian Musical

I first saw the musical Hamilton at the Providence Performing Arts Center in 2019 and was instantly pulled into the hysteria surrounding the show. The fast raps, the memorable songs and the seemingly untold story of Alexander Hamilton that never made it into our history classes needed to be further unraveled and unfolded. Having never listened to Hamilton prior to seeing the show, it was impossible to catch every word, rhyme or couplet in one take. So I began listening to the Original Broadway Cast album and pulled up the song lyrics, carefully following along line-by-line to understand the delicate structure and motifs at play.

As I delved deeper into the lyrics, I picked up on a theme. I began to realize that the story of the American Revolution was closer to me than I had originally thought. The way in which Hamilton portrays the plight and ensuing victory of the American revolutionaries was quite similar to the story of our Armenian soldiers defending our land in Artsakh. There are many lines from the show that can be connected to the Artsakh War, but here are a few that resonated with me during my successive listening sessions.

(Photo: Government of Armenia, October 26, 2020)

Aaron Burr, Sir

God, I wish there was a war!
Then we could prove that we’re worth more
Than anyone bargained for…

Shortly after Armenia’s first independence and then fall to the Soviet Union, Joseph Stalin and company allocated the land encompassing Nagorno-Karabakh to the Azerbaijan SSR on July 4, 1921. Up until Stalin’s death, there had been few movements to push for Artsakh’s right to self-determination and the idea that the land should be unified with Armenia. For decades, small clashes and protests did not amount to any real solution. The push to fight for Artsakh culminated in the late 1980s when Armenians in Artsakh readied themselves for war by collecting arms and organizing military training operations. For years our Armenians in Artsakh did not have the means to fight for their land, but if a war were to break out, they would undoubtedly show that they were “worth more than anyone bargained for.” This would become self-evident after the ceasefire was signed in 1994 and soldiers were able to control a majority of the land encompassing Artsakh. All they needed was a chance, an opportunity, a war.

My Shot

Hey yo, I’m just like my country
I’m young, scrappy and hungry
And I’m not throwing away my shot!

This line comparing the scrappiness and hunger of Alexander Hamilton to the American colonies reminded me of the same scrappiness and hunger of our soldiers in Artsakh. Oxford Languages defines “scrappy” as “consisting of disorganized, untidy, or incomplete parts,” which arguably can describe the military situation in Artsakh in the early stages of the Artsakh War. Most of the military units organizing resistances to Azeri aggression in the 1990s consisted of anywhere between 10 to 40 men, armed with handheld weapons and hunting shotguns, inadequate for the battlefield and long distances. Similarly, these units did not have heavy military equipment, such as tanks, helicopters or aircraft neutralization defense systems. However, the “young, scrappy and hungry” soldiers were fighting with a purpose: to defend their ancestral land. They began to acquire arms and heavy military equipment through defeating Azeri forces and forcing them to desert the battlefield, leaving the Artsakh forces with resources they never had before. 

I imagine death so much it feels more like a memory
When’s it gonna get me?

During the most recent attacks on Artsakh in 2016 and 2020, I understood for the first time the difficult reality of being a young man in Armenia. Since military service is mandatory in Armenia for men, soldiers must prepare to leave their families for the military upon turning 18. Many leave and are able to return home afterwards; many are not. I imagine that many soldiers leaving for the military in Armenia truly do “imagine death so much it feels more like a memory.” Many have likely lost fathers, brothers, cousins and friends so often that it seems like a recurring dream; except it is their reality. Rest in peace to all of our brave and selfless soldiers who have given their lives to our just cause. Asdvadz hokeenin lousavoreh.

 This is not a moment, it’s the movement
Where all the hungriest brothers with
Something to prove went?
Foes oppose us, we take an honest stand
We roll like Moses, claimin’ our promised land

The push for Artsakh’s independence has never been just a “moment.” It wasn’t in the 1990s, and it definitely is not now. It is a movement that has been culminating for the last few thousand years. The juxtaposition of American patriots with Moses is also fitting for the people of Artsakh; we have claimed our “promised land” and are here to defend it. The most important line of this refrain is “we take an honest stand.” The self-determination of Artsakh has been as honest a struggle as there is. Our people had enough of the endless persecution in Baku, Sumgait and Kirovabad and decided to rise up against injustice. Our soldiers are without a doubt the “hungriest brothers,” and the endless videos of motivating speeches, revolutionary songs and uplifting statements are proof that our people will do whatever it takes to defend this land. 

Right Hand Man

We are outgunned (What?)
Outmanned (What?)
Outnumbered
Outplanned (Buck, buck, buck, buck, buck!)
We gotta make an all out stand

Similar to the patriots in the beginning years of the American Revolution, Armenia and Artsakh have limited resources when it comes to sustaining this inhumane war. We did not have those resources in the 1990s, and we arguably have less in 2020, when compared to Azerbaijan’s resources. We do not have Azeri oil money, Turkish military support or Israeli military equipment to fight on our side. Armenia and Artsakh are most definitely “outgunned, outmanned, outnumbered.” The only solution to the Artsakh conflict is exactly as the lyrics say: to “make an all out stand.” If it is something worth fighting for, then we will fight until the end.

Wait For It

Death doesn’t discriminate
Between the sinners
And the saints
It takes and it takes and it takes
And we keep living anyway.

In my favorite song of the entire musical, Aaron Burr explains his conservative and calculated approach to life, never risking much in return for long-term security. This refrain fits in the context of the situation in Artsakh. Every day, soldiers die for unnecessary reasons on both sides. However, at the end of the day, the war will not discriminate between the “sinners and the saints.” It will continue to take these lives with no regard for the impact it has on the lives of innocent family members. The last line, “and we keep living anyway,” touches upon the fact that many of us have become extremely desensitized to the loss of human life. At first, the line comes across as a positive outlook on death’s ruthless killing of both innocent and guilty lives. In reality, however, it is the mindset many of us are left with after 30-plus years of losing soldiers every month due to one broken ceasefire after another. Mothers, fathers and children have become too accustomed to seeing the names of their loved ones listed as casualties. We cannot settle to just “keep living.” We want to live in peace.

(Photo: Government of Armenia, October 26, 2020)

Yorktown

Tens of thousands of people flood the streets
There are screams and church bells ringing
And as our fallen foes retreat
I hear the drinking song they’re singing…
The world turned upside down

“Yorktown” portrays the picture of Artsakh once we put a final end to the question of “Whose land is it?” The Battle of Yorktown marked the final chapter and the end of British reign over Americans, ushering in a new era of independence and democracy. I often wonder which battle in Artsakh will be our Yorktown. Once we liberate and control all of our historic lands, the Azeri militia will retreat, singing their drinking songs of defeat. They will continually think to themselves how they lost the war. The answer is that our Armenian people and soldiers have pride like no other people on earth. While listening to this song, I picture tens of thousands of Artsakh’s citizens flooding the city center to celebrate, while the sweet bells of our rebuilt churches ring once again in peace and harmony.

What Comes Next

What comes next?
You’ve been freed
Do you know how hard it is to lead?
You’re on your own
Awesome. Wow
Do you have a clue what happens now?

In Hamilton, King George III is portrayed as a sarcastic, pompous and satirical figure, constantly boasting how the Americans will undoubtedly lose the war, until King George realizes he cannot meet the Redcoats’ needs to sustain the war. Upon accepting defeat, he performs “What Comes Next?”, a query to the American people as to what they expect the outcome to be. In our version of Hamilton, King George III is without a doubt Azerbaijan’s dictator Ilham Aliyev. He consistently boasts of falsified casualty numbers, land gains and attacks on his civilian cities. Once our soldiers put an end to the war once and for all, it will be Aliyev asking the disgruntled question “What comes next?” He knows well that the Republic of Artsakh has and will continue to establish a more free and peaceful democratic state than the dictatorship that is Azerbaijan.

It’s Quiet Uptown

There are moments that the words don’t reach
There is suffering too terrible to name
You hold your child as tight as you can
And push away the unimaginable

Writing this article in itself has been quite a struggle. There truly are many moments in life, the past few weeks being some of them, that “the words don’t reach.” I find myself searching for an explanation as to why more than 800 men and women have had their lives cut short. I am looking for the words to explain to my children one day why Azerbaijan has indoctrinated hate towards Armenians to the point where killing Armenians is heralded as an honorable act in that country. The struggle for Artsakh has been plagued by stories of pain, loss and worst of all, fear. My heart aches when I see images of children in bomb shelters while their teacher tries to carry on their lives, avoiding the reality of the situation. I cannot imagine the fear of our innocent civilians who live everyday wondering if their homes will be spared from indiscriminate shelling. Fear, when truly felt, is one of the most powerful emotions that show the true fragility of humans. Mothers “push away the unimaginable” thought of their sons and daughters possibly being martyred on the front lines. Armenian mothers are truly some of the most admirable and strongest groups of people on the face of this earth, and I will stand by that statement for life. 

The World Was Wide Enough

Legacy. What is a legacy?
It’s planting seeds in a garden you never get to see
I wrote some notes at the beginning of a song someone will sing for me
America, you great unfinished symphony, you sent for me

For our last commentary, some context is needed. Alexander Hamilton is now dueling Aaron Burr in an event that would ultimately end Hamilton’s life. After counting to 10 and pulling the trigger, the scene freezes, and we hear nothing but Hamilton’s voice and a heartbeat, as he begins to reflect on his life and the situation he has found himself in. This is important, because these words are Hamilton’s final thoughts before dying, putting us in the shoes of someone facing unavoidable death.

Artsakh is our “great unfinished symphony.”

Lin-Manuel Miranda beautifully depicts the definition of a “legacy” here. Our venerable soldiers and martyrs are the ones who will allow the people of Artsakh to one day live in peace. They are the ones “planting seeds in a garden you never get to see.” They are enabling their children, grandchildren and great grandchildren to have the opportunity to live on the land we know as home. Even if they never get to see the fruits of their labor, they can rest easy knowing that our garden will be a beautiful one. This is their legacy.

They are the ones who “wrote some notes at the beginning of a song someone else will sing for me.” The stories of our soldiers and their dedication to defend our ancestral land must undoubtedly be honored with a song, so we can give them their due respect every time we sing it. Even if they never get to hear the notes of the song they started, it will be one we will sing for centuries. This is their legacy.

Artsakh is our “great unfinished symphony.” A symphony is a musical composition written for a full orchestra; we have only written the first section. Our soldiers are the composers of this symphony, and for every soldier who gives their life, there will be another soldier ready to step up and continue the notes where they left off. Our people will do everything it takes to complete this symphony, whether it takes one, ten or a hundred years. I hope in my lifetime that we will be able to see the final composition of the full symphony that is the Republic of Artsakh. It goes without saying that this symphony will include feelings of uncertainty and lingering fear. However, I am also certain that the ending of this symphony will be triumphant and victorious.

When that day arrives, I have no doubt that the beautiful harmonies of freedom and independence will ring for generations to come. 

Nareg Mkrtschjan

Nareg Mkrtschjan

Nareg Mkrtschjan is the current president of the Providence "Varantian" Chapter. He has been very active throughout his AYF-YOARF career, participating as an AYF intern in 2017 and director in 2018.
Nareg Mkrtschjan

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1 Comment

  1. What a magnificently written piece! Insightful, touching, meaningful!
    Thank you, Nareg! You are indeed, a very talented, thoughtful, and enterprising young
    man!

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