We are seven months into 2020, so it’s a perfect time to share thoughts about art I enjoyed in 2019.
On July 3, 2020, Disney’s streaming service premiered a filmed version of Hamilton, the acclaimed Broadway musical written by Lin Manuel Miranda. It was filmed in June of 2016, during the height of the musical’s popularity and directed by Tommy Kail, who combined footage from three separate performances to create a cinematic feel. In early 2020, Miranda announced that Disney bought the rights to the film (for a reported 75 million dollars) and planned to release it in theaters in October of 2021.
A few weeks later, theaters across the country closed their doors due to the COVID 19 pandemic.
A few weeks after that, Disney opted to skip the theaters and release the film fifteen months early into a world that feels very different from the spring and summer of 2016.
Will Hamilton work in 2020? I don’t know if this is the right time for the musical. The film may feel like an artifact of another era, an unpleasant reminder of where we are now. Or it could be an inspirational bit of fun that distracts us from the chaos outside our collective windows (while inspiring us to take some concrete action). It will be interesting to see how a broad audience responds to seeing the musical for the first time.
Hamilton was developed, produced and released during the Obama administration and exemplifies the era in which it was produced.
It is a powerful, optimistic symbol of Black and Latinx culture and excellence and the potential of the grand American experiment. It gently subverts and complicates the traditional telling of the nation’s founding by incorporating elements of hip-hop art and culture and having a cast composed entirely of Black and Latinx performers (other than King George and a brief appearance of Samuel Seabury).
The filmed version of Hamilton will be released in a very different political and social environment. The Trump administration’s reactionary response to Obama has been a reminder that many of the gains we thought we made over the last decade were ephemeral. The protests and activism that have arisen in response to the Trump administration’s actions have also drawn attention to the systemic problems in this country. It’s a bit harder to have an optimistic view about the Founding Fathers and the grand American experiment in 2020. If this nation is to be redeemed, it will not be through reinforcing the old myths – if anything, it would be through a version of this story that centered the other, less prominent people who were not memorialized with a statue or an image on currency.
The release of the film to a broad audience has prompted me to revisit some of the elements of the musical that were most intriguing – from the ways that it complicated the notion of hip-hop theater to the meaning that can be found in the dual casting choices or the ways in which it served as a meditation on legacy and the benefits and costs of ambition. It has also led me to think about my initial response to Hamilton. Let’s start there.
The Best Birthday Present Ever
I first became aware of Hamilton when I read rapturous tweets from the Roots’ Questlove and NPR’s Gene Demby about an amazing hip hop musical that told the story of Alexander Hamilton with a primarily African American and Latinx cast. I was vaguely intrigued, but was hesitant. The idea of a hip-hop musical evoked memories of the ill-fated Carmen: A Hip Hopera musical, a well intentioned flop that was trying so hard to signal authenticity to hip hop fans that it felt completely false.
I pictured fresh faced Broadway performers earnestly reciting embarrassingly simplistic verses about the Revolutionary War and duels.
So I put it off.
I don’t know why I relented. Maybe I wasn’t in the mood to listen to anything in my library and was open to something new.
It blew my mind.
I said all of the things that you probably read in a Hamilton review (or heard from an excited friend) five years ago. I felt compelled to share my excitement with everyone I knew. My apologies to all the people who spent the fall of 2015 (and the spring of 2016) waiting for me to shut up about Hamilton.
I loved how Lin Manuel Miranda created a dialogue between hip hop and musical theater and history that invigorated all three disciplines and introduced them to wider audiences. There were people who knew nothing about hip-hop discussing the intricacies of Daveed Diggs’ double time flow.
When my wife told me that she bought tickets to Hamilton for my birthday, I was concerned that the actual show couldn’t live up to the version of Hamilton that lived in my mind. I imagined a sweeping saga and was afraid that something would be lost once I saw it live, that it would all feel ordinary.
I was wrong. The show wildly exceeded my unreasonably high expectations. The live performances breathed life into a story that already felt compelling. I had become very familiar with the sound of the cast performing the show, but the movements and expressions of the actors added layers of meaning to the story. Some actors who were less than memorable on the soundtrack were magnetic in person.
The second act (set after the end of the Revolutionary War) is particularly moving in a live format. Diggs’ performance as Thomas Jefferson is mesmerizing in person and the rivalry between Jefferson and Hamilton is far more vicious. The disdain between the two men is palpable. The subplot focusing on Hamilton’s affair with Maria Reynolds affair is similarly enlivened by the performances of actors involved – Jasmine Cephas Jones’ movements and expressions (as Ms. Reynolds) add a layer of seduction that can’t be conveyed by vocals alone.
The relationship between Alexander and his wife Eliza (played by Phillippa Soo) also feels more fully realized in the live performance. We only see glimpses of their marriage in the second act of the musical, but those moments are enriched by watching Soo and Miranda interact on a stage. The two are comfortable with each other and their body language, gestures and facial expressions give the audience insight into their relationship (and inform the choices the two make later in the musical).
To put it plainly, I was deeply impressed.
Hamilton Mania Recovery – A Glimpse of How Race Complicates Hamilton
That was several years ago. In the time since, I’ve been one of the many who enthusiastically participated in Hamilton mania. I bought the t-shirt, watched the mini performances posted on Facebook, saw and appreciated the fan art and read Miranda and Jeremy McCarter’s Hamilton: The Revolution.
I’ve also thought a lot about the ways in which Lin Manuel Miranda’s hit musical comments on the darker side of the Founders’ collective legacy. Race is central to Hamilton, from the casting choices to the art forms used to tell the story. It’s also present in the conversations between Hamilton and Laurens about recruiting enslaved African Americans to fight for the colonies during the Revolution or the sly comments Hamilton makes about Jefferson’s slaves in the second act and the multiple references to the importance of slavery for the power brokers in the South.
Hamilton is a historical period drama, not a docudrama. This gives Miranda license to shape history to fit his narrative and explore race in unorthodox ways. His take on George Washington might be the best example of this approach. Miranda’s version of the man is as informed by our national myths around our first president as Chernow’s masterful biography (or any of the other histories about Washington’s life). Miranda’s Washington does not chop down trees but is a towering inspirational figure that could have come from mid 20th century elementary school textbooks. Chris Jackson depicts Washington as a wise leader who stands above the fray, the ultimate gentleman warrior who is also a mentor and surrogate father to Alexander Hamilton. The audience sat at attention when he was introduced, and I saw tears in eyes when he stepped down from office and departed from the play in the second act. He was a humble man who appreciated the terrible cost of war and leadership, who understood the risks that our young country would face going forward. Jackson’s performance gave me a glimpse of what it must feel like to be a person with uncomplicated views about our first president.
I learned the secular myth of George Washington and the Founding Fathers with everyone else when I was a child. I’m not sure I ever believed the stories of the cherry tree or some of the mythology built around the founding of our country, but there was a moment in my life when there was something inspiring about the brilliance and vision of the men celebrated in our history books. I always knew that they were flawed, that some owned slaves, that many were willing to make a dark compromise with the elites in the southern colonies/states to ensure that the American experiment was successful. I told myself that it was a different time.
As I got older, I read more about the abolitionists of the time, the men and women who recognized the horrors of slavery as it happened. Those who accepted that the institution shouldn’t be ‘normal’. It became harder to think of the founding fathers as fundamentally good men with flaws when some of their contemporaries understood that those shortcomings were monstrous in scale.
Chris Jackson reminded me of that more innocent time in my life and of the singular impact George Washington still has in American culture/history. Casting a Black man in the role is a revolutionary act – a reminder that African Americans are central to the story of America and that the dreams we associate with the idea of America are ours.
Although the tension between the physical identity of the actors and the historical identities of the individuals their characters are based on adds meaning to the story and places African American culture at the center of the American story, it also obscures the role of African Americans in the colonial era.
The act of transforming George Washington into a heroic black man comes at the cost of ignoring the black men and women held captive by the real George Washington. There are no references to the one hundred and twenty three (123!) enslaved people who resided at Washington’s estate against their will at the time of Washington’s demise in Hamilton.
There are a handful of references to slavery, but little that reminds the audience of the pivotal role that African Americans played in the Revolutionary War (on both sides of the conflict) or how omnipresent they were in early America. The stage is filled with brown faces but there are no African American characters in the musical. There are no references to the compromises that perpetuated slavery, and which laid part of the foundation for modern systemic racism (although there is a powerful track on the Hamilton mixtape that gives some hint of what might have been).
Even the conversations about race that take place in the musical are transformed by the cross-cultural casting in complicated ways. The line ‘we will never be free until we end slavery’ line sung by Anthony Ramos (as John Laurens) and Miranda would have sounded very different (and more radical?) from the mouths of actors who bore a closer physical resemblance to the historical figures.
This is not necessarily a failing of Miranda’s Hamilton. He is telling the story of the rise and fall of one man. Lin Manuel Miranda is not aiming to simulate reality or give the audience a panoramic view of colonial America. Miranda sacrifices realism to present an America where the demographics of the power elite are reversed. He doesn’t present his story as a science fiction style alternate reality, but the visual impact of scenes where a group of African American and Latinx men decide the fate of a nascent America is indescribable, particularly when viewed in an audience that’s predominately white.
The Untold Stories
The experience of watching Hamilton onstage was so moving that I missed some of the gaps in the story, at least for the first few weeks and months. It’s hard to imagine a story about the beginning of this country that doesn’t include a reference to the crimes against the people who lived in this space before we arrived.
Hamilton samples the language Americans use in our creation myth – the story of a brand-new nation in a land filled with endless possibility. It’s a powerful and familiar idea that connects with Miranda’s approach to depicting Hamilton’s genius. He uses the qualities and characteristics we associate with creative brilliance in pop culture as a metaphor for political and economic genius. Miranda’s Hamilton is a tireless dreamer who uses language to create different worlds. In another life, he would’ve been a playwright or a novelist or an MC. He sees early America as a blank canvas, a space that can be filled with his ideas about government, the economy and society as a whole. This is a version of the American dream that is familiar and appealing. A frontier waiting to be explored, a blank page waiting to be filled. A new system where the best ideas for organizing society can be introduced and tested.
This approach is enormously effective, especially when combined with Miranda’s vocal performance, which features the kind of polysyllabic speed rapping and complex rhyme schemes that hip-hop fans associate with skill and erudition. It is complicated by the fact that the canvas was never truly blank. Our nation was new, but the land was not. It was filled with nations, villages, families and people who were violently displaced. The improved prospects for some led to the end of possibilities for others.
Hamilton is not a story about the conflict between people indigenous to this land and the colonizers who sought to conquer it. It is also not a story about the experiences of people who helped build this country without any of the accolades (or anyone to tell their story). This is not a narrative that includes black people, and while it does include some women, they are far from the center of the story.
I left the show wishing that we had more time with the actresses and the fascinating women they portrayed. It’s only right that Alexander Hamilton sits at the center of a musical called Hamilton based on a giant biography with the title Alexander Hamilton. It’s the story of a guy narrated by another guy who killed him. I was just intrigued by the glimpses we got of the inner lives of the Schuyler sisters. We are told about Angelica’s brilliance on multiple occasions, but we never get a chance to see her mind at work after Satisfied. We see hints of the famed intellect that entranced the real Hamilton in her letter urging him to resolve the dispute with Jefferson, but no more than fragments. Eliza doesn’t get the genius label, but she may be the most fully developed (and emotionally complex) character in the musical. In Stay Alive and That Would Be Enough, Soo brilliantly conveys the fear, hope and love of a woman desperately trying to convince her husband to make safe choices and to be content with their life together. This simply may be a reflection of an era when women were almost entirely excluded from the “rooms where it happens”, but I still wanted more. We all know what happened in those rooms – it would great to imagine what happened outside of them (and to remember that history is more than the stories of powerful people).
Despite Hamilton being such an out-sized unstoppable phenomenon at its peak, it can’t be all things to all people. It distills the essence of a masterful biography about a brilliant flawed man into an exploration of manhood, ambition, parenthood, love and friendship, while sharing some fun historical insights and blending elements of different musical genres into an entertaining whole. It’s a story about the power of stories – the refrain “who lives, who dies, who tells your story” reminds us that the history we’re familiar with (and the story we’re viewing) are only carefully curated fragments of the truth.
It’s also a product of its moment in history, when elevating artists from varied backgrounds and musical forms created and innovated by people of African and Latinx descent felt like a Great Leap Forward. A story that elevated our art and the Founding Fathers felt radical-ish in 2015, but things are different in this era, a time when we are collectively disabusing ourselves of the lies we’ve been told (and been telling) about our country.
The film is an opportunity to revisit a tremendously entertaining show, a welcome distraction in this time of political, economic and social chaos. It’s a time machine to an era that many are nostalgic for, when it appeared that we had made meaningful progress on the issue of race in this country. The musical is a compelling work of art, even if it’s not completely accurate. Hamilton symbolizes the shortcomings of that era in which it was produced. It privileges demographic representation over inclusion. It shows our faces and incorporates our art and vernacular while disregarding our stories. It represents a kind of progress that flatters the powerful without addressing some uncomfortable truths about our world. We had a Black president in 2016, but we also had a Black Lives Matter movement that formed during his time in office. We were so excited about the prospect of a Broadway musical theater production with a predominately Black and Latinx cast that blended hip-hop and history that many of us disregarded the parts of the story that were left out. I’m still looking forward to the film, but the musical is also a reminder of the limits of that era.