Why Hamilton is as frustrating as it is brilliant — and impossible to pin down

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Hamilton cast performs in New York in 2015. | Disney

Hamilton is an impossibly slippery text. The arguments over the show are part of what make it great.

The smash-hit Broadway musical Hamilton arrives in movie form on Disney+ this weekend, making it accessible to more people than ever before. And with this glossy composite recording of the show comes a long-standing public debate: Is Hamilton a brilliant, visionary reframing of the narrative of America; a revisionist apologetic paying undue worship to the founding fathers; or an unholy mix of both?

The timing of the film adaptation’s arrival helps to renew this argument. Disney+ is releasing Hamilton just in time for the Fourth of July, appropriate for the musical’s trappings of lavish patriotism. It also drops in concert with the most intense US political protests in recent memory — protests whose spirit the musical, by centering actors of color in a racebent narrative about revolution, also arguably upholds. It’s an uncomfortable duality, a tension that the beloved hip-hop musical has courted since day one.

How can one story simultaneously broadcast a contemptible message of myopic reverence for America’s founding fathers to some, while others take from it an equally powerful repudiation of everything those founding fathers represent? Unraveling this question requires understanding Hamilton as the messy, mutable product of two masters: its creator, Lin-Manuel Miranda, and the constantly roiling cultural context in which it’s been viewed, especially in 2020.

On one level, Hamilton is a wryly optimistic American love letter

Hamilton is nominally about the founding of America, written by a man who in many ways personifies the most idealized version of the American Dream. Miranda, a native New Yorker and son of Puerto Rican immigrants, grew up in Washington Heights, tested into an elite prep school, wrote and staged his semi-autobiographical musical In the Heights while he was still in college, and saw that show become the toast of Broadway in 2007, when he was just 27.

A year later, Miranda read historian Ron Chernow’s acclaimed 2004 biography about Alexander Hamilton, the oft-overlooked founding father who, despite causing several scandals and dying prematurely in a famous duel, did as much as any of his co-founders to establish America’s economic and legal foundation. Miranda felt immediately that Hamilton was a kindred spirit — another immigrant who fell hard for New York City, who sparred with the other ideologues of his day, not unlike many of the great rappers of the 1990s.

Buoyed by these parallels, Miranda decided to write a hip-hop musical about Hamilton, featuring himself in the title role and using the template of historical America to explore modern America. He tied each of the founding fathers to iconic rap artists — the tactically taciturn Aaron Burr, for example, is “Javert [from the musical Les Misérables] meets Mos Def,” while Hamilton is “Eminem meets Sweeney Todd.” In the show, the fierce cabinet battles under President Washington become rap battles; the 10 historical rules for fighting in duels become an extended homage to Notorious B.I.G.’s “Ten Crack Commandments.”

Crucial to this entire conceit was casting mainly actors of color to play white historical figures. It’s a move that, along with the enlivening sound of hip-hop, instantly transformed Hamilton from a dry history lesson into an opulent, richly layered meta-text about the impossibility of fully accurate historical storytelling, about the American dream, and implicitly about the people of color who are so often left out of the narrative of that dream.

In January 2015, when Hamilton opened off-Broadway, it felt progressive and full of hope. When it debuted on Broadway in August of that year, it was already the hottest ticket in town. It felt like exactly the right kind of diverse, surprising, self-aware historical deconstruction for a moment in which Hillary Clinton seemed primed to continue President Obama’s era of democratic idealism and inclusivity. (Plus, its songs were catchy as hell.)

Even accounting for nostalgia, it’s difficult to overstate how huge the hype around Hamilton was. In 2009, the same year he began writing it, Miranda went viral when he previewed the show’s opening number at Obama’s White House Poetry Jam.

The performance drew plenty of skeptics. Then-Daily Show host Jon Stewart, in a segment that has aged like asbestos, roundly mocked Miranda and the other poets of color featured in the event, snarking, “You’ve been dissed, disrespected, disenfranchised, but ’dis? Is kind of ridiculous.” But mostly, Miranda’s Hamilton musical drew years and years of anticipation. The show was an instant sellout at the Public, and those who scored tickets to the off-Broadway performance claimed (and still claim) ultimate insider status.

Barely a month after its off-Broadway opening, a Tumblr countdown until it won a Pulitzer began. (It took 393 days.) The show broke pre-sales records. Chernow’s Hamilton biography became a bestseller. Many members of its large ensemble cast became household names among Broadway fans, in particular Leslie Odom Jr, Renée Elise Goldsberry, and master rapper Daveed Diggs, who all won Tonys for their performances.

When NPR previewed the cast recording in September 2015 — the first time most people had ever heard the show — it garnered international media attention, and mainstream culture outside of New York began to take notice of the show. Tickets sold out for months and remained nearly impossible to get, especially at non-scalped prices — which didn’t stop floods of celebrities, including both President Obama and his political enemy, former Vice President Dick Cheney, from seeing it and singing its virtuous praises.

“I was an entertainment reporter for years, and I have never, ever, ever seen [a] level of hype like this show received,” Martha Southgate, a novelist and playwright who taught a class on Hamilton for the New York Times, told me.

After 11 Tony wins, a Pulitzer, a MacArthur genius grant, and endless late-night talk show appearances, however, even the most electrifying art may overstay its welcome. (“You don’t need to watch Hamilton,” Slate tells us now, after devoting at least 114 articles to the show since 2015.) As it has reached peak cultural saturation, much of Hamilton’s textual liberal centrism — a political stance that made it controversial from the beginning and has only come to seem more outdated and disingenuous during the Trump administration — has induced lots of eye-rolling and even more outright contempt:

This level of scorn for the show now seems to have been adopted by an increasing number of audiences and critics, at the precise moment when it’s poised to reenter the cultural conversation on a much larger scale. “As a cultural product, the hype plays into expectations about it,” Southgate told me, “and that’s part of the critique, too.”

Is the critique of the show — that it’s a revisionist, worshipful affirmation of the American patriarchy as well as an erasure of historical people of color — just as overinflated as the hype and praise? No, not exactly; Hamilton has never stood up well to criticisms of its historical accuracy. But that could be by design, because Hamilton itself is much less concerned with history than its historical critics want it to be.

Hamilton is as multi-faceted as it is difficult to pin down

One of the incontrovertible truths about Hamilton is that it is inextricably tied not just to its eponymous figure but to its creator. “You do have to consider where a work of art comes from,” Southgate told me. “[Miranda]’s dad worked in government. He’s certainly a Democrat, he raised money for Hillary — he’s kinda like Obama. [Hamilton] is the work of someone who is the somewhat-moderate, left-leaning son of an immigrant. Who grew up in Washington Heights and has struggled with being Puerto Rican.“

Southgate notes that Miranda “grew up in two worlds,” attending prestigious schools while also growing up in a poorer Latinx community. “You have to learn to code-switch and do all this juggling that makes you kind of guarded and makes you learn how to get along with everybody,” she said. “That’s the artist you’re dealing with, whether you like it or not.”

That Hamilton’s creator is an unabashed believer in the American dream with perhaps just slightly left-of-center politics affects how we discuss Hamilton in 2020. It helps to remember we’re dealing with a story about a man who founded America’s banking system first conceived at the very beginning of the 2008 economic recession, before the growth of Occupy Wall Street and before a deeper cultural critique of capitalism became a sustained part of mainstream debate. The bottom line, for some interpreters, is that Hamilton may not have ever been as progressive as many of its fans always claimed it to be.

The way the show was created also invites that notion. Apart from Miranda, its creative team consists of white men; the show has never, for example, had a Black musical director. Then there are moments in its history like a memorably uncomfortable scene from Hamilton’s popular pre-show street performance series, Ham4Ham. In it, choreographer Andy Blankenbuehler performs some of the show’s dance moves, which originated from Fred Astaire’s blackface imitation of Bojangles — all without any apparent self-reflection beyond noting the layers were “a very deep-seated thing.” The delighted white audience looks on, but it’s hard not to watch this now and cringe. It encourages us to wonder whether Miranda and his creative team even considered how Black history factors into telling Hamilton’s story.

Hamilton is both a piece of art that troubles me deeply, and a piece of art that sustains me, that gives me life,” Rutgers professor Lyra D. Monteiro wrote on Medium in 2017. Monteiro had previously published one of the first widely distributed pieces of academic criticism of Hamilton, which argued that “while the play is praised for its racially adventurous casting, it in fact uses the talents, bodies, and voices of black artists to mask an erasure of people of color from the actual story of the American Revolution.”

There’s little wiggle room in Hamilton’s text here to defend itself. The show has zero named characters of color, apart from a pointedly throwaway line referring to Thomas Jefferson’s enslaved rape victim Sally Hemings. It emphatically aligns its heroes, most notably Alexander Hamilton and George Washington, with modern-day movements for Black equality without ever pointing out that they each supported slavery. “Washington had slaves,” theater educator Blaire Deziel told me bluntly. “His iconic teeth are slaves’ teeth. In its celebration of the other people who created American history, [Hamilton] whitewashes American history as well.”

Okieriete Onaodowan, who played James Madison and Hercules Mulligan in Hamilton’s original cast, told me it didn’t surprise him that the play managed to provoke praise and criticism for the exact same reasons. “Hamilton is like any other art piece,” he said. “Everyone walks away with [what] they want. I’ve seen some people who did not like the show [because] we’re celebrating these people who owned slaves and thought Black people were three-fifths of a person, which is also 100 percent accurate. But then there were also other people who came … who probably were like, ‘Yes, finally Black people knowing their place and telling the story of the founding fathers, rightfully so.’

“It makes sense why Dick Cheney would like it,” he said. “We’re not telling the story of Marcus Garvey. We’re not telling the story of Nat Turner, we’re not telling the story of Harriet Tubman. We’re telling the story of founding fathers, people who look like [Cheney], that uphold the ideals that he loves. So it makes sense that he likes it.”

Can Hamilton, then, be read as a text that supports both Black lives and white supremacy? Some say yes. Onaodowan, for his part, notes that “Trump got elected the year that Hamilton came out [during the 2015–’16 Broadway season]. There are a lot of people who like both things.”

The duality of Hamilton is difficult and challenging and frankly upsetting. That’s probably why Hamilton has since its Broadway debut spawned countless takes and critiques attempting to navigate its competing readings, trying to define it as either regressive or progressive, historically valid or invalid. Often contradictory takes may come from different critics at the same outlet, including from Vox. In 2019, longtime Hamilton critic and playwright Ishmael Reed savaged Hamilton and Miranda in an original play, The Haunting of Lin-Manuel Miranda. The work, as the New Yorker describes it, stars “a fictionalized and comically exasperated Miranda [who] is harangued by a procession of ghosts: slaves owned by Hamilton’s in-laws, Native Americans absent from the story that the musical tells, an indentured white servant, Harriet Tubman … Miranda begins to see the light when the ghost of Alexander Hamilton appears and proves to be a craven and openly racist man.”

This sort of critique, however, requires holding Miranda’s work to a higher standard of historical accuracy than that which we expect from every other fictionalized historical musical. (For example, as Southgate pointed out to me, the recent revival of Oklahoma! was no less beloved for failing to center Native Americans.) Such criticism also assumes that Miranda’s work isn’t self-aware about the ways in which its absence of people of color from the narrative provokes this entire debate to begin with. But there’s plenty of textual evidence that it is.

Take one early song, “My Shot.” In it, our hero Hamilton, having arrived in New York as an immigrant from the Caribbean, describes both himself and his new country as “young, scrappy, and hungry.” He clearly believes in the possibilities of this version of America. So does Lin-Manuel Miranda, who not only wrote the whole show but originated and left his indelible mark on the role of Hamilton.

But later on in the very same song, Hamilton asks, “If we win our independence, / is that a guarantee of freedom/ for our descendants? / Or will the blood we shed begin an endless / cycle of vengeance and death / with no defendants?”

In other words, Hamilton is overtly uplifting, but it also seems to be shrewd about the dark repercussions of patriotism and its own presentational contradictions. It constantly invites the audience to think about the ways in which our modern political problems have stemmed from the embedded failures of the historical ones onstage. “I will pop chicka-pop these cops till I’m free,” sings John Laurens, a character explicitly tied to the abolitionist movement, in “My Shot.” The use of “cops” to mean British soldiers is not just a convenient rhyme; when a Black man plays Laurens, the line gains parallels to modern resistance against police brutality. Laurens’s fight for freedom becomes a fight to be free not from British tyranny but from slavery and generations of systemic racism.

Whether Hamilton’s contradictory impulses are intentional or not is another source of debate. From the first moment I heard the cast recording of Hamilton, I’ve believed that it’s a text that deconstructs itself. To me, all of the sharpest (and accurate) historical criticisms that can be made of the show were always intended to be a part of the point of the show. Many Hamilton fans argue that the show’s lack of characters of color and its refusal to address its heroes’ relationship to slavery have always been a part of Hamilton’s implicit, default, scathing commentary on historicity and the erasure of marginalized people from the story of America. As an audience member (I’ve seen the show twice), I read the glaring absence of these links as a long, intentionally looming shadow over each performance; it’s a silent-but-screaming commentary on the way people of color, especially Black and Indigenous Americans, have been denied agency over, or even a presence within, their own stories in so much of the history we’re taught in flawed textbooks.

Until this week, when reconsidering the show ahead of its streaming premiere, I thought this interpretation of Hamilton was the baseline assumption under which most of its viewing audience operates. That Hamilton operates at that self-aware level seemed self-evident to me because Miranda himself is immersed in both hip-hop culture and internet culture, where such layered meta-commentary and implicit audience dialogue are foundational tools of the creative trade. And then there’s the casting: For Miranda to racebend the whole cast with any self-awareness, surely he’d also have intended his show’s erasure of historical characters of color to be part of the discussion of his multiracial performers. Right?

Or is it a privileged view to give Hamilton that much credit — to assume that the textual erasure of BIPOC is anything but pernicious, full stop?

As it turns out, nearly everyone I spoke with for this article found my meta-reading surprising. Even Onaodowan was surprised by the idea that Hamilton was a commentary on itself. He told me that when the cast was developing Hamilton in 2015, they were focused on building the body of the show, not unpacking its many layers of implied meta-references.

“All Hamilton does is present itself,” he told me. “What people do with what we present — that is not on Hamilton. And as an artist, you have to just make your art — how people use it and distort it, you have no control over it once you put it out there.”

The meaning of Hamilton is still evolving

Perhaps the best way to describe Hamilton, then, is “slippery.” Like the story it’s trying to tell, just when you think you’ve got it pegged as a text, it wriggles free from your grasp to take a different shape or invite a different frame of reference.

As I talked to fans and critics about the show, a recurring theme was how difficult it is to evaluate because it is just five years old; its place and artistic legacy is still evolving. But another, undeniable reason it’s hard to pin Hamilton into place is that it has been responsive to dozens of different historical moments since it first opened off-Broadway. The beginning of the Black Lives Matter movement in Ferguson, Missouri, in August 2014 preceded Hamilton by just five months. When the show opened off-Broadway in January 2015, New York City was just settling down from months of demonstrations over the lack of an indictment against police officers in the death of Eric Garner. Internationally, the Syrian refugee crisis was mainstreaming an immigration debate that Donald Trump was already fully embracing as he campaigned for president — a debate Hamilton slyly responds to and shuts down through a single line (“Immigrants — we get the job done”) that frequently causes spontaneous audience ovations.

Well after its opening, Hamilton continues to intersect with an unraveling present-day history. In November 2016, shortly after the election, Vice President-elect Mike Pence attended the show amid a tense, politically charged atmosphere that culminated in actor Brandon Victor Dixon addressing Pence onstage with a plea for tolerance from the show’s cast and crew. The day of the show’s sweep at the 2017 Tonys was also the day of the Pulse Nightclub shooting in Orlando, then the largest mass shooting in US history and widely believed at that time to be a hate crime. In response to the shooting, the cast removed the prop guns from its Tonys performance of “Yorktown.”

Hamilton also found itself in President Trump’s crosshairs following Pence’s visit, and that feud has continued, bolstered by Miranda’s blistering personal response to Trump’s reluctance to send aid to Puerto Rico following Hurricane Maria in 2017. Southgate told me she felt that the years since the 2016 election have been something of a personal evolution for Miranda himself, “who I think is not by nature an intensely political person” — the centrist peacenik, then, increasingly becoming more revolutionary, like the characters he put onstage.

Miranda’s and his show’s political awakening may have been unexpectedly complicated by this year’s nationwide protests against police brutality following the murder of George Floyd. In late May, Miranda issued an official statement from the show in support of Black Lives Matter:

Multiple people I spoke with for this story mentioned Hamilton’s renewed relevance in light of the protests. “At at least two demonstrations now, I’ve heard people [reference the line], ‘This is not a moment, it’s the movement,’” Southgate told me. It makes sense: The most progressive thing about Hamilton is its implied argument that anti-racist protest is patriotic revolution. As one of my favorite commentaries on the show puts it:

Why do we consider the founding fathers revolutionaries and not the Black Panthers or the Brown Berets or any number of other anti-racist revolutionary organizations? Whose rebellion is valued? Who is allowed to be heroic through defiance? By making the founding fathers people of colour, Hamilton puts people of colour into the American narrative, while simultaneously applying that narrative to the present.

“It’s just curious to see how the people who are utilizing [Hamilton right now] happen to be all the protesters,” Onaodowan echoed. “All the lines that seem applicable to today seem applicable to the people who are in the streets protesting the murder of George Floyd.”

“For me, Hamilton is on the side of the protesters,” Minister Darrick Jackson told me. “It is a story about revolution, and … the current protests are more than just decrying injustice, [they are] calling for a revolution, to change the institution that allows the brutality in the first place.” Jackson, a Unitarian Universalist from Chicago who’s seen the show three times, told me he believes Hamilton is “a beacon in the midst of the Trump administration.”

“It reminds us of a commitment to centering marginalized communities. It reminds us to think about what legacy we want to leave for the future. It reminds us that imperfection is not irredeemable and that forgiveness is possible,” he said. “For me, the ending of Hamilton is a charge to think about what story we want told about this lifetime, and who we allow to tell that story. If we want a different narrative, we have to work to make it so.”

Put that way, Hamilton seems like it’s been a part of the racial protest narrative all along. But now that the show is poised to reach a much wider audience through its arrival on streaming — anecdotally at Vox, many of our staffers’ parents appear to be signing up for Disney+ just to watch Hamilton — the many heated conversations around the musical may be headed in entirely new directions.

And that, Southgate emphasized, is exactly the sort of engagement that keeps Hamilton relevant.

“All this thinking and excitement, and all the thinking, even the [criticism], indicates how significant it is, and how worth thinking about it is,” she told me. “Just like it’s worth thinking about this country.”


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Author: Aja Romano

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