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On Hamilton and Revolution

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Fourth of July with my family was spent eating leftover apple pie and watching the long-rumored, long-embargoed recording of a June 2016 performance of Hamilton by the original cast. I saw the show in its London production in 2018, and long before that I had listened to its soundtrack album so many times that I practically know it by heart. One interesting thing about Hamilton is that as well as being a sung-through show, its action is conveyed almost entirely through lyrics, so that the soundtrack conveys the import of the show almost perfectly. Still, it was a treat to finally get to see the original cast on stage, even if it was just on a TV screen, and to discover new aspects of their performances, such as the fact that Daveed Diggs, already so excellent on the soundtrack, simply walks away with the whole show on screen.

It’s also an opportunity to revisit Hamilton five years on, a period during which the show’s veneer of coolness—a rap musical making overt references to the likes of Notorious B.I.G. and Grandmaster Flash—has rubbed off to reveal the nerdy heart that beats beneath it. No one who has had the slightest interaction with Hamilton mastermind Lin-Manuel Miranda could ever suspect him of possessing even the tiniest scrap of cynicism or ironic distance, and that earnestness can, with time, come to feel overbearing. Nevertheless, I want to talk about the things that I think are still vital in Hamilton, the ways in which it is still revolutionary.

It’s easy to forget this in 2020, when Hamilton has become firmly entrenched in the pop culture canon, but when the show first broke out in 2015 and 2016, it was a bona fide cultural phenomenon. Shepherded by Miranda’s savvy instincts, its cultural reach extended far beyond Broadway, due to his willingness to let a fandom develop and lay claim to it. He produced a soundtrack album when the show was barely even on Broadway, and encouraged fans to create resources for explicating and annotating the show, the history it depicted, and the musical references it made, giving people with no chance of seeing Hamilton in theaters the ability to feel like part of the tribe. He started the Ham4Ham performances, in which cast members and performers from nearby Broadway shows performed outtakes, ad-libs, and scenes from other Broadway stalwarts for the benefit of people waiting in line for the Hamilton lottery drawing, then allowed videos of the performances to be circulated online. And he became highly available to fans on twitter, doling out details about the creative process that led to the show in its final form, highlighting fan art and commentary, and giving glimpses of backstage camaraderie and shenanigans. For those months, Hamilton was something far greater than the show itself, to the extent that, when I finally got to see a performance of it, it felt almost like an encore.

It 2020, that moment hasn’t exactly faded, but it certainly no longer burns with the same white-hot intensity. Hamilton hasn’t suffered the kind of critical reevaluation that has afflicted previous Broadway juggernauts like Rent, but it also no longer feels quite as relevant as it once did. As many critics have noted, the show was a quintessential artifact of the Obama era (up to and including having its first public debut at the Obama White House). It was a story about claiming America and its national narrative for immigrants and people of color. When Miranda hosted SNL shortly before the 2016 election and around the time of the release of the “pussy” tape, he performed a rap number while striding through the show’s backstage, arriving at an array of photographs of previous hosts. Stopping short at a picture of Trump, he broke his rhythm and then—in a moment that I (and I suspect also he) can no longer think of without pain—launched into a refrain from the play: “Never gonna be president now!” When Trump was nevertheless elected, it seemed to sound a death knell for the idea of America that Hamilton represented. It’s probably not a coincidence that the next Broadway show to develop an international fandom has been Hadestown, a parable about inequality and the struggle for labor rights that grafts its story onto the myth of Orpheus—and thus, ends tragically.

There are a lot of valid and necessary criticisms to be made of Hamilton (notwithstanding certain wrongheaded musical criticisms recently made on this blog). Its history is suspect, and its reverence for its title character makes a progressive hero out of a man who was hardly that at all. It is unabashedly pro-America in ways that can lead it to soft-pedal evils like slavery and outright ignore Native American dispossession. It has an Aaron Sorkin-esque awe of the political process that can lead—as we’ve seen in Sorkin’s own work—to hollow technocracy. And, as I wrote when I first listened to the soundtrack, though there’s much to be said in favor of the show’s casting, it also has the perverse effect of whitewashing the failings of the people it depicts. Hamilton’s version of the American Revolution is so enticing and persuasive that it’s easy to think of George Washington and imagine Christopher Jackson’s calm gravitas, or of Thomas Jefferson while picturing Daveed Diggs’s effortless cool. This makes it easier to forget that the real men in question would have seen the actors portraying them as sub-human, and denied them, among many other things, the opportunity to develop their talent.

But I think the core of the criticism one sees of Hamilton these days is the simple fact that it’s been five years since the show debuted, and in that time, what once seemed revolutionary is now a little old hat. You see it again and again when it comes to truly brilliant, groundbreaking successes: the things that were the biggest gambles, the most unlikely swings for the fences, are the ones that come to seem inevitable, and even, after a while, trite and over-obvious. Of course a rap musical about America’s first treasury secretary in which the Founding Fathers and their social set are played exclusively by non-white actors would become one of Broadway’s biggest successes in decades, as well as a global cultural phenomenon! It’s easy to take what was once revolutionary for granted, and after a while, a work can become chewed over, the newness wrung out of it and made into something familiar and comfortable.

But this, I think, is part of the point the play is making. When it comes to Hamilton’s casting, people tend to take it as an act of correction, a way of giving talented actors a shot at characters they’d usually be excluded from playing, and of laying claim to America’s origin story on behalf of its non-white citizens. It’s one of the ways that the play has come to seem a little dorky and over-earnest. It is all of those things, of course, but the most subversive thing Hamilton does with its casting—and with the type of music it puts in its historical figures’ mouths—is to remind us how differently revolution is treated when it comes from people who look like Diggs or Jackson or Renée Elise Goldsberry, who speak as they and the other characters in the show do.

It’s something I’ve been thinking about a lot over the last few weeks, as I’ve observed the protests engulfing the US. A lot of other people have remarked upon it too. When white people protest for their “right” to get a haircut or go to a restaurant, the police treat them with kid gloves, even when they march into statehouses brandishing assault weapons, or scream in the cops’ faces. When black and brown people protest for their lives with no weapons in their hands, they’re met with tear gas, rubber bullets to the face, cars driving into crowds, and swinging clubs. Open white supremacists are greeted by the police as friends, while medics treating the BLM protesters are attacked, and food and water caches destroyed. The revolution that Hamilton presents is the one that Americans—that people all over the world—have been trained to see as not just righteous, but uniquely civilized. By putting people of color at its center and rap music in their mouths, the show reminds us that in any other context, they’d be condemned as thugs and barbarians. The last few weeks have given us ample examples of that.

And that, I think, is what remains vital and necessary at the heart of Hamilton, beneath the accumulated five years of success, beneath the Disney brand, beneath the reams of merchandising, beneath even the undeniably uncool earnestness of the show and its creator. Hamilton reminds us that revolution, when it happens, is never welcomed with open arms, never treated as inevitable and civilized—and all the more so when that revolution comes from those who need it most. That’s a lesson that I think is worth being reminded of in 2020.

Happy Fourth of July.

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