Why Hamilton is Not the Revolution You Think it is
Since opening on Broadway earlier this year, Lin-Manuel Miranda has received seemingly unlimited praise for his hip-hop infused mega-musical Hamilton, which tells the story of the eponymous American founding father. More specifically, from The New York Times to the oval office, many have lauded the piece for its apparently progressive positions: some have commented on Hamilton’s feminist interventions, while others have raved about the racial diversity of its cast. Even a critic at the conservative-leaning Wall Street Journal called Hamilton revolutionary. Why?
In another HowlRound piece, Jonathan Mandell identified the musical’s groundbreaking character through its difference: different history, different casting, and a different American musical in general. But, politically speaking, how different is Hamilton really? More to the point, what is the function of difference within Hamilton? Is Hamilton as revolutionary as so many seem to suggest it is? I don’t think so for a number of reasons.
Hamilton’s (More Than Questionable) Feminism
I am startled when I come across critics who speak in unqualified terms of Hamilton’s feminist merits. The female characters simply do not get enough stage time and, when they do appear onstage, their desires, fears, hopes, plans, and narratives exist only in relation to Alexander, the man at the center of Miranda’s musical. I’m not even sure Hamilton passes the Bechdel test, the bare minimum for feminine representation in popular culture. It’s arguable. (To pass, two women need to speak to each other about something other than a man).
Even the show’s most overtly feminist interventions fall short of satisfying. By way of example, consider Angelica Schuyler’s crowd-pleasing revisionary recitation of the Declaration of Independence in the song, “The Schuyler Sisters”:
We hold these truths to be self-evident
that all men are created equal.
But when I meet Thomas Jefferson,
I’m’a compel him to include women in the sequel!
Unfortunately, these lyrics are then followed by: “Look around, look around at how lucky we are to be alive right now” after the song’s melody returns us to Jefferson’s famous words. Though one could argue that this line exhibits the sisters’ excitement to be living in revolutionary times, such a lyrical celebration merely and tellingly displaces a reiteration of the show’s most overt feminist critique of that same revolution. Namely, the beneficiaries of the revolution, and thus equality in the new nation, were always explicitly stated: white landed men.
One could rationalize Miranda’s gender related creative choices with ye olde historical accuracy argument: “Well, this is just how things were back then! Can’t argue with history!” But it’s hard to accept such an explanation when black and brown men populate the stage, a historically inaccurate depiction of our founding fathers. Given all of the cross-racial casting, why was gender-bent casting beyond the musical’s imagination? Though Miranda does offer an admirable amplification of Eliza Schuyler’s historical contributions, this move is both too little and too late for this male-dominated musical. Where were the duets between women about women? Why choose to tell this story?
The Problem of the Bootstraps Immigration Narrative
One gets the sense that Miranda saw a prime opportunity to tell the tale of “another immigrant coming up from the bottom,” a story that epitomizes the American dream. This is the narrative we get in the show’s opening moments:
The ten-dollar founding father
Without a father
Got a lot farther
By working a lot harder
By being a lot smarter
By being a self-starter
By fourteen, they placed him
in charge of a trading charter.
This is a bootstraps immigration narrative. The message? Work exceptionally hard and you too can “rise up” up and out of the struggles of your station. Indeed, Hamilton seems to want to present an exceptionally successful immigrant (Alexander Hamilton) as a model of historical precedent and possibility for contemporary immigration discourse in the United States. The problem? The assertions here, that Hamilton worked harder and was smarter, true or not, imply that other immigrants who have not experienced success in their new nation are somehow at fault. They either do not work hard enough or, simply, are not smart enough. Such logic neglects and obscures the material obstacles and violences (structural racism, predatory capitalism, long-burned bridges to citizenship) imposed on racialized immigrants within the United States in order to celebrate the (false) promise of the American dream and the nation-state. This is the familiar and fallacious narrative that founds the logic of mainstream, immigration-unfriendly politicians on the right (Trump’s wall) and on the left (Obama’s exceptional DREAMers) in the contemporary moment. Given this, one wonders whether Miranda miscalculated the political implications of Alexander Hamilton’s narrative when he chose this story to tell. After all, the musical’s ability to uphold Hamilton as a good American immigrant is premised on its neglect of Hamilton’s own support for the Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798 which augmented the new nation’s ability to surveil and deport its residents while making it more difficult to become a naturalized citizen and to vote.
It’s puzzling to say the least, that Miranda would propagate this typical bootstraps narrative after producing such a triumphant, complicated portrait of diasporic life with In The Heights. In The Heights depicts first and second generation Americans of Puerto Rican, Dominican, and Latin American descent trying to survive and thrive in contemporary Manhattan. The characters each have different relationships to the English language, to money, to education, to opportunity, and to the United States. Contra Hamilton, In The Heights presents a complex tapestry of minoritized experiences. While Hamilton celebrates settler-colonists as patriots for stabilizing stolen land into a new nation, In The Heights is a critique of the violence of gentrification—an ongoing urban process of displacing black and brown people from their homes, colonization by another name.
But if I’m too hard on Hamilton it’s for two reasons: 1) a polemic is called for, critical engagement with the show’s politics has been sparse at best, and 2) Lin-Manuel Miranda is the best chance we’ve got in the musical theatre.
The Misplaced Revolution of Hamilton’s Racial Diversity
As I write, the Black Lives Matter movement continues to “rise up” against the essential anti-blackness of the United States. Progressive audiences seem to want to read Hamilton, complete with its multiracial ensemble, as a production that is politically copacetic with this contemporary racial revolution. However, in Hamilton, the fact that the white men that founded the United States—colonizers all, slaveholders some—are played by men of color actually obfuscates histories of racialized violence in the United States. Case in point: during “Cabinet Battle #1,” when the talented Daveed Diggs argues as Thomas Jefferson for the security of the South’s slave-holding economy, the actor’s blackness visually distances his performance of racism from Jefferson’s whiteness, enabling a (largely white) audience to forget the degree to which they are implicated in the violent, anti-black histories of the United States.
Remember who actually gets to witness Hamilton in the flesh. The exorbitantly high ticket prices coupled with the perpetually sold-out status of the production prohibit most working class people of color from attending the show. Given that the production’s audience, then, is overwhelmingly white and upper-middle-class, one wonders about the reception of the show’s racial performance. How many one-percenters walk away from Hamilton thinking that they are on the right side of history simply because they exchanged hundreds of dollars for the opportunity to sit through a racialized song and dance? My guess: too many.
Rather than aligning with the critiques leveled against the United States by contemporary leftist social movements such as Black Lives Matter, Hamilton’s valorization of the revolution of 1776 merely indulges in the fiction of a small, innocent, and oppressed group of young (implicitly white) men fighting for freedom against tyranny. Such a narrative resonates much too loudly with contemporary conservative social movements that wax nostalgic for white male “militias” armed against the threat of outsiders and government overreach, “militias” like the one that recently overtook a federal building in Oregon. While Hamilton makes an effort to outline its protagonist’s abolitionist investments and to track the status of slavery in its performance of history, the show’s narrative—made palatable and profitable both by these referential concessions and by the neoliberal imperative of racial diversity in casting—ultimately amounts to a valorization of the US nation-state and it’s juridical and financial systems, systems Alexander Hamilton helped to establish, and systems that have always functioned to the detriment of black and brown bodies despite what the musical might have us feel.
“Never Be Satisfied”
I’m aware: I’m being too hard on Hamilton. It’s unlikely that I would hold Jason Robert Brown or Stephen Sondheim to such high political standards. But if I’m too hard on Hamilton it’s for two reasons: 1) a polemic is called for, critical engagement with the show’s politics has been sparse at best, and 2) Lin-Manuel Miranda is the best chance we’ve got in the musical theatre. To the former point, I and others who have risked critiquing Hamilton in public forums have often been dismissed or denigrated for doing so. Hamilton has received rave reviews almost categorically. I agree with much of this praise; the book, the score, the choreography, the direction, the lighting: it’s all genius artistry. I also yield that a Broadway production that puts so many performers of color to work does constitute a victory. This should be celebrated, but this is not enough. We cannot afford to position Hamilton above critique. The critic, perhaps ironically, must be like Hamilton himself, or better yet, like Angelica Schuyler. The critic must “never be satisfied.” We can and should demand the best from Miranda and from all of our most brilliant cultural producers. We can and should demand that the musical theatre stage the revolution we need, that the musical theatre materialize and make irresistible, with its unique magic, the just world that we all deserve.