Hamilton’s Discontents: A Historical, Cultural Critique of the Smash Broadway Musical

 

Amidst all the Hamilton hoopla, one thing has been noticeably absent: a single genuinely critical review from a notable media outlet.

Now, let’s be clear: no one would argue that Lin-Manuel Miranda’s wildly successful musical about Alexander Hamilton isn’t great Broadway entertainment. And the comic-geek-level fandom was actually rather amusing for awhile. Yet the show has been incessantly hailed as “revolutionary.” But is it…really?

Hamilton dominated The Tonys this past Sunday night, racking up 11 of them – as if it were even possible that it would not have. So what better time for a reassessment then?

It must be said first, that by the very nature of the context, Broadway musicals are simply subject to more innocuous standards of “radicalism” (We’ve heard it before: “Spring Awakening: a groundbreaking musical!”) And the critical establishment has been effusively gushing about Hamilton’s so-called daring integration of hip-hop influences. But come now – people were rapping in Liquid Tide laundry detergent commercials 25 years ago, so the show’s probably a little late to that revolution.

A few dissenting voices were heard, though arguably buried amidst all the hype. New Yorker Contributing Editor Jay Caspian Kang challenged the order back in September by tweeting, “I felt like I was watching an overzealous first year social studies teacher rap her lesson plan at her horrified students.” In December, Hamilton Nolan started a thread on Gawker titled, This Hamilton Shit Has Gone Too Far, prompting a reader to tweet, “I’m looking forward to Miranda’s trip-hop fueled play about Millard Fillmore.”

 



 

More recently Alex Balk, co-founder of The Awl, sneered, “On those rare occasions when you get someone wondering whether Hamilton might not be the greatest thing that ever happened in 50,000 years of culture, do you find yourself stunned, surprised or fearful for the heretic’s safety?” And, perhaps not at all concerned for her safety, earlier this month Laurie Anderson, after seeing Hamilton, lamented to The Atlantic’s David A. Graham, “I left, you know, halfway. It’s not that different. It’s history lite, and musical lite, and it’s just… it’s horrible.”

Certainly more significantly, academic critiques have begun to surface. To wit, Nancy Isenberg, author of Fallen Founder: The Life of Aaron Burr, wrote a piece in March for the Dallas Morning News calling attention to Hamilton’s historical follies.

Another academically accredited critic has been Lyra D. Monteiro, Assistant Professor of History, who teaches in the graduate program of American Studies at Rutgers University. She’s also a Create Change Fellow with NYC’s Laundromat Project, and is currently working on a book, The Classical Legacy, about the role of concepts of “heritage” in the creation of the United States.

Post-Tonys, we engaged her on the subject of Hamilton.


There are no actual African American characters in Hamilton. Can you elaborate on the significance of that?

This is one of the main issues that I have with the play: despite its multiracial casting, the story that it tells is one that erases the presence of people of color—Africans and African Americans in particular, but also Native Americans—from the founding story of the United States. The bodies and labor of black men and women were quite literally the basis of the economy of the new country that the Founding Fathers created. Additionally, thousands fought or otherwise supported the efforts of both sides in the Revolutionary War. But were it not for a handful of references to slavery, one could come away from the show with the impression that people of color did not even exist in the America it depicts, or that they did nothing of importance or interest.

Does the play overly-mythologize Alexander Hamilton? He was actually an elitist slave-“renter”, and rejecter of democracy, in favor of monarchism, was he not?

Yes, he was all of those things. [The Founding Fathers] have always been overly venerated in this country, and they have become ‘cool’ as a result of this show.

Some have challenged the play’s so-called feminist credentials. How do women actually fare in the show?

Pretty poorly. With Hamilton at the center of the plot, the women only exist to support, entice, or be betrayed by him. I particularly take offense at the portrayal of Maria Reynolds as one-sidedly seducing him, and him being helpless to say ‘no’ to this. I have absolutely no doubt that she was not the only extramarital affair he had – she was simply the one case in which he got caught. The overall masculine, bro-y tone of the interactions of Hamilton, Mulligan, Burr and Lafayette are also pretty off-putting. That said, I think Angelica’s song at the wedding is one of the best in the show.

The assertion has been incessantly forwarded: it will inspire kids to learn about history. Do you think that’s true? Or is it mostly just another opportunity for a certain class of children to Instagram their privileged lives?

I don’t doubt that it inspires kids to learn about history – what concerns me is the hegemonic nature of the history that it shares with kids. I wish it were a truly revolutionary story, one that allowed them to see beyond the mythology surrounding the Founding Fathers.

The media have gushed about the show’s hip-hop musical foundation. Isn’t it a little late, though, to be considering hip-hop as a revolutionary force? Is Broadway simply judged by more milquetoast standards?

I think that’s a fair statement. I was both impressed and dumbfounded by the Wall Street Journal‘s recent representation of the rhyming structures in Hamilton – none of which are unusual for hip-hop, but which Miranda is suddenly getting so much credit for using…as if it’s a new thing. I think it’s more than a little offensive and appropriative that these [Founding Fathers] have had their words and personalities reborn in the form of hip-hop artists – an art form that grows from a history and legacy of disenfranchisement that can be traced directly to these same men.

What could Hamilton have done better?

Personally, I thought that [Miranda’s] In The Heights was a revolutionary show, in bringing the story of 21st-century working class immigrants to Broadway, using their own music. As for Hamilton, I do think it was a mistake to cut the cabinet rap battle that Miranda originally wrote about slavery. This would have been a responsible, respectful move considering how many of the cast members whose talents make the show what it is are descended from those very slaves. But perhaps I prefer to think about what Miranda himself could have done better, and that’s easy: he could have chosen to dedicate his talents to telling a more revolutionary story – one in which the lives and stories of people of color were foregrounded.
Share Button

Facebook Comments