Some Belated Thoughts on Hamilton
I have this really distinct memory from sophomore year of high school. I was at my friend’s house when she started singing some song, sounded like rap but mentioned some names that peeked out of the crevasses of my mind. Some crusty, dusty names.
“What’s that?” I asked her.
“It’s from this new play, Hamilton,” she replied. “Have you heard of it?”
Yeesh. I barely remembered Hamilton the person existed. “No, they made a play about him?”
Then she started going on about how it was revolutionizing the theatre scene, how it was gaining a lot of attention for casting actors of color, how it made U.S. history “cool” (OK, I guess, I thought), how the songs were catchy as hell. “Seriously. You should listen to the album when you can.”
“OK,” I said, “I will.” I didn’t, but only because Hamilton fell out of my mind, not that I was actively trying to avoid this newfound nerdcore wonder.
But even if I did try to avoid Hamilton, there’s no way I could have done it. This play, this little play about who was essentially the Luigi of the Founding Fathers, was suddenly everywhere. It was suddenly imperative we preserve it in the National Archives, recognize it as the quintessential item on the Golden Record’s sequel. Hamilton reinvigorated a sense of collective patriotism more than any president I’ve ever seen, somehow asserting itself as the bridge — or perhaps the can of Pepsi — linking the left and right wings of the great American eagle. People spat bars about the delegates in high school hallways. The Obamas were (very publicly) swooning over it. Even its visual, the man himself standing as the top point of a star against a rusty gold background, is firmly seared in the American consciousness. I’m pretty sure I’ll forget my family before I forget a Hamilton poster.
So when Disney+ announced that Hamilton would be joining its cacophonous catalogue, I was at least a little interested in seeing it. Five years past its initial release and Hamilton is still what many would have you believe is the peak of theatre — no, the peak of the United States as we know it. Now, I might be gay, but I’m no theatre kid, nor am I much of a U.S. history buff. But Hamilton’s hype train has been chugging along with no end in sight, so my friend and I sat in our rooms (with the lights off to simulate Broadway, of course), downloaded Disney+ Party, and attempted to board this metaphorical ride.
And, I mean, it was fine, I guess.
I realize that whatever I say about Founding Father Luigi is going to be several years late, but the way I see it, it’s a piece of work — both in itself and its cultural context — that’s still very much worth discussing. Regardless of my opinion, one can’t deny that few other works carve such a space for the intersection of arts, politics, society, and the American narrative in the mainstream. To put it shortly, Hamilton is really interesting. To put it, uh, longly…
Hamilton is quite the spectacle. Lighting, costumes, choreography, set design, and the works are not exactly areas I’m super familiar with, but to my untrained eye, everything worked splendidly together to build the world of a budding U.S. Likewise, Hamilton’s music is pretty great. The songs are catchy, and even though I’m still not totally on board with the whole “U.S. History, but two-and-a-half hours and hip hop” idea, there’s a certain brilliance to rhyming the fuck out of the Constitutional Convention. There is also something to be said about writing enough numbers — quality ones, at that — to sustain an entire musical. I think not having any dialogue to break up the flow of the songs eventually undermines the value of the songs themselves, but that could just be me and it certainly doesn’t detract from the music in itself.
But Hamilton is perhaps best known for its characters and method of characterization. In the vacuum of the play, it is rather captivating to see these puffy-wigged, oil-painted figures become people beyond the history books; George Washington, James Madison, and the like are translated to the modern day via a combination of the song direction and, of course, the cast itself. Again, theatre is not an area I can even pretend to know much about, but I understand Hamilton takes great strides in spotlighting actors, especially Black and Brown ones, that Broadway has long excluded. It truly is amazing to see such a widely diverse cast, and as anyone who’s ever critically consumed media can attest to, representation does matter.
I won’t argue for a second that Hamilton doesn’t deserve praise; it’s a darned good musical, and it should be treated as such. But to ignore the other side of this patriotic coin would be doing everyone involved a massive disservice. Everything good about Hamilton, in essence, is undercut by the musical’s fatal reality, the fact that art does not exist in a vacuum, especially one that is so flamboyantly a period piece.
For everything Hamilton does well — the songs, the casting, etc. — we can’t act as though they don’t operate with some ulterior motive. What I mean is, I strongly doubt Lin-Manuel Miranda decided to convert U.S. history to rap just because it’s catchy, nor can I buy that the majority of the leading cast is Black and Brown for the pure sake of upping diversity levels.
No; every decision in art is a deliberate tool, and I don’t think that’s something Miranda has tried to hide, either. He is famously known for wanting the cast to be mostly people of color to “look like America today.” But in making figures like George Washington and Thomas Jefferson Black…well, no matter how much that reflects the U.S. today, that kind of puts Hamilton in a dilemma, doesn’t it? I mean, the teeth on Washington’s fabled wooden dentures came from those enslaved at Mount Vernon. Jefferson had a predatory relationship with an enslaved minor. These are pretty common knowledge, yet Hamilton is mostly fine just letting them slip, lest they contradict its superficial idea of representation.
Let me make something clear: I’m totally down for blind casting, particularly in roles that aren’t specific to any racial or cultural group. But that’s Hamilton’s problem. The things the Founding Fathers, Luigi or otherwise, did are not racially or culturally ambiguous in the slightest; they were and are opportunities and actions permissible exclusively to elite white men. One look at the news will quickly expose the hypocrisy behind “All men are created equal,” and not to keep ragging on the slavery thing, but that alone defeats what Hamilton wants to say. There might be some people of color who perpetuate these discriminatory ideals, sure, but that doesn’t change the fact that these are very white-centric systems of oppression. That’s probably why I felt so weird watching “Cabinet Battle #1,” in which Hamilton tells Jefferson off for having enslaved people at Monticello. “We know who’s really doing the planting,” says Hamilton, played by white-passing Miranda, to Jefferson, played by Daveed Diggs, a Black man. For the record, this is one of the few times slavery is explicitly mentioned in Hamilton’s two-and-a-half hours’ worth of songs.
What does get mentioned quite often is just how much of an abolitionist Hamilton was. In “My Shot,” which sets up a good deal of Hamilton’s character and relationships, he refers to himself and his buddies as “revolutionary manumission abolitionists,” a complete Long Boy of a title that puts even my Animal Crossing passport to shame. These five-dollar words are all implied to be key parts of who Hamilton is considering that, within the context of the musical, “My Shot” exists to sell us its version of Hamilton; let’s call him “Miranda Hamilton.” “Miranda Hamilton might be a bit anxious and impulsive,” coos “My Shot,” “but he’s a gifted writer with a fiery, determined spirit. Oh, and he’s also a revolutionary manumission abolitionist.”
By most accounts, this isn’t true; Real Hamilton (we’re calling him that now) was pretty middling on the issue of slavery. He didn’t personally like it himself but he was complicit as his Founding Father Bros owned and abused stolen people. At the very least, we know slavery was not his biggest fish to fry.
Why, then, would “My Shot” go out of its way to make me type “revolutionary manumission abolitionist,” three whole times? Why would Miranda go out of his way to align Hamilton’s hatred of slavery right up with his uwu i’m baby anxiety, something that is arguably one of his defining traits? I mean, I know a lot of people who are pretty anxious and baby, but I’d have no trouble also calling them advocates for racial justice considering that they do challenge racist systems and help its victims. But Real Hamilton did not earn that in his lifetime. How could Miranda Hamilton?
Well, the answer is the same reason why Miranda’s Hamilton is baby. It’s the same reason why Miranda Hamilton is constantly depicted as the underdog. (which is completely untrue i mean the play even acknowledges that at the Constitutional Convention Hamilton “proposes his own form of government” but it fails to acknowledge that that government was essentially a monarchy with a president for life??) It’s the same reason why Miranda Hamilton pulls all the ladies (I can’t tell you how historically accurate that is.) Miranda’s version of Hamilton is a self-doubting, clumsy, determined, egalitarian, hot piece of revolutionary manumission abolitionist ass because the musical wants us, the audience, to put ourselves in his dusty wig and understand the world through his eyes. But I’m sure Miranda and everyone else knew that Real Hamilton was a little less likable than Luigi, so in creating a relatable Miranda Hamilton, Real Hamilton’s supreme president government and apathy to slavery had to go. Both were replaced with some clean, well-rhymed bars.
If you want to pretend that Miranda Hamilton is completely divorced from Real Hamilton, then sure, go ahead, I guess. I can’t stop you. But I can tell you that this is nearly impossible because this problem exists on a narrative level within Hamilton itself. Perhaps it would be one thing if the play tried to convince us that Miranda Hamilton did not do the shitty things Real Hamilton did, but Miranda Hamilton is also kind of an asshole. If you want to avoid spoilers about the life of a man who’s been dead for a few centuries, then this is your warning.
The play highlights two huge personal problems Hamilton faced. First, while his wife, Eliza Schuyler, is vacationing at her parent’s home, Hamilton has a four-month long affair with Maria Reynolds. Historically, this affair is remembered for soiling his career and any potential for a Hamilton presidency, but more on that later. Second, when his son, Phillip Hamilton, is challenged to a duel by some dude shit-talking his dad, Hamilton advises Phillip to hold his gun to the sky as an act of class. Because Phillip does this, though, the shit-talker shoots and kills him.
Hamilton’s second act contains the song “It’s Quiet Uptown,” in which Hamilton seeks Eliza’s forgiveness. It’s a touching and beautifully written song, no doubt, but I’d like to call attention to something sung by background characters, here:
“If you see him in the street, walking by her side
Talking by her side, have pity”
“It’s Quiet Uptown” is also one of the few songs to diverge from the musical’s rap focus, instead utilizing a soft piano and strings to carry its tune. I don’t think you need to be a music major to recognize that this change in instrumentation signals a very emotionally weighted moment, emphasizing the struggle Hamilton faces in fixing his relationship. And though this song is mostly about Phillip’s death, it’s clear that Eliza has a lot of leftover distrust from Hamilton’s affair, only widening the gap between them and, supposedly, making his struggle even worse. The fact that, for once, nothing about Hamilton’s political career is mentioned only further underscores that the focus here is not politics or history, but personal solitude and redemption.
I know this because background singers are telling me to have pity on him the whole damn song.
I’m a little iffy to criticize “It’s Quiet Uptown” because I know it’s a Hamilton favorite and certainly one of its most important, so I just want to reiterate that, as a song, it’s great. Love it. As it functions in the story, though, it feels rather…empty.
Let me sidetrack for a second. My friend once taught me that every apology is made up of three A’s: acknowledgement of the issue, the apology itself, and action later on that shows growth from that problem. Without these three steps, any apology is essentially meaningless, and that illuminates exactly how Hamilton handles the affair and Phillip’s death. These problems are both, to some degree, Hamilton’s fault; he cheated on Eliza, and he could very well have told Phillip to not go to the duel, especially since it was over, well, his name. “It’s Quiet Uptown,” then, works as Hamilton’s apology, which is backed by a chorus of pedestrians telling me to have pity on him. But…why? First of all, I can’t say it feels great to be literally told how to feel about a character. Pulling the right strings and story beats should have been enough to make me “take pity” on him; that chorus members need to tell me this makes me question Hamilton’s own confidence in its titular character. But it’s fairly clear why, as he even sings this:
“I don’t pretend to know
The challenges we’re facing”
Which feels completely meaningless here. If Hamilton were in his own musical for the past thirty minutes, he would know exactly what is plaguing his relationship. Though he apologizes for the death of their son, nothing alludes to or seeks to mend Eliza’s fundamental distrust, leaving a huge problem unresolved. And forget about any further action in that apology, because right after Hamilton sings a very short song that can be summed up with “You’re the best,” to Eliza, he dies.
I can’t tell you how true this is to history, but after “It’s Quiet Uptown,” I found it even harder to empathize with Hamilton, Miranda or Real. Sure, we can pretend for a hot second that Hamilton is all these great, quirky things, and “It’s Quiet Uptown” is objectively a very sweet, very heartwarming gesture. But at the end of the day, the way Hamilton presents conflict resolution directly contradicts the Miranda Hamilton it so desperately wants to sell. Nothing happened to necessarily make him more likable or understandable; instead, it tells us, “Hey, you should feel bad for this guy. He’s going through a lot,” without confronting the weight of his actions. The same actions that the same musical showed me ten minutes prior.
Miranda shows us that, with some catchy tunes and a little romanticization, Hamilton can sell us a version of its eponymous hero we want to be or at least wouldn’t mind grabbing a drink with. The problem with this kind of characterization, though, is that it doesn’t necessarily hold up well when that character has to deal with issues that extend beyond their career or historical influence. If Hamilton had been more upfront with his dirty history, at least viewers wouldn’t be prodded towards audience surrogacy. Yet I’m not entirely convinced that if Hamilton had sanitized this part of his life as well, its narrative beats — Hamilton’s grief and his struggle to earn Eliza’s forgiveness — would have been as poignant as it would have liked. In any case, I’m perfectly comfortable diagnosing this as a character problem that fits into the greater framework of history as told by Hamilton.
This greater framework applies, of course, to the U.S. as a whole, but not just its past. Hamilton, in its superficial representation and hip-story, tries ever so fervently to live up to its modern spin selling point. The musical unsurprisingly clings onto the age-old bowdlerized narrative that was spoon fed to everyone who went through the American education system: the U.S. was built from the ground up and led by brilliant men who laid down the foundation of modern democracy. But Hamilton isn’t content to stop there, because Hamilton personifies these aspects in a more intense, trendy fashion. Jefferson becomes the snarky, respectable foil. Aaron Burr is indecisive and conflicted, emerging from revolutionary friend to political rival. George Washington is firm and stern, truly the leader the country needs to get off the ground. And the U.S.’s personification is no more evident than in “My Shot,” where Hamilton says he’s just like his country: “young, scrappy and hungry.” Most importantly, he, like the U.S., is “not throwing away [his] shot.”
Seeing that Hamilton characterizes some of his more questionable actions and beliefs as mere quirks in his upward battle, it comes as little surprise that the U.S. is treated likewise. Equating the two as “young, scrappy, and hungry” places the U.S. in prime position for a similar underdog story, as it usually has been when framed within the context of British occupancy and the greater American Revolution. To say the U.S. is not throwing away its shot immediately calls to mind the brave battles, the declarations of liberty, the formation of a new world. But history tells us that not throwing away its shot included the genocide and isolation of Indigenous people, the kidnapping and forced labor of Black Americans, the subjugation and suppression of women from these humble beginnings. The closest Hamilton comes to addressing these issues is that bit from “Cabinet Battle #1” and however many times it wants to yell in your face that Hamilton was a revolutionary manumission abolitionist.
If Hamilton’s ulterior motive is to maintain empathy for the U.S. through Hamilton himself, then it must similarly gloss over or flat-out neglect the dirty, blood-drenched history that would compromise that goal; slavery is reduced to a retort in a political rap battle, abolitionism the mark of a hero who never earned it. This would typically be seen as an extremely uncritical, complicit move typical of revisionist historical pieces, but Hamilton keeps going because it also wants to drag “America today” into this overly blunt perception.
At this point, we should ask ourselves one big question Hamilton seems to dodge: what does bringing today’s America into the past accomplish? Take, for instance, “The Schuyler Sisters,” where we meet Eliza and her sister Angelica (and Peggy, who disappears right after this song). They’re the musical’s key women characters, and though they ultimately serve as little more than Hamilton’s mentors and love interests (yes, both of them), their introductory number would imply something more:
“I’ve been reading Common Sense by Thomas Paine.
So men say that I’m intense or I’m insane…
…‘We hold these truths to be self-evident
That all men are created equal’
And when I meet Thomas Jefferson,
I’m ‘a compel him to include women in the sequel! (Work!)”
What do these lines accomplish? Or, heck, what do they even suggest? That prominent women’s rights movements have existed as long as the U.S. has, that women have always had access to education, that women’s exclusion from the Declaration of Independence could have been turned around by a mere talking-to? These are simply not true, and the fact that Angelica, the main voice of this song, is played by Renée Elise Goldsberry only yanks these implications further from reality. Wherever women struggled, Black women have undeniably struggled threefold. I certainly doubt they would have been allowed to have a word with Jefferson.
So Hamilton posits this: perhaps injecting modern feminism would alleviate the plight women, especially women of color, faced back then, that doing so would make this narrative more digestible. I mean, sure, but this move has little influence even in the Hamilton vacuum. Eliza and Hamilton marry, cementing her role in the musical as little more than his wife, and Angelica becomes a pen pal and side interest. That’s not to undermine all they’ve accomplished; Eliza, for example, funded the Washington Monument, fills in the gaps in Hamilton’s story, speaks out against slavery, and establishes New York City’s first private orphanage.
The thing is, everything I just said could be condensed into a few lyrics tacked onto the very end of the musical, and that’s exactly what happened; all this is from Hamilton’s finale act, “Who Lives, Who Dies, Who Tells Your Story.” And, in itself, it’s totally fine that it ended up like this; after all, this play focuses on Alexander Hamilton, not Eliza. But considering how Eliza was introduced with such a forceful feminist bang only for her story to be summed up in, like, three sentences, well, it kind of makes me question the intent of such an opening if her story is ultimately such a squat piece of the Hamilton whole. Miranda writes the Schuylers as kickass eighteenth century women’s rights advocates (which honestly might have been a more compelling story), but by the time their number is over, he’s already forgotten that.
Take any one of Hamilton’s attempts to represent “America today” in this antiquated story, and you’d run into the same problem because it never quite has an answer for “What does this accomplish?” What benefited from making Thomas Jefferson Black? Certainly not the narrative, because now that bit where Hamilton accuses him of enslaving people raises more eyebrows than spirits. What was the point of dressing Miranda Hamilton up as Mr. Big Boy Abolitionist when Hamilton’s America neglects to mention the cruelty of slavery or how the U.S. was only possible through unethical labor? There was none; it just tells us that Hamilton is a “good guy” because he hates this very obviously bad thing. Why introduce the Schuylers as these badass feminists when feminism — hell, females–exist nowhere else in the Hamilton world? “idk,” says Hamilton, “but it sounded cool, right?”
At the end of the day, I think there’s an argument to be made that Hamilton wants to reclaim a history that belongs to upper-class white men. We know this to be true because the musical also makes a big show about the importance of immigrants, even having a song on The Hamilton Mixtape called, “Immigrants (We Get the Job Done).” And, yeah, immigrants are largely ignored, abused, and exploited, both in the U.S.’s past and present. My question is, though, where does this fit in Hamilton? Sure, Real Hamilton was an immigrant, but he was a white one from an already fairly well-off family. Is the implication that he and the Chinese immigrants banned under the Chinese Exclusion Act, or he and the Japanese Americans incarcerated during World War II, or he and the undocumented immigrants currently detained, mistreated, and killed at the southern border are the same?
If so, then Hamilton functions as an empty, almost meaningless signal. It places actors of color in the U.S.’s budding moments as a sort of, “Look, immigrants! This could be you!” while reinforcing an American dream that blatantly excludes those same people. Instead of exposing dangerous workplace settings or overcrowded and underfunded housing developments, things that have always been constants for immigrants, Hamilton is fine seating America’s marginalized populations right at their oppressor’s desks and changing nothing else. The musical will gladly jot “immigrant” down on the back of Hamilton’s package, but because it’s too afraid to engage in any substantial race discourse or do anything with its diverse cast besides plop them in tailcoats and cravats, it neglects a huge part of the immigrant conversation and thus subverts any significance behind being one.
Not every story with BIPOC actors needs to be about being BIPOC, and not every story with women needs to be about total girl power characters. But Hamilton is such an unabashedly white, patriarchal story that it loses itself in its diversity.
But you know what? Maybe that’s the point. I mentioned earlier that Hamilton reinvigorated patriotism better than any politician has, and it was and is able to do so because it appeases the very barebones basics of the privileged left and right. Many white liberals don’t understand the concept of meaningful representation in the media, so slapping a few actors of color into these very white roles conveniently checks off some corporate diversity box. Conservatives love little more than Founding Father stories, and thankfully, Hamilton’s idea of upward mobility allows them to dream of being in their position, even if at the expense of reality. For both of these audiences, and if I might add politicians as well, the winning ticket is that Hamilton never actually challenges the American conscience’s idea of U.S. history. It proposes that it’s possible to cling onto this “we built ourselves from the ground up!” narrative and have that beautiful, multicultural kumbaya world where any semblance of a difficult conversation is relegated to a verse in a catchy song. And it’s okay that it really only appeals to the privileged, because pre-Disney+, Hamilton was that damn expensive anyway.
Such weak conclusions, though, are easy to topple, and I’ll gladly topple them. If that U.S. is possible, why have we not achieved it yet? Why isn’t there balanced representation of all cultural groups in U.S. politics? Why weren’t women included in the Declaration of Independence, or any legal documentation explicitly mentioning their freedoms, for centuries? Why, in the twenty-first century, do we still need marches and petitions for LGBTQ+, immigrants’, disabled people’s, and many other people’s bare-minimum rights? Why do we have a policing system that slaughters innocent civilians, or an incarceration system that carries the spirit of slavery? Hamilton had a unique opportunity to confront these all-American issues, particularly the ones that plagued those present in the American Revolution, but it threw away that shot in favor of an “Immigrants: We Get the Job Done” T-shirt.
Hamilton is a fine piece of work. As I said earlier, it looks great, sounds great, and acts great. Well, okay; I don’t think Miranda was the best choice for the lead, but I understand he’s got his own appeal, of sorts (even if he’s got some suspicious activity in Puerto Rico, but I would encourage you to look into that more deeply. I just don’t care for his singing.) I think its most redeeming quality, though, is that it still is a unique opportunity for people to discuss how the arts, politics, American society, and history all inform each other; more importantly, how all these things can enlighten us on the reality of our world and what we can do to better it. No, I don’t think putting faces of color in the Constitutional Convention is going to be the solution. No, probably not raps about King George III or the Reynolds Pamphlet either, no matter how hard they slap. My hope is that Hamilton will continue to be an entryway for people to at least be more interested in learning about U.S. history and the U.S. today, and from there, realize that Hamilton doesn’t have all the answers wrapped up in a cozy, two-and-a-half-hour nerdcore bow.
As entertainment leaders gravitate towards shoveling as much representation on screen as possible, it’s becoming apparent that representation in itself is not some sort of magical end to the conversation. Everyone comes from different backgrounds, and from a storytelling perspective, taking the physical appearances of one and shoving them into a completely different person’s box in the name of “representation” accomplishes nothing for you, your work, or your audience. When Hamilton’s inarguable bops eventually fade from earworm status, when the splendor of a Disney+ screening becomes little more than a novelty amidst the million Star Wars spin-offs, what are people going to remember about it? Was it compelling because it was catchy or James Madison was finally, after all these years, Black? Or was it compelling because it had something meaningful to say about the world it entered and the world it left behind?
Questions like these are really, really big; sometimes, they engage the concepts that words don’t reach. But especially when wielding Hamilton’s absurd level of cultural prowess, artists have a special power in shifting and advancing the difficult conversations that involve people’s lives and the very framework of this country. And I think it’s important one does not throw away that shot.