An Open Message For 'Hamilton' Critics
Since its premiere in 2015, Hamilton has become a cultural zeitgeist. And for good reason. It’s a Broadway musical about Alexander Hamilton, the “ten dollar founding father,” using mostly hip-hop music to tell the story. It stars a cast of Black and brown actors playing the founding fathers of the United States. But just because it’s wildly popular doesn’t mean it’s exempt from criticism. After its premiere and again since its release on Disney+, the musical (written by Lin-Manuel Miranda) faces criticism for how it handles the men it portrays, who were known slave owners.
Though it uses real people and real events, Hamilton is definitely a creative work of fiction. Miranda was inspired by reading Ron Chernow’s biography of Alexander Hamilton and found his story compelling enough to create a piece of art about it. Originally it was going to be a mixtape in the vein of a rock opera, but then it became a full-fledged musical.
“I thought it ‘out-Dickens’ Dickens in the unlikeliness of this man’s rise from his humble beginnings in Nevis in the Caribbean, to changing, helping shape our young nation. And it’s uniquely an immigrant story and it’s uniquely a story about writers,” Miranda told CNBC back in 2017.
Critics of the musical take issue with Miranda’s lack of historical accuracy, namely his decision not to make slavery a bigger part of the musical. While Hamilton never owned slaves, his contemporaries did, and he helped with the sale of his father-in-law’s slaves. The conversation is coming back in full force since the shift in how we handle the country’s legacy of white supremacy. Some are calling for the musical to be “cancelled,” as it fails to address these very hard truths.
Examining art through a critical lens is wonderful and necessary. But it’s also important to remember that a musical is a work of fiction and shouldn’t be taken at face value. Historical fiction in any format should make you want to learn more. No one should be watching Hamilton and think they magically know everything about American history. It’s merely a clever way to play around with history and examine the commonalities of the human experience.
By now, everyone knows that the founding fathers enslaved people. We know George Washington owned almost half of the 300 slaves living at Mount Vernon. Thomas Jefferson was raping Sally Hemings and then selling their children to the highest bidder. These are facts you can easily access. Miranda making the conscious decision to not dig deeper into that broadens the scope of what he was creating.
Musicals are works of fiction that can have roots in fact. And that’s exactly what Hamilton is. There’s a whole musical about the horrors of being enslaved that hasn’t been written yet. And I look forward to it. But Miranda’s musical isn’t the one. It should, hopefully, make you curious enough to go out and pick up a book on the subject to learn more.
“My only responsibility as a playwright and a storyteller is to give you the time of your life in the theatre,” he told the Atlantic in 2015, shortly after the musical’s premiere. “I just happen to think that with Hamilton’s story, sticking close to the facts helps me. All the most interesting things in the show happened. They’re not s— I made up.”
Since the real, and long overdue, push to examine and address the racist origins of the country a few months ago, people are now more aware of how white supremacist narratives are being perpetuated. For those critics of the musical, making the score full of hip-hop and starring Black folks isn’t enough.
This is what the critics either forget or refuse to acknowledge. Creative fiction is a door you can open to see more of something you are interested in. Then, you can go out and find the truth on your own.
Miranda isn’t even saying that Hamilton is above criticism, but people need to keep a lot of things in mind when taking down his art. He’s trying to fit a 30+ years chunk of history into a two-and-a-half hour musical. As he points out in his tweet, things did get added and then cut in subsequent drafts. When you’re creating something with time constraints like a piece of theatre, movie, etc., things are going to get dropped if they don’t fit the overall point of the musical. And while the show is certainly about a very specific point in our nation’s history, it goes much deeper than that.
Owning people is definitely the most despicable thing you can do. And no one is denying that, not even Lin-Manuel. But his choice to omit the horrors of that is just that, his choice. When you set out to tell a story, you have to follow the narrative that you find most effective to get your point across. In fact, there’s a third battle between Jefferson and Hamilton that was cut from the musical but released on the Hamilton Mixtape. In it, they go back and forth debating on making the international slave trade illegal. But in the end, Washington declares an impasse, hoping that “the next generation” will be the ones to come up with a solution. The song was cut because it didn’t have an acceptable ending.
Talking about slavery takes nuance that may not be attainable in a four minute song. You either must tackle it head-on, or allude to it where possible. And Lin-Manuel gives us moments where he takes jabs at Thomas Jefferson. A covert reference to Sally Hemings is in Jefferson’s first appearance, “What’d I Miss?” And then in the first cabinet battle, a stronger stance is taken.
“A civics lesson from a slaver — Hey neighbor — Your debts are paid cuz you don’t pay for labor,” Hamilton retorts.
Even though he’s clearly a genius, Lin-Manuel Miranda isn’t the person to examine the horrors of slavery at the hands of the founding fathers. Doing such a deep examination of a subject is not really his strong point. He knows that storytelling is his best skill, and that’s exactly what he uses to make us care about this topic. Could he have gone back and added a slave narrative? Perhaps. But people would definitely take issue with a Puerto Rican man writing enslaved people into his musical.
Ultimately, the thing that makes Hamilton so popular isn’t the fact that it’s about the founding fathers. It’s about the emotional connection people have to the overall themes of the show. They’re connecting to Eliza’s pain during “Burn,” Angelica’s longing in “Satisfied.” People see themselves in the line “I am the one thing in life I can control.” As a creative person and writer, I feel “I wrote my way out” in my bones. The things that make the show relatable have nothing to do with its subject matter. But they have everything to do with the overall feeling Lin-Manuel Miranda is conveying.
People make art to make you think. And Hamilton does that, even if it doesn’t take on the subjects some people think it should. Lin-Manuel Miranda didn’t go into writing the musical pretending slavery didn’t exist. He knew the story he was aiming to tell, and what parts of Hamilton’s life made for the best plot lines. Whether or not you think the show is problematic is personal. But its meaning is to examine something bigger than just these men being slave owners. It’s never meant to be taken at its word, and it’s certainly not going to be 100 percent fact. If you want facts, start with non-whitewashed documentaries and books.
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