While a White Man President raved in front of dead White Man Presidents in South Dakota, a couple of those same stone faces were re-animated as black men rapping about the Founding of the United States on Disney+. For Corona Time’s Independence Day celebrations, Trump delivered fulminations and flyovers. Lin-Manuel Miranda and the Mouse House gave the nation Hamilton, delivered to the only place it could play during the lockdown: home.
Millions downloaded and streamed the award-winning musical over the long Independence Day weekend and millions more have done so since. It is more than unlikely that Trump supporters added many of their numbers to the tally. Still fresh are the wounds inflicted on Mike Pence by the Hamilton cast and partisan audience when, as Vice-President elect, he took in the show at the Richard Rodgers Theatre in New York in November of 2016. Ironically, Trump had just claimed victory thanks to the Electoral College, a scheme to dampen democracy that had been ardently defended by Hamilton. (See Federalist no. 68)
Courting confrontation, the VIP V.P. got a ticket even when these were going for as much as $5,000 scalped. (There’s a verb that needs to walk the plank, especially from the man o’ war of Hamilton; the entertainment features the character of George Washington, who early in his military career was dubbed “Conotocarius” by the Iroquois—Devourer of Villages.) At the curtain call, Brandon Dixon, the actor who played an earlier vice president, Aaron Burr, lectured Pence on the true nature of American diversity. The white-haired Indianan scuttled from his box amidst a chorus of boos. From across town in Trump Tower, Washington and Obama’s soon-to-be-successor in the White House tweeted his demand for an apology. In Burr’s day, Pence would have demanded satisfaction, and the two veeps would have rowed over to Jersey for a next-day duel in the dawn’s early light. Trump-versus-Miranda—both native New Yorkers, yet from different worlds—could have topped the fight card. Instead, the President-Elect’s supporters launched a lame #BoycottHamilton campaign, which did nothing to stop the Broadway juggernaut—indeed probably only increased the show’s unstoppable momentum.
I was not eager to take in Hamilton when it became possible thanks to Disney’s democratizing, dollar-seeking efforts. But German friends provided us access to their Disney+ account and so I forced myself to see and hear what all the fuss is about. You can’t—and probably shouldn’t—ignore Hamilton as a cultural phenomenon, and I’d tried long enough. Hamilton has become part of the “debate” about the “meaning” of America. Cash cow and sacred cow (at least for some), Hamilton is now a national treasure more valuable than Rushmore.
So on Monday my band of Musical Patriots—one a legal alien, the other an anti-federalist like her father—took their positions in front of the family goggle box. Expectations were not high. For all its apparently subversive elements—most notably reanimating the slave-holding Founding Fathers as a diverse and inclusive cast—the musical mixes up-by-the-bootstrap hero worship with good old-fashioned melodrama.
I hugely admire its creator Miranda’s talents, and thought that his first great success, In the Heights, made for a captivating night at the theatre, even if its vibrant fondness for the old neighborhood at the upper end of Manhattan tipped towards the maudlin at its close. The composer is a gifted melodist and lyricist: words flow and sing from him with fluency and fervor. Miranda is master of the sub-genres of the musical: the burner, the tender love song to person and place, the show-stopper. The movie of In the Heights had been scheduled for release in cinemas last month, but has been postponed to 2021. The Disney+ Hamilton was called on to fill the breach.
Hamilton is an even more impressive display of Miranda’s talents than In the Heights. For Hamilton, Miranda wrote the book, the lyrics, and the music, and played the title role. I can’t think of a precedent for such wide-ranging creative accomplishment. Then there’s Miranda’s incredible industry, which is a match for Hamilton’s own indefatigable labors as advocate for the Constitution and as the first Secretary of the Treasury.
It hardly matters that Miranda does not have the physical attributes of Hamilton’s debonair ladies’ man, or that the composer/poet is far from the cast’s strongest singer and dancer— or, for that matter, actor. The greatest pleasure in watching the show is basking in Miranda’s genius: the tunes, the timing, the linguistic imagination, the sharp wit, the musical craft. On stage in the Disney close-ups Miranda’s face radiates richly-deserved pride, and even from the locked-down living room, one feels the warmth. The civics lesson is interesting, too; even if Miranda has to cut corners, he quickly and cogently lays out the founding debates and intrigues. Why, much to Trump’s chagrin, is Washington, DC now the nation’s capital? Hamilton fills us in with memorable theatrical gestures. (Would Hamilton favor DC statehood? Never!)
Like In the Heights, Hamilton is a New York story, but it moves from way uptown to the colonial tip of Manhattan. Based on Ron Chernow’s biography, the musical plays fast and pretty loose with history. That’s what you’d expect, and even demand, from a piece of theatre. Many scholars have taken Miranda to task for representing Hamilton as a man of the people when in reality he was, in spite (or perhaps because) of his humble origins, an elitist deeply distrustful of the masses. Hamilton believed that hierarchies were necessary in a well-ordered, rational society. That he was talented and driven to make it to the top proved as much.
Miranda has claimed that the character of Alexander Hamilton provided him with a surrogate for the experience of his father, like the musical’s protagonist, an immigrant from the Caribbean to New York. The line that seemed to get the biggest cheer from the audience was “Immigrants: we get things done.” The Disney+ version was filmed on successive days in the summer of 2016 with the Trump menace safely back in the polls. The line had a much different charge after those polls had proved themselves very wrong.
But calling someone who was born in the British West Indies, and then moved to another region of the Empire, an “immigrant” is obtuse, especially when natives are never heard or seen on the Hamilton stage. It’s true that Hamilton was thought of by many of the original inhabitants of what had become the State of New York as a friend and ally, concerned with their welfare even as he pursued his own land interests and those of his upstate in-laws, the Schuylers. But the musical has no time for the Iroquois in its romantic account of rags-to-riches and nation-building.
Bad-guy British King Georg III is the whitest of the characters. His recurring song “You’ll Be Back”—delivered with fey spitefulness by Jonathan Groff—is funny and mean, cleverly crafted by the musical omnivore Miranda as a British Invasion-style anthem: style becomes a metaphor for military intervention.
The countdown to the show’s two deaths—first to that of Hamilton’s son, Philip, and then, to his own—in the “Ten Duel Commandments” is harrowing, and echoes the subsequent history of America’s devotion to the Second Amendment. The number hurtles ahead then halts, but cannot escape destiny.
The music as a whole operates on a broader metaphorical level as well: it’s fitting that the life of this supporter of the Constitution should be so conventional. The women declare their love and heartbreak in super-poignant ballads. The men voice their brotherly affection and desire for battle. They vie for power, fight, and die. The show succeeds in skirting convention in the strutting face-offs between arch enemies Jefferson and Hamilton in the two “Cabinet Battles.” These scenes capture the intellectual ferocity and incisiveness of ideological debates in the early republic, distilling the grandiloquence of the Founders into high-proof hip-hop cocktails. This makes for intoxicating political theatre.
The streaming release of Hamilton was well-timed: the world’s theaters are shut; much of the population is sequestered; spirits needed raising on the Fourth of July, Disney’s sagging share price, too.
But Hamilton-for-all (at least all of those with a Disney+ subscription) can be seen as a more overtly, immediately political move. Miranda is a friend and supporter of the Obamas. He loathes Trump. Miranda introduced the idea of Hamilton at the White House in 2009, six years before the musical made it to the stage. When Miranda returned, now with original cast, to the East Room in 2016, Obama joked that he should be given some credit for having been in the room when the hit show was born. He was right to be pleased with the musical’s successes. Hamilton lionizes the state power grown out of all proportion from anything even ol’ Alexander could have dreamt up and which Obama made abundant use of: mass surveillance, prison or banishment for whistleblowers, drone death, assassination of American citizens abroad, the end of habeus corpus, off-shore torture camps. With the fledgling union he helped form since grown to superpower, the non-interventionist Hamilton might even have been able to get behind the endless foreign wars. Born in Obama Time, Hamilton yearns for a powerful central government that can save the American people from the current tyrant.
What are we to make of Hamilton in the aftermath of George Floyd’s murder and calls for statues of another George to be toppled? Miranda and his players would have us think that the imperfect experiment of American democracy is the birthright of the descendants of slaves and immigrants. But I couldn’t help but find it dispiriting to see the energy and genius of the creator and cast poured into a patriotic pageant.
What Miranda writes and does makes for compelling theatre. His entrepreneurial spirit takes its energy from his tremendous musico-poetic skill. Hamilton would have approved: there are few duets more seductive than that between money and music. In his high-minded hymning of the United States’ origins, Miranda puts the “I” in front of deal. That the once-subversive art form of rap can be drafted into service of the state shows just how welcoming America really is to those who sing the praises of status quo.
(David Yearsley is a long-time contributor to CounterPunch and the Anderson Valley Advertiser. His latest book is Sex, Death, and Minuets: Anna Magdalena Bach and Her Musical Notebooks. He can be reached at email@example.com.)