Hamilton: An American Musical - Its National Influence as Art

Oct 17, 2018 |  William H. Young

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Hamilton: An American Musical - Its National Influence as Art

Oct 17, 2018 | 

William H. Young

Hamilton: An American Musical opened on Broadway in August 2015 to rave reviews and won the Tony Award for Best Musical of 2016. I saw a performance in August 2018 when the show finally came to The Kennedy Center in Washington, DC, close to the suburb where I live. The reviews there, and in other cities across the nation where it continues to play, have been equally rapt. Hamilton is an artistic masterpiece that will go down in history as one of Broadway’s greatest achievements. But Hamilton is much more than a musical. It is consummate art and a national phenomenon with a timely cultural and educational influence on America.

Hamilton is a hip-hop opera with music, lyrics, and book by Lin-Manual Miranda, inspired by the 2004 biography Alexander Hamilton by historian Ron Chernow. It is a historical story told through an Afro-Caribbean score by a multiracial cast. Its score is so catchy and libretto so popular that Hamilton is being used to teach U. S. history in classrooms across the country. It represents the political zeitgeist of the Obama era, but it has been reviewed positively across the political spectrum, from The Nation to National Review.

It has become a new American “civic myth,” according to Historians on Hamilton: How a Blockbuster Musical is Restaging America’s Past, a collection of academic essays on the historical, cultural, and educational impacts of the musical published in May 2018. It is condemned for its inadequate treatment of slavery and racism. I’ll consider those essays and other relevant national implications of Hamilton below. I conclude that Hamilton’s most important national influence is in providing the discernment of art to bridge the American divide over racism.

The Genius of Lin-Manuel Miranda

Miranda, a 2002 graduate of Wesleyan University, starred in the title role of the original cast of Hamilton as well as writing the music and lyrics. I was struck by the profound lyrical clarity of Hamilton. The classical music critic for The New York Times, Anthony Tommasini, explains that:

Miranda was mentored by the Broadway great, Stephen Sondheim. Every detail of Sondheim’s music calls your attention to his great lyrics. Miranda’s music is very different from Sondheim’s, but every musical moment in that score swept me into the smart and dazzling rapping.[1]

Oskar Eustis, the artistic director of the Public Theater in New York City, sees a connection between Miranda’s creation and the Henriad, Shakespeare’s early cycle of history plays:

Lin is taking the vernacular of the streets and elevating it to verse. That is what hip-hop is, and what iambic pentameter was. Lin is telling the story of the founding of his country in such a way as to make everyone present feel they have a stake in their country. In heightened verse form, Shakespeare told England’s national story to the audience at the Globe, and helped make England England—helped give it its self-consciousness. That is exactly what Lin is doing with Hamilton. By telling the story of the founding of the country through the eyes of a bastard, immigrant orphan, told entirely by people of color, he is saying, “This is our country. We get to lay claim to it.[2]

With the musical’s book, Miranda succeeded in representing the American founding in a way that could gain the wide national support that it has. Co-editor Renee C. Romano of Historians on Hamilton explains why:

The story that Miranda has created in Hamilton—and importantly, the way he tells that story in the musical—serves in many respects to fuse progressive and conservative visions of history. Hamilton offers a story of the nation’s founding that can appeal to those who are invested in American exceptionalism that emphasizes the nation’s positive virtues and “great man” versions of history. But in focusing on a founding father who opposed slavery (or at least favored gradual emancipation), by telling his and the nation’s story through contemporary Afro-Latin musical forms, and by casting blacks and Latinx actors in the roles of the founders, Hamilton simultaneously broadens the traditional American narrative to welcome and even center people of color who have been marginalized in America’s civic myths. The genius of Hamilton lies in its ability to offer both those who have long owned the narrative and those who have long been excluded from it in a place in America’s fundamental story….

Nor does the musical shy away from the racial and gender exclusions that mark the nation’s history in spite of its vaunted rhetoric of liberty and equality. By focusing on Alexander Hamilton and emphasizing—indeed overemphasizing—his opposition to slavery, Miranda suggests that leaders who challenged “America’s original sin” are more worthy of our veneration than those who defended it….

Admittedly, slavery is not a central concern of the show…Miranda chose to cut some the show’s original material on slavery…because he felt that it didn’t add anything new to the story. “There’s only so much time you can spend on it…when there’s no end result to it,” he explained.[3]

Time magazine proclaimed the birth of “Hamilton Nation” in October 2016. Co-editor Claire Bond Potter of Historians on Hamilton explains its growth through Miranda’s efforts on social media:

Miranda participates in online fan activities to an extraordinary extent. His skillful use of social media and devotion to digital community helps to explain why Hamilton has become such a ubiquitous phenomenon, and why he show’s popularity has spread so rapidly beyond Broadway….The Hamilton phenomena—powered by massive amounts of content distributed for free on social media—may, in the end, far exceed the success of Disney’s historical entertainment, all of which cost money and sometimes required the additional expense of travel to theme parks. Powered by the creative possibilities of easy to use apps, tools, and platforms, the #HamFam views the early American world Miranda has conjured as their own, customized, Hamilton-themed experience.[4]

A New American Civic Myth

Renee Romano argues in Historians on Hamilton that Hamilton has created a new American civic myth:

In Hamilton, Lin-Manuel Miranda has found a way to rewrite America’s foundational civic myths to allow people of all different backgrounds to claim full belonging in the nation no matter their race, ethnicity, or immigration status. While the musical keeps many elements of America’s origin story, it spreads ownership of that story beyond the exclusive property of whites. Hamilton allows people of color to see themselves in the country’s history…by making the stories of the founders more universal and inclusive. Every night, it gives ownership of America’s narrative over to blacks and Latinxs, peoples who have long been marginalized, persecuted, and denied full inclusion in the United States. It thus offers a civic myth for Americans that that does not require allegiance to a white version of the past.…

Yet even as Hamilton puts people of color at the table…it still promotes elements of traditional American origin myths that many conservatives view as crucial to a positive national identity. In the show, America is an exceptional nation full of exceptional people, even if its genius arises from its diverse and spirited population instead of from a few former Englishmen. Miranda describes his own view of the United States as a story of progress, a place that has never been perfect, but that is always working toward being better. It’s comforting, he has said, to know that all of the political battles that have been part of the nation’s history since its founding are “just a part of the more perfect union we’re always working towards, or try to work towards, and that we’re always working on them.”[5]

Effects on Education

Hamilton is already having a significant influence on education, as reported in Historians on History:

Teachers at every level, from fifth grade to AP U. S. History and even college, have seized upon the musical’s incredible popularity with young people to draw their students into the history of the nation’s founding….When the students in one Ohio AP U. S. History class made their own version of the iconic Hamilton Broadway poster, it showed Hamilton standing on a star holding aloft a copy of their classroom textbook, Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States….[6]

While Hamilton’s encouragement of interest in our history is laudable, the use of Zinn’s leftist polemical history text confirms why our youngest generations are woefully ignorant of our founding ideals, ideas and economic principles.

Fortunately, the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History has partnered with the producers of Hamilton and the Miranda family to sponsor the Hamilton Education Program. Title I-eligible high schools are being invited to integrate Alexander Hamilton and the Founding Era into classroom studies and then see the musical. The Hamilton Education Program is part of the Gilder Lehrman Institute’s broader mission to improve the teaching and learning of American history. It offers teachers a ready-made curriculum for teaching Hamilton, including an eleven-page guide that shows how the lesson plans align with the Common Core Standards.[7]

Slavery and Racism

The principal criticism of Hamilton is of its allegedly insufficient attention to slavery and racism, which Patricia Herrera presents in Historians on Hamilton:

The diversity Hamilton embodies comes at the expense of erasing enslaved people, as well as erasing the ways in which the founding fathers were directly implicated in the profit-making enterprises of slavery. The America Hamilton engenders celebrates bootstrap success and national patriotism, while rendering racism invisible and thus absolving our founding fathers, and most other whites, from the horrific violence they inflicted on black people. These historical erasures in Hamilton put into question how we can practice diversity without actually being inclusive. Would this production be as celebrated if the cast of color had embedded and given voice to enslaved people?...Hamilton does not…move us toward cultural reparation because it does not acknowledge the damage that was done in the first place….An inclusive national origin story…would commit to a future in which the master-slave relationship is not repeated in modern form.[8]

Such criticism is the same emerging voice that I examined in my last article for NAS, The Misappropriation of Madison and Montpelier, and reflects the ideological turn that the academic left has taken in the last ten years since Hamilton was conceived by Miranda. I dissected that turn in Modern Versus Western Thought-Cultural Determinism, noting the views of social psychologist Jonathan Haidt that social justice has come to mean equal outcomes rather than historic equal treatment and opportunity:

There are two ideas now in the academic left that weren’t there ten years ago. One is that everyone is racist because of unconscious bias, and the other is that everything is racist because of systemic racism. That makes justice impossible to achieve. When you cross that line into insisting that if there’s not equal outcomes then some people and some institutions and some systems are racist, sexist, then you’re setting yourself up for eternal conflict and injustice.[9]

When Amy Wax and Larry Alexander last year wrote their op-ed on the need for Americans to return to bourgeois values, the immediate reaction of the academic elite was to charge them with racism and white supremacy rather than to objectively discuss the issue, as I discussed in Power Versus Achievement.

Lin-Manuel Miranda made the artistic decision to present the historic role and evils of slavery in Hamilton, but not to feature racism, white guilt, and cultural reparations as his critics advocate— or as the academic and elite left might put it, to demand social justice because of systemic racism. I consider that Miranda made a wise and reasonable decision.

The Room Where It Happens

“The Room Where It Happens” is a leading song in the show, sung by Aaron Burr and Company and emphasizing his ambition to become a power player. The song also conveys Miranda’s primary political message.

For the song, Miranda cleverly characterizes founding republican governance by the meeting among Hamilton, Jefferson, and Madison—in “the room where it happens”—in which the compromise to accept Hamilton’s national financial plan in return for moving the capital to Washington, DC is reached. Miranda is illustrating the controlling role of compromise and the veto role the South had in the formation of the republic and the Constitution. One can impute that Southern veto role to slavery as well. Burr, the ambitious individual left out of the room, and his chorus, become the show’s emblem of entire groups excluded from the decision-making power of the privileged.

 The key parts of the song go as follows:

BURR:

No one else was in The room where it happened

The room where it happened.

The room where it happened.

No one else was in The room where it happened.

The room where it happened.

The room where it happened.

No one really knows how

The game is played.

The art of the trade,

How the sausage gets made.

We just assume that it happens.

But no one else is in

The room where it happens.

BURR:

No one really knows how the

Parties get to yessssss.

The pieces that are sacrificed in

Every game of chesssss.

We just assume that it happens.

But no one else is in

The room where it happens.

BURR AND COMPANY:

I wanna be in the room

Where it happens

The room where it happens

The room where it happens.

COMPANY: The art of the compromise—

BURR: Hold your nose and close your eyes.

COMPANY: We want our leaders to save the day.

BURR: But we don’t get a say in what they trade away.

COMPANY: We dream of a brand new start—

BURR: But we dream in the dark, for the most part.

BURR, COMPANY: Dark as a tomb where it happens.

BURR: I’ve got to be in the room…  COMPANY: The room where it happens.[10]

In Hamilton the Revolution, the official print book about the show, co-author Miranda says about this last part of the song, beginning with “The art of the compromise”:

I’m perhaps proudest of these three couplets in the whole show: They encapsulate everything the number is about, are fully in character, and also speak to something fundamentally true about contemporary politics that I’d never been able to verbalize until these lines showed up.[11]

Miranda’s father was a long-time New York City progressive Democrat political consultant who took young Lin-Manuel along to some of his meetings. Miranda commented on that experience in an interview in Rolling Stone magazine:

The song “The Room Where It Happens” is partly based on political meetings where I was sitting in the back of the room, coloring. And I think I have an allergy to and cynicism about politics that can only be bred when you’ve grown up with it.[12]

While Miranda appropriately exercised artistic license in many aspects of the founding in Hamilton, his other writings demonstrate a strong knowledge of our founding’s actual history and principles. At the same time—and not surprisingly considering his political background and close ties to the Obama administration—the personal message he presents in “The Room Where It Happens” reflects that of the progressive left: rule through the power of the privileged requires change, to rule through a “collective or popular will.” The “room where it happens” should be moved to the public square.

In an earlier era, that was Herbert Croly’s ultimate objective for progressivism, “the full realization of the democratic ideal,” which Croly described in Progressive Democracy (1915) and I summarized in an article for NAS, Democracy, in May 2012. The current academic ideal of Civic Engagement is democracy or democratic engagement to provide social justice to marginalized or oppressed minority groups (factions) through a collective or popular will.

Regrettably, that is the only approach to governance that most of the products of American schooling now know. For, since the 1970s, they have not been taught the governing principles of our founding and Constitution. Hamilton is not very helpful on that score; but it is our educators who must correct that already existing problem.

Ironically, the experience that shaped young Miranda’s political views was of how the “progressive privileged”—who would be the designees of his democratic ideal—exercised power. Moreover, his play sidelines James Madison, the Founder who created our governing processes to achieve justice and control of factions, which currently most need to be revitalized and taught.

Hamilton and Barack Obama

The impacts seen for the play on America, and President Obama’s relationship with Miranda and Hamilton, are explained in Hamilton the Revolution by co-author Jeremy McCarter:

On November 2, 2015 at the Richard Rodgers Theater, Democratic Party officials arranged a special performance of Hamilton as a fundraiser at which President Barack Obama spoke.

Obama wanted to make an argument about change, and how it comes to America. To do so, he turned to Hamilton again and again for illustration. “Part of what’s so powerful about this performance is it reminds us of the vital, crazy, kinetic energy that’s at the heart of America—that people who have a vision and a set of ideals can transform the world,” he said. “Every single step of progress we’ve made has been based on this notion that people can come together, and ideas can move like electricity through them, and a world can change.”…

What’s really striking, though, is the fact that Obama could locate so many parallels to his ideas in a historical drama. Hamilton depicts events that happened a long time ago; its ideas are, by definition, old. Why, then, do so many people greet them as bold and revelatory when Obama says them? For that matter, why do so many different kinds of people leave a performance of Hamilton feeling newly connected to their country?...

It suggests that however innovative Obama’s speeches and Lin’s shows might seem, they are, in fact, traditional. They don’t reinvent the American character, they renew it. They remind us of something we forgot, something that fell as far out of sight as the posthumously neglected Alexander Hamilton, who spent his life defending one idea above all: “the necessity of Union to the respectability and happiness of this Country.” Obama’s speeches and Lin’s show resonate so powerfully with their audiences because they find eloquent ways to revive Hamilton’s revolution, the one that spurred Americans to see themselves and each other as fellow citizens in a sprawling polyglot young republic. It’s the change in thought and feeling that makes all the other changes possible.

At the Rodgers theater that night, the president all but anointed Hamilton as a keeper of the flame. His “primary message,” he said, was to remind people of the need to keep hoping and to work together, but “this performance undoubtedly described it better than I ever could.” The most important affinity that Hamilton will carry into its future isn’t a specific message, though, political or otherwise: It’s an underlying belief in stories, and their power to change the world….[13]

The Influence of Art

Expounding on President Obama’s belief in the power of stories to change the world, McCarter added Miranda’s personal vision of the importance of Hamilton to America:

The widely acclaimed musical that draws from the breadth of America’s culture and shows its audience what we share doesn’t just dramatize Hamilton’s revolution: It continues it.

The comparison might strike you as farfetched. What (you might be asking) can a Broadway musical possibly add to the legacy of a Founding Father—a giant of our national life, a war hero, a scholar, a statesman? What’s one little play, or even one very big play, next to all that? But there is more than one way to change the world. To secure their freedom, the polyglot America colonists had to come together, and stick together, in the face of enormous adversity. To live in a new way, they first had to think and feel in a new way. It took guns and ships to win the American Revolution, but it also required pamphlets and speeches—and at least one play.

In the desolate winter of 1777-78, General George Washington led the freezing, starving remnants of his army to Valley Forge. During that bleak encampment, when the prospects for American independence were as feeble as they would ever be, what did he do to strengthen his troops resolve to defeat tyranny and secure freedom? He arranged a production of his favorite play, Joseph Addison’s Cato, which is about a man who gave his life to do just that.[14]

In my 2016 article for NAS, Modern Versus Western Thought: Overview, I criticized the turn to subjectivism in modern thought while honoring its appropriateness in art. Hamilton epitomizes that distinction.

Today, our academic left has become obsessed with racism and an unattainable social justice. It condemns our founding institutions and economic system as irretrievably tainted by slavery and white supremacy, as instruments of racism and injustice that must be replaced. Hamilton recognizes the historic evils of slavery but does not apply such a destructive and divisive standard.

Rather, as Tara Helfman wrote in a prescient review in Commentary in January 2016:

The crowning achievement of Hamilton is that it encourages the audience to treat the past not as a moral affront to the present, but as a challenge….It invites the audience to be part of the creative synthesis that the production represents.[15]

Hamilton is great art and unparalleled entertainment. It inspires interest in our founding by all our citizens. It lionizes the Founder who created the basis for our current economy and supported our Constitutional governing institutions. Its most important national influence may well be the wisdom—the founding concept of “prudence”— that a masterly work of art showcases for dealing with the issue of racism that divides America. For that we should all thank a brilliant young artist—Lin-Manuel Miranda.

______________________________________________________________________________

This is one of a series of occasional articles applying the lessons of Western civilization to contemporary issues relevant to the academy.

The Honorable William H. Young was appointed by President George H. W. Bush to be Assistant Secretary for Nuclear Energy and served in that position from November 1989 to January 1993. He is the author of Ordering America: Fulfilling the Ideals of Western Civilization (2010) and Centering America: Resurrecting the Local Progressive Ideal (2002).

 

[1] Anthony Tommasini and Jon Caramanica, “Exploring ‘Hamilton’ and Hip-Hop Steeped in Heritage,” 27 August 2015.

[2] Rebecca Mead, “All About the Hamiltons,” The New Yorker, 9 February 2015.

[3] Renee C. Romano, “Hamilton: A New American Civic Myth,” in Renee C. Romano and Claire Bond Potter, ed., Historians on Hamilton: How a Blockbuster Musical is Restaging America’s Past (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 2018), 306-10.

[4] Claire Bond Potter, “Safe in the Nation We’ve Made,” Historians on Hamilton, 325, 346.

[5] Renee C. Romano, “Hamilton: A New American Civic Myth,” Historians on Hamilton, 313-15.

[6] Romano, “Hamilton: A New American Civic Myth,” Historians on Hamilton, 305-306.

[7] The Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History, www.gilderlehrman.org, 23 July 2018.

[8] Patricia Herrara, “America’s Racial Past, Present, and Future,” Historians on Hamilton, 172-174.

[9] Bari Weiss, “Jonathan Haidt on the Cultural Roots of Campus Rage,” The Wall Street Journal, 31 March 2017.

[10] Lin Manuel Miranda and Jeremy McCarter, Hamilton: The Revolution: Being the Complete Libretto of the Broadway Musical With a True Account of Its Creation and Concise Remarks on Hip-Hop, The Power of Stories, and The New America (New York: Grand Central Publishing, April 2016), 186-190.

[11] Lin Manuel Miranda, Hamilton: The Revolution, 190.

[12] Mark Binelli, “’Hamilton’ Creator Lin-Manuel Miranda: The Rolling Stone Interview,” Rolling Stone, 1 June 2016.

[13] Jeremy McCarter, Epilogue, Hamilton: The Revolution, 284-85.

[14] Jeremy McCarter, Introduction, Hamilton: The Revolution, 11.

[15] Tara Helfman, “Why Hamilton Matters,” Commentary, 15 January 2016.

 

Image: By John Trumbull - Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, Public Domain

 

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