- OnStage Guest Columnist
This weekend, the President Elect was able to evade close scrutiny of a multi million dollar legal settlement involving Trump University by igniting a firestorm about, of all things, Hamilton. The musical is so universally praised for its patriotic and inclusive vision of American history that on a recent PBS documentary about the Broadway phenomenon, Barack Obama and Paul Ryan were both featured singing the show’s praises. But after the Vice President was briefly addressed by the cast at the curtain call with a plea for tolerance, Trump created a media firestorm by demanding an apology that would obviously not be forthcoming, even taking the opportunity to opine that the universally beloved play was “highly overrated.” His comments promptly trended on Twitter, and voila, these issues rather than the scandal over Trump University became the news of the weekend.
Coincidentally, I saw Hamilton on Saturday afternoon on the heels of all of this brouhaha. I was up in the gods, almost able to make out the top of the set if I bowed my head down far enough. Of course, I couldn’t help but ask myself what I thought about the two questions posed by the future President.
First, is Hamilton overrated? The question is subjective enough that one’s personal history with a piece can’t help but color an assessment of it. I have a feeling, for example, that Trump would have lauded the musical if the cast had congratulated Pence at the curtain call. I myself am also not an objective judge. I’d been looking forward to seeing the performance for over a year, am a professor in training of history, enjoy rap, and am socially liberal. My expectations were as high as they could be, since I’d heard almost no criticism of the Tony Award and Pulitzer Prize winning piece. For what it’s worth, though all of these issues inevitably color my perspective, here it is.
Hamilton is a masterpiece of modern musical theater history and all musical theater history. The album inspired an entire generation of Americans to a love of their country’s history, even though many of them were members of minority groups oppressed by the Founding Fathers. The lyrics are a virtuosic display of wit. The melodies (particularly “Satisfied” and “You’ll Be Back”) are often infectious. The performances were nuanced and subtle without losing brassy Broadway emphasis. The myriad styles of music added real depth to the characterizations, from Eliza’s dramatic traditional ballads to Jefferson’s jazz inspired “What Did I Miss?” after the other Founding Fathers have already moved on to hip hop. The athletic choral dancing was as innovative as it was enlivening. From the perspective of uniqueness and daring and cultural impact, Hamilton must stand as one of the high watermarks of twenty first century Broadway so far.
But with all that being said, I have to admit, it’s not one of my favorite musicals. Lin-Manuel Miranda is an ingenious lyricist, but only a very good melodist; even his most fervent admirers will have to admit that the tunes are less sparkling than something by Rodgers or Menken or Webber (though they’re more hummable than Sondheim). The songs are often relentlessly expository. A critic who called the play an example of “School House Rap” might have been on to something; clearly children-oriented programming was one of the inspirations for this piece (consider that in several separate songs, characters begin singing out numbered lists.) Some of the lyrics are distractingly pandering, brazenly calling New York the greatest place on Earth on more than one occasion.
Despite occasional profanities, the entire affair is so wholesome that I can already imagine it as an inoffensive choice for school plays, where the piece will lose a great deal of its edginess by forfeiting its multiracial cast. From the perspective of history, the real people behind the Broadway characters were often more multidimensional than might appear from the proceedings at the Richard Rodgers theater; for example, Burr was a pioneering advocate of women’s rights. Though there are lines that pay token service to questions about the abolition of slavery, the narrative essentially appropriates “white history” without really examining the actual experiences of people of color and of Spanish ancestry in the American Revolution at all.
In spite of these issues, though, I recognize that the strengths of the piece are more than enough to redeem it in the eyes of its fans. Because Hamilton offers an inclusive vision of American history, providing a form of escapism from terrible elements of the historical truth, it provided an opportunity for the establishment on the left and right to come together and celebrate the piece as a kind of extension of their mutual patriotism. The musical came to epitomize something profound, transcending the exploration of a single founding father’s life; it came to symbolize a sense of hopefulness in an old fashioned love of American Values with a capital V in the popular imagination, with particular sensitivity to the achievements of immigrants. In this light, for a future President widely held to be an enemy rather than a champion of diversity, to call Hamilton overrated is as politically inexpedient as it is insensitive to the merits of the piece.
Whether the cast should apologize is an absurd question. According to reports, members of the audience acted disruptively throughout the show, for example, interrupting the actor who played King George when he sang lines about a leader’s own people hating him. In this light, the eloquent address by the cast at the end of the night, at which the audience was urged not to boo, might be seen not only as a gentle apology for those members of the crowd who had acted out, but also an explanation of why they were reacting the way that they were: their frustration came from a place of real fear that the new administration will trample on civil rights, and a place of profound disgust for Pence’s record on these issues.
For the cast to have said nothing would have been to ignore not only the greater themes for which the musical has come to stand, but even the specific events of the night in question, in which the play was repeatedly interrupted. Instead of alleviating the fear and sadness motivating the reaction of the crowd, Trump used the opportunity to pit the alt right against Hamilton and the values of its production team, widening divides into greater chasms for the sake of misdirecting the news, and inaugurating one of the most ludicrous and ineffectual boycotts in modern history.