In Defense of Hamilton, an American Musical: It’s Not History, It’s a Show

Still from Hamilton (Disney).

Much criticism has been leveled at Hamilton, the musical, following the successful airing of the filmed performance on the Disney channel. This isn’t to question the validity of the criticism about its glossing over the slave-owning history of our “Founding Fathers,” or the real Hamilton’s complicity, or his role in creating the capitalist state. This is to question the intensity of the criticism.

Lin-Manuel Miranda, a Puerto Rican American, is being made to pay for the sins of White privilege, even White supremacy, to a disproportionate level. This strikes me as not only unfair, but also highly ironic. He is also targeted because of the outrageous success of his show – which, by the way, isn’t his first hit. Miranda’s In the Heights is a beautifully realized, thrilling musical in its own right.

Critics point out that Miranda grew up in comfort and attended the quasi-Ivy private college Wesleyan University in Connecticut, where he honed his skills, as if those are original sins. Somehow the idea of a person of color playing the White Man’s Game to get ahead becomes off limits to anyone but … White men?

Let’s be real. Broadway, and musical theater in general, are made overwhelmingly by and for White men. We celebrate Stephen Sondheim as the reigning Beethoven of our era. The last time I looked, no people of color intruded on his fairy tale Into the Woods world or strolled the gritty London streets of Sweeney Todd. In the beloved movie version of his and Bernstein’s West Side Story, Natalie Wood passes – quite unconvincingly – as Puerto Rican. Sondheim’s original Broadway lyrics to the brilliant dance number “America” were so stereotypical and condescending toward the island (“What have they got there to keep clean?”) they had to be rewritten for the movie – cleverly, it must be said, to skewer mainland racism.

Until Hamilton came along, 1776 was the reigning musical about our revolutionary history. This shockingly dated, mostly treacly twaddle has a few good numbers in it, notably a damning song about Northern hypocrisy toward slavery (“Molasses to Rum to Slaves”) and another, a stirring summation song by John Adams (“Is Anybody There?”) which, to be honest, is done much more effectively in Hamilton (“One More Time,” sung by Washington). I have yet to see 1776 performed by any actors of color. Where’s the outrage for this retro, rose-tinted version of history? Why does 1776 get a pass?

Instead of seeing Miranda’s casting of people of color in the roles of Hamilton, Jefferson, et al., as an act of accommodation or collaboration, how about appreciating it as an act of subversion? Perhaps both are true. On the side of subversion, you have ridiculously talented actors of color who might never have “gotten their shot” receiving well-deserved adulation, in what could be viewed as a sly turning of the tables on the slave masters. Further, by bringing rap into the Broadway mainstream, Miranda has opened up doors to new artistic possibilities, especially for non-White culture.

Why should Hamilton have to bear the burden of unimpeachable historical accuracy and social justice awareness when we patronize and celebrate hundreds of Broadway musicals, past and present, that are lily White in their characters and casting and indulge in all kinds of stereotypes? From South Pacific to The King and I to more recent hits like Wicked, Newsies, Dear Evan Hansen, and more, Broadway has largely been an art form by and for White males. The genre of historical fiction, in and out of musical theater, is no less littered with whitewashing portraits of their subjects: movies like PattonLust for Life,and Amadeus played fast and loose with the facts. Why stop at musicals? What about opera and its dingy, cringe-worthy plots of women falling ill, women of “ill repute,” women being raped, women being stabbed, women … well, you get the idea.

There are people with the moral fortitude to forgo all such socially regressive art forms on principle, just as there are those for whom the Washington football team changing its name won’t matter because they reject the violent, degrading sport completely. I genuinely admire these people. For the rest of us who continue to consume the performing arts, for better or worse, the always difficult question is where to draw the line. Do we listen to Wagner? What about operas conducted by the odious pedophile, James Levine? Do we foreswear Woody Allen’s movies? For that matter, what do we do about the vast majority of Hollywood’s White-male-dominated output?

Is only art that bears a one hundred percent socially redemptive message acceptable or good? There are no easy answers.

As for Hamilton, I don’t look to it to define or affirm my politics or historical knowledge. Its message may be one more paean to American Exceptionalism, but I am and will remain a determined opponent of American Exceptionalism. I know what America is and has been, regardless of the patina Hamilton puts on it. What Hamilton does offer is what all good art offers: uplift and inspiration, originality, an engaging human story (however “true” or exaggerated), and an experience of the sublime – all wrapped in a package of electrifying performances in the hands of superb performers. In my opinion, it deserves all the accolades it has gotten.

More articles by:

Fred Baumgarten is a writer living in western Massachusetts.

August 12, 2020
Melvin Goodman
Trump’s War On Arms Control and Disarmament
P. Sainath
“We Didn’t Bleed Him Enough”: When Normal is the Problem
Riva Enteen
Kamala Harris? Really? Desperate Times, Desperate Measures
Kenneth Surin
The Decrepit UK Political System
Robert Hunziker
Freakish Arctic Fires Alarmingly Intensify
Ramzy Baroud
The Likud Conspiracy: Israel in the Throes of a Major Political Crisis
Sam Pizzigati
Within Health Care USA, Risk and Reward Have Never Been More Out of Kilter
John Perry
The US Contracts Out Its Regime Change Operation in Nicaragua
Binoy Kampmark
Selective Maritime Rules: The United States, Diego Garcia and International Law
Manuel García, Jr.
The Improbability of CO2 Removal From the Atmosphere
Khury Petersen-Smith
The Road to Portland: The Two Decades of ‘Homeland Security’
Raouf Halaby
Teaching Palestinian Children to Love Beethoven, Bizet, and Mozart is a Threat to a Depraved Israeli Society
Jeff Mackler
Which Way for Today’s Mass Radicalization? Capitalism’s Impending Catastrophe…or a Socialist Future
Tom Engelhardt
It Could Have Been Different
Stephen Cooper
Santa Davis and the “Stalag 17” Riddim
August 11, 2020
Richard D. Wolff
Why Capitalism is in Constant Conflict With Democracy
Paul Street
Defund Fascism, Blue and Orange
Richard C. Gross
Americans Scorned
Andrew Levine
Trump and Biden, Two Ignoble Minds Here O’erthrown
Patrick Cockburn
The Rise of Nationalism Has Led to the Increased Repression of Minorities
Sonali Kolhatkar
Trump’s Presidency is a Death Cult
Colin Todhunter
Pushing GMO Crops into India: Experts Debunk High-Level Claims of Bt Cotton Success
Valerie Croft
How Indigenous Peoples are Using Ancestral Organizing Practices to Fight Mining Corporations and Covid-19
David Rovics
Tear Gas Ted Has a Tantrum in Portland
Dean Baker
There is No Evidence That Generous Unemployment Benefits are Making It Difficult to Find Workers
Robert Fantina
War on Truth: How Kashmir Struggles for Freedom of Press
Dave Lindorff
Trump Launches Attack on Social Security and Medicare
Elizabeth Schmidt
COVID-19 Poses a Huge Threat to Stability in Africa
Parth M.N.
Coping With a Deadly Virus, a Social One, Too
Thomas Knapp
The “Election Interference” Fearmongers Think You’re Stupid
Binoy Kampmark
Mealy-Mouthed Universities: Academic Freedom and the Pavlou Problem Down Under
Mike Garrity
Emperor Trump Loses Again in the Northern Rockies in Big Win for Bull Trout, Rivers and the ESA
Alex Lawson
34 Attorneys General Call to Bust Gilead’s Pharma Monopoly on COVID Treatment Remdesivir
August 10, 2020
Gerald Sussman
Biden’s Ukrainegate Problem
Vijay Prashad – Érika Ortega Sanoja
How the U.S. Failed at Its Foreign Policy Toward Venezuela
Daniel Warner
Geneva: The Home of Lost Causes
Mike Hastie
The Police Force Stampede in Portland on August 8, 2020 
Jack Rasmus
Trump’s Executive Orders: EOs as PR and FUs
Rev. William Alberts
Cognitive Without Conscience
David Altheide
Politicizing Fear Through the News Media
F. Douglas Stephenson
Is Big Pharma More Interested in Profiteering Than Protecting Us From Coronavirus?
Evaggelos Vallianatos
The Money Plague
Howard Lisnoff
Revolutionaries Living in a System of Growing Fascism
Ralph Nader
Donald Trump is Defeating Himself
Lynnette Grey Bull
The Murdered and Missing Indigenous Women Human Rights Emergency is Not a Photo-Op for Ivanka Trump