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.

Fred Baumgarten is a writer living in western Massachusetts.