Being married to one of its fans and the father to a second, I’ve personally witnessed the cultural phenomenon that is the musical Hamilton. I spent hours during a summer vacation to New York City with Hamiltoniacs trying to score tickets, and wound up moving heaven and earth to attend a performance in October of last year. It was an overwhelming experience, all told, but one that has given me more insight than most into the musical’s strengths and weaknesses: The real problem with Hamilton is that it embodies the very things that are wrong with the Left today, which is why progressives have so enthusiastically embraced it.
I thus agree with the impulse Reason’s Nicholas Pell has to criticize Hamilton as a cultural phenomenon, but I think his particular criticisms are roundly misplaced.
To begin with, Pell’s criticism of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s hip-hop as juvenile or inauthentic is just flat-out wrong. I may not be a hip-hop aficionado, but I’m nevertheless a fan. And to question Miranda’s “cred” due to his pedigree as a “child of leftist privilege” is akin to dismissing Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue” simply because George Gershwin wasn’t a “real” jazz musician.
Hamilton’s various musical modes are in fact its biggest strength. Miranda deploys hip-hop, urban contemporary, modern and traditional Broadway styles thematically, to differentiate the various characters and their perspectives. Hamilton and his compatriots are brash and revolutionary, thus they rap. The Schuyler sisters are more smooth and angelic, while still pulling toward the modernity of their times, so Miranda gives them urban-contemporary songs. And King George, clinging to the past, sings as a character out of the musicals of Sondheim.
Where Hamilton fails is as a political statement. Its closest comparison ought to be the late-1960s musical 1776, but while both works are supposedly about the founding, and have founding fathers as principal characters, the similarities end there. 1776 was steeped in history and political philosophy, using both as important springboards for engaging the audience and leaving them with lasting impressions as to why we, as a nation, dissolved the political bands connecting us to England. I know that the first time I saw 1776, when my parents took me to a Hudson Valley stock performance one summer close to the bicentennial, I was enthralled. It remains one of my favorite musicals to this day.
While Hamilton is “historic,” and based on Ron Chernow’s book Alexander Hamilton, it treats the debates of the day with only passing fancy, and gives only scant glances to other political precepts. In fact, as I reflected on the musical driving out of New York City the night we saw it, it occurred to me that Miranda’s work really was more of an exercise in musical psychodrama, focusing more on the motivations, ambitions, and personal foibles of the characters, rather than on what they actually did and their political philosophies. For example, Hamilton’s internal struggle between his desire for revolutionary liberty and his later monarchist tendencies is ignored; Miranda instead focuses on how the Hamilton and his principal protagonist, Aaron Burr approach their desires for glory. This is emblematic in songs such as “The Room Where It Happens,” which is about the envy Burr feels toward the fact that Hamilton cut a secret deal with Thomas Jefferson and James Madison rather than about the substance of that deal.
While we’re on the subject of Jefferson and Madison, I’ll point out that this was my immediate criticism of the musical itself — Miranda spares no opportunity to trounce on the memories of the other founders (save, of course, George Washington, who was Hamilton’s great patron for many years). He portrays Jefferson (and his protégé, Madison) as effete snobs, out-of-touch with the common people and interested merely in their own self-aggrandizement and personal gain. And in a passing mention of John Adams — who fired Hamilton for a variety of reasons: personal animus, suspicions of his being a monarchist, thinking he was raising an army to start a war with France, etc. — Miranda calls Adams a “fat mother******.”
It wasn’t merely ambition or personal animus that set these men apart: They had serious philosophical differences over the nature of government. Hamilton’s central failing is that it fails to convey those beliefs, and thus gives viewers the impression that our nation’s founding was the result of purely personal psychodrama.
In short, Hamilton’s fatal flaw is its focus on emotions rather than substance. In this, it is emblematic of the wider progressive Left.
When Miranda does try for political statement, it tends to pass with the barest of glances, in a throwaway line about the importance of immigrants (“we get the job done”) or how Britain is taxing tea. (The big exception is King George’s “You’ll Be Back,” the plaintive cry of a man losing his mind and his colonies, and desperate to hold onto his empire. “And when push comes to shove, I will send a fully-armed battalion . . . to remind you of my love,” he sings, in what is probably the most brilliant statement about force and revolutionary pacification since Orwell wrote “War is Peace” as an INGSOC slogan in 1984.)
In short, Hamilton’s fatal flaw is its focus on emotions rather than substance. In this, it is emblematic of the wider progressive Left. No wonder, then, that progressives have so enthusiastically embraced Miranda’s opus: It holds a mirror up to their values and makes them feel that much better about themselves. Forget the fact that the American Revolution wouldn’t have occurred had men like Jefferson and Adams not worked tirelessly at getting Colonial leaders united behind the declaration of our nation’s independence; they were merely self-involved politicos out to feather their own nests and keep upstart immigrants such as Alexander Hamilton from becoming successes in their own right! Forget any serious discussion about the balance of powers between the states and a federal government; it was snobbery that kept Jefferson and Madison from working with Hamilton to concentrate power in the central government.
If that weren’t enough, Hamilton plays into just about every leftist trope, starting with the flipping of the racial script: Every major character, save for King George, is played by a person of color. The show does drive-bys on issues such as immigration, takes swipes at leftist-notions of inherent privilege, and buys into the mythos that important decisions are always made by elites in back rooms. More importantly, it perpetuates the idea that emotion and motivation are far more important than the substance of political philosophy, economics, and the rational assessment of public policy.
Hamilton is also a “happening”: To see it live is to feel feel as though you are a part of something much greater. I admit to being very overwhelmed by the musical immediately upon the curtain falling, and it took my wife hours after leaving before she really came to grips with her emotions (as I said, she’s one of the two Hamiltoniacs in our household).
This is precisely what born-and-bred activists such as Miranda want — and why the activist left has essentially canonized Hamilton. Nicholas Pell was correct — the show is an ample target for criticism from those who love liberty,history, and performance artistry that is supposed to be steeped in both. But his critique missed many of the reasons Hamilton needs to be critically examined. In the end, the problem with Miranda’s work isn’t that it’s bad — it’s great theatre — but that, like the Left from which it sprung, it promotes flash over substance.