Hamilton’s Bourgeois Revolution

Graphic from The Public's run of HamiltonThe first time I encountered Hamilton I was visiting New York, struggling through the last stages of my master’s thesis and in the city to fulfill a nearly two decade long dream of seeing Alan Cumming on Broadway in Cabaret. It was March, the show had been open at The Public for a few months so naturally I had heard the buzz – already one of the hottest tickets in town – and despite my fondness and knack for scoring rush tickets at the Public, I wouldn’t even be attempting to see the show. I knew a little about Lin-Manuel Miranda because of the success of In the Heights, but being neither a native New Yorker nor especially fond of musicals, that’s where my encounter with him ended. But the transfer to Broadway was announced and the hype kept building. This is my particular relationship to the show, and my particular privileged location on the cultural landscape to view it from as a white theater artist. So by the time the show opens on Broadway later that year, and then when the cast album is released, those of us who consider ourselves critics were primed by these conditions to unconditionally love it. After nearly a year of anticipation, hearing Hamilton affirmed for us that Miranda is the genius we thought he could, and wanted him to, be.

I say hearing, of course, because that’s how most of us have experienced the show. Broadway tickets are prohibitively expensive, hundreds of dollars, and although some lucky high schoolers will get to see it and people can enter ticket lottos – requiring either a bit of geographic luck or free time or both – most of us, at least for the near future, will only experience the cast album. There’s the YouTube clip here, the ad there, the joy filled tweet from Miranda, the effusive circus of the cast’s White House visit, and the upcoming Hamilton Mix Tape: these things not only add to our experience of what Hamilton is, but also are the show. Listening on YouTube or Spotify for the low low ticket price of an advertisement or subscription means we can all get our hands on the cast album yesterday – and we did, thanks to a preview via NPR. And the album, as we all know by now, is incredible. Including almost the entire show, it rewards repeated listens to understand the lyrical depth that the virtuosic performances deliver. Listening to these disembodied voices through my computer speakers, I could almost forget that these songs, so informed by the history of hip hop and of musicals, were being sung by brown and black people playing white historical figures.

Lin-Manuel Miranda performing Hamilton at the White House in 2009
Lin-Manuel Miranda performing Hamilton at the White House in 2009

On one of those repeated listens, I began to experience discomfort. Maybe it was Jefferson’s offhand comments to Sally Hemmings, or Hamilton’s claim that he was “weak” as he spins the tale of seduction that Maria Reynolds spun on him. My initial overwhelming joy had faded, and other critical voices had begun to appear: in conversation with friends, James McMaster claiming on HowlRound, an online theater journal, that it’s not revolutionary and setting off a firestorm of hundreds of comments (including my own). I had initially read Hamilton, as so many of us had, as one person of color making a story of the past about today – which is to say, I took Miranda at his word. I still love the show and Miranda, I still think it’s important, and though the oft applied label of revolution may be a hyperbolic and knowing reference to its subject matter, in terms of its impact on the Broadway stage, Hamilton may very well be revolutionary.

And, well, I actually think the entire show is revolutionary – but it’s a bourgeois revolution, something it shares with the revolution of 1776. If most people’s experience is limited to the album, it’s no coincidence that that’s the least expensive access point within the media and economic ecology that Hamilton exists. In that sense, it could be any other album in support of an expensive tour. Even as Hamilton performs a revolution, it can’t escape the stratified economic landscape. Where, then, is this revolution? It lies in the issue of representation that critics like McMaster and Lyra Monteiro have questioned, that non-white actors playing white founding fathers is the crux of the show, and to explain that I turn to its subject matter.

Hamilton, based on the Ron Chernow biography, portrays the first Secretary of the Treasury as an individual that rises to the height of his field, indeed to the very heights of the nation and world stage, through his singular talents. It is no coincidence, then, that this story resonated with Miranda. Miranda, too, is a man of singular talents – a mantra repeated in criticism and borne out by the quality of the musical that he wrote, composed, and stars in. Work on Hamilton began while Miranda was on vacation from In the Heights, his first hit musical that he also wrote, composed, and starred in. That he picked up Chernow’s book may be happy accident, but his identification with Alexander Hamilton is not. His choice to uncritically portray the founding father himself must be deeply personal: here is one man newly risen to the top of his field on the merits of his singular talents seeing another. Both Miranda and Hamilton, the musical implicitly argues, have written themselves into history. Yes, Miranda is the son of a Puerto Rican immigrant to New York City, but another part of Luis’s, his father’s, identity matters too: that of successful political operative. When Miranda sings, “My name is Alexander Hamilton” it is an incredibly moving and personal connection that we hear.

It is this moment when Miranda is at the top of his field, when Luis Miranda is an advisor to mayors, when a black man is the President and two people of color were contesting the Republican Presidential nomination that Hamilton celebrates. People of color have risen to the heights of the political class without transforming the political system, so it makes sense to tell the story of the founding fathers through people of color. We’re in just the right historical moment for our collective neoliberal consciousness to believe it. This is a point that Jeremy McCarter, Miranda’s friend and co-author of the book about the musical, explicitly articulates: the show is “attuned to the 21st century” awaiting the prophesied demographic shift away from a white majority. Just as the American Revolution replaced one ruling group with another ruling group, we have a newly diversified ruling class in contemporary America – but the ruling class is as entrenched as ever, and we need not look beyond New York City, so celebrated by Hamilton, and its real estate market, or even beyond the prices of a Broadway musical to observe this, nor beyond the banking system created by Secretary Hamilton. Seeing people of color advocate for and win an armed revolution in Hamilton is exciting and often feels like a nod to the Black Lives Matter movement – and I think it wants to be – but this feeling aids the forgetting of the whiteness of these characters.

Daveed Diggs as Thomas Jefferson and ensemble
Daveed Diggs as Thomas Jefferson and ensemble

The characters’ whiteness are effaced by the thoughtful color conscious casting that celebrates the nation state; even as it marginalizes the black and brown bodies on which that state was built. This is center to the show’s ideology. Giving only passing acknowledgement to Jefferson as a slaveholder, while celebrating Hamilton’s scant and questionable abolitionist and progressive credentials (helping us forget he’s a conservative hero), the musical argues, as articulated by Alisa Solomon in The Nation, “the theatrical, corporeal point, which can’t be conveyed by the script or score alone, is that America’s history—and its future—belong to men and women of color as profoundly as to anyone else.” It is indeed a bold and well intentioned claim on the future, and the return to storytelling at the end of the show matters: it is a show about ownership over stories of/and American identity. Though filled with joy and hope, it fails to overcome the politics of the plot and its players. In not casting a critical eye on the characters whiteness, without characters of color or a metatheatrical acknowledgement that these actors are playing white historical figures, we are given a false sense of history, of America, of what the revolution was fought for, to whom justice belongs, and of the role that non-white people had in America’s founding. It is a rose colored portrait of inclusivity, of American mythologies blended with contemporary diversity, rather than a picture of power and of past injustices. In order to celebrate neoliberal diversity, we have to forget the injustices on which America is built, slavery chiefly among them. It asks the immigrant of color to identify with Hamilton, the young immigrant, who married into a rich slave holding family.

Even as we have a national conversation—or at least a conversation on the Democratic and progressive sides of the aisle—about institutional racism, the narrative of Hamilton erases such barriers in favor of the myth of the great man. Or, if not erased, they appear almost as footnotes, easily overcome by wit and persistence: the laughable white villains King George, his army outsmarted on the battlefield, and Samuel Seabury, beaten in a rap battle, the kind of liberal rhetorical take down that has become a stand in on the internet for actual activism. Hamilton is a bold claim on American history by a person of color: by locating today’s people of color in America’s past, and forgetting people of color who lived in America’s past, it argues that America’s present and future belongs not just to bourgeois whites, but also bourgeois men of color unburdened from the legacies of historical racism. Hamilton aspires to be post-racial. The question the musical presents, “Who lives, who dies, who tells your story,” shifts from the narrative about Alexander Hamilton to the narrative of America itself.

Secretary of the Treasury Jack Lew and Lin-Manuel Miranda
Secretary of the Treasury Jack Lew and Lin-Manuel Miranda – and a portrait of Alexander Hamilton

Hamilton does do some very interesting work – it shows major decisions about the direction of the country decided by a few men alone in a room, a fundamentally undemocratic moment, and underscores but also undercuts that by having a sympathetic villain complain about not being in that room – while also erasing the slaves who would have been present. It’s created jobs for actors of color through formal innovation that’s given new visibility to hip hop in musical theater. On the other hand, it may have ensured that Hamilton, a hero to conservatives, remains on the ten dollar bill for the foreseeable future (a testament to its celebration of the political establishment). Given the shows multiple trips to the White House, we shouldn’t be surprised.

Its narrative is fundamentally conservative, retelling the old story about immigrants coming to America for a better life. Hamilton doesn’t just get a better life, he rises to the top through his exceptional productivity. This is the story of the American dream: here, if you work hard, you can achieve anything – and Hamilton assures us that it doesn’t matter what color your skin or where you’re from. This was patently false in 1776, as historian Monteiro has forcefully observed: “the play is set in a world in which, no matter how much harder they worked, the direct ancestors of the black and brown actors who populate the stage and sing these lines would never have been able to get as far as a white man like Alexander Hamilton could.”

It remains false today. Despite how exceptional they are and how hard they work, black and brown people face not only institutional and structural barriers to becoming another Hamilton or Miranda, but daily face the threat of violence and harassment. Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner, and Sandra Bland can never become a Hamilton, even if they had better odds than their ancestors did. Ironically, it is the struggle against this oppression that enables the affect that runs throughout the musical, the struggle and hustle by people of color to make it in the face of those odds, which aids in the erasure of historical oppressions. This is exactly how Miranda sees it: “Just the hustle and ambition it took to get him off the island — this is a guy who wrote his way out of his circumstances from the get-go. That is part and parcel with the hip-hop narrative: writing your way out of your circumstances, writing the future you want to see for yourself.” Hamilton is a willful, forceful writing of the future through the re-writing of the past, but through its narrative, construction, and subject it presents a fundamentally bourgeois vision that reifies the American Revolution into a neoliberal creation myth for America and its Dream. It is undoubtedly revolutionary, as the label persists and insists. But we’ve left out a detail about the nature of the thing: it is the counter revolution, where some people of color are upholding and narrativizing the power structures they now fully participate in without challenging the racist colonial roots of the American project. Ten years from now, when wealthy white surburban high schoolers who are having their own first encounters with Hamilton rap about the founding fathers as if they were contemporary revolutionaries (if they’re not already), this may be painfully obvious.

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