Monday, November 16, 2015

Five Comments on Hamilton

If you're like me, you probably spent some portion of the last six months watching your online acquaintance slowly become consumed with (or by) something called Hamilton.  And then when you looked it up it turned to be a musical playing halfway around the world that you will probably never see.  But something strange and surprising is happening around Hamilton--a race-swapped, hip-hop musical about the short life and dramatic death of Alexander Hamilton, revolutionary soldier, founding father of the United States, co-author of The Federalist Papers, and creator of the US financial system.  Unusually for a work of pop culture that is only available to a small, even select group of people, Hamilton is becoming a fannish phenomenon, inspiring fanfic and fanart and, mostly, a hell of a lot of enthusiasm.

The soundtrack for Hamilton has been available for purchase since the summer, and it's through that channel that many--probably most--of the show's fans have become acquainted with it.  The musical is sung-through, so it's possible to follow the story just by listening, as a sort of radio play (though it's best to follow along with the lyrics, just to get a sense of who's speaking when; this site collects them, and adds annotations which provide background on the historical events that Hamilton is depicting and shed light on the musical references the play makes to the stalwarts of the hip-hop genre).   Hamilton is a stunning musical and lyrical achievement--writer, composer and lyricist Lin-Manuel Miranda was recently awarded a MacArthur Genius grant, and from listening to the play it's easy to see why--and on that level I don't feel that I have a lot to add to its much-deserved praise.  In fact, it's hard to know where to start talking about Hamilton, not only because there are so many angles--musical, historical, theatrical--but because it's in the unique position of existing in different forms for people who saw the play and those who listened to the soundtrack.  The Hamilton in my head is different from the one experienced by someone who saw the show (and, given the ephemeral, transient nature of theater, people who saw different performances of the play probably experienced subtly different versions of it as well).  It's unusual for a fannish discussion to coalesce around a work that has no canonical form, and I'm hoping that some interesting conversation results from that.  In the meantime, however, here are a few observations based on my experience of the play.
  • I think that a huge component of the appeal that Hamilton holds for fannish people is that it is so obviously the creation of a fannish person.  The play is brimming with odd details about Hamilton's life and the lives of his fellow revolutionaries, and Miranda quite clearly finds his subject fascinating and inspirational (as one would almost have to, to have spent seven years working to get a musical based on the life of a founding father off the ground).  One of the joys of diving into Hamilton-ia is the discovery that Miranda himself is constantly embroidering around his creation, whether it's a cut scene denigrating John Adams, or an impromptu rap telling the audience about the fate of the Hamilton children who are not featured in the musical.  It's almost impossible not to be caught up in Miranda's obvious enthusiasm for its subject, which seeps through every moment of the play.

  • If, despite the above, the fannish reaction to a play about one of America's founding fathers seems unexpected, listening to the soundtrack makes it very clear why it has occurred.  Hamilton has some irresistible character hooks, practically designed to tug at the heart of a certain type of creative, enthusiastic fan.  The crux of the play is the slowly curdling friendship between Hamilton (played by Miranda) and Aaron Burr, who will eventually kill Hamilton in a duel.  The two men, who are opposites in almost every respect--family background, financial prospects, temperament, political outlook--shadow each other throughout their careers as revolutionaries and politicians.  Their relationship progresses from fond incomprehension--Burr urges the impetuous, loquacious Hamilton to "Talk less.  Smile more," an approach that is anathema to Hamilton's fervent convictions, as he replies "If you stand for nothing, Burr, what'll you fall for?"--to dislike and enmity.  Burr arguably has the most complete character arc in the play.  Hamilton spends the story defined by his determination and hunger for success, traits that do not change, even if their effect on the world and his life goes from salutary to destructive.  Burr, meanwhile, goes from confident in his worldview, to baffled by Hamilton's success, to consumed with envy when his own political ambitions fail.  It's a transformation that is echoed in the play's music--the refrain "How does a bastard, orphan, son of a whore..." which expresses Burr's amazement at Hamilton's meteoric rise repeats several time over the course of the play, and each time Burr's state of mind is noticeably altered, going from casually superior to audibly deranged.  (A huge part of Burr's success as a character is due to Leslie Odom Jr.'s performance, which to my mind upstages even Miranda's.  Even on the soundtrack, Odom imbues his singing with so much emotion that Burr becomes a fully-formed character.)

    To that, add rounded and enticing portraits of George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, and a complex, fraught relationship between Hamilton, his wife Eliza Schuyler, and her clever, imperious sister Angelica, and you've got a play overflowing with rich seams of character and relationship drama.  At the heart of Hamilton's success--and its ability to capture its fans' hearts--is the way that it humanizes and makes relatable the historical figures it depicts (whether or not it gets their personalities right is a matter for historians to debate, of course, though Miranda bases the play on Ron Chernow's biography of Hamilton).

  • Having said all that, I have to say that what captures my interest about Hamilton, even more than the character drama or the depiction of the Revolutionary War, is the fact that this is a deeply political musical, one that is interested in political process at a time when the structures of modern democracy are just being figured out.  It's entirely unsurprising to learn, in the play's annotations, that Miranda is an Aaron Sorkin fan--if only because for a writer of his age who is interested in popular culture that touches on politics and its processes, there aren't a lot of other influences to be found.  There are moments in Hamilton that are deeply, recognizably Sorkin-ian--not just its profound love for America and belief in the American experiment, but the way it depicts political debate, and the seriousness with which it takes the issues it touches on.  How many other musicals feature characters discussing--in song--the pros and cons of a centralized financial system, and coming off as smart and knowledgeable as they do so?

    At the same time, Hamilton is also yet another example of how the works influenced by Sorkin (which include, among others, The Good Wife and Parks and Recreation) tend to outstrip him in their complexity and inclusiveness.  It's impossible to imagine Sorkin making the connection, as Miranda does, between political debate on the congress floor, and rap battles, which is how he stages the scenes in which Hamilton and Jefferson fight over whether to create a single bank to assume all the states' debts, or whether to come to France's aid after its own revolution.  And yet the connection is obvious in retrospect--like a Sorkin-ian debate, these scenes in Hamilton are all about characters triumphing by being knowledgeable and quick-witted, and most of all, by knowing how to arrange their ideas in the most effective, devastating form possible.  And if the fact that Sorkin (probably) can't write or perform a rap isn't really something he can be criticized for, there still remains the fact that Hamilton is much more interested in people that tend to get left out of Sorkin's stories, especially women.  At its core, Hamilton is just the sort of Great Man story that Sorkin loves to tell, but the choice to cast only actors of color in the roles of historically white people (except for the actor playing George III, who is specified as white in the musical's casting call), and to stress their ethnicity through the show's choice of musical styles, makes a statement that is a direct counterpoint to a lot of Sorkin's work, which too often seems in love with pedigree, with characters who have gone to the right schools and know the right people.

  • There's a lot more to be said about the effect of Hamilton's casting and musical choices, and I'm only going to touch on a little bit of it.  At the most basic level, the fact that people of color play historical figures like George Washington and Thomas Jefferson is significant because those roles are usually off-limits to non-white actors, even in a medium like theater which doesn't put a premium on realism (it also opens the door to other race-swapped, and even gender-swapped, productions of the show).  But Hamilton isn't simply an exercise in race-blind casting.  The fact that its characters are played by people of color, and that its musical styles are associated with African-American culture and with its protest movements, is making a powerful political point.  It's a reminder that acts of protest and revolution are viewed very differently when they're committed by white, moneyed Europeans, and when they're committed by people of color whose manners and demeanor don't conform to a certain standard of acceptability.  Having black actors portray Washington and Jefferson allows Hamilton to break through the respectful, even reverent lens with which we regard these figures, reminding us that at the beginning of their journey, they were seen as criminals and traitors--and that some of the people whom we class as criminals and traitors today might one day achieve the same respectability as the founding fathers.

    At the same time, I can't help but wonder if Hamilton's race-swapped casting doesn't, paradoxically, whitewash the founding fathers.  The fact is, these people were white, moneyed Europeans.  Their revolution was that of one nation's ruling class rebelling against another's over how much of their wealth they'd get to keep.  Even Hamilton, who was born to poverty and limited prospects in the Caribbean, was incredibly privileged compared to the people he grew up around.  When the play repeatedly describes him as an immigrant, it is blatantly courting certain present-day associations (which are only intensified by the casting of Miranda, who is of Puerto Rican descent).  But the real Hamilton was a white man whose parents arrived in the Caribbean as part of a massive colonial and imperialist endeavor, one that also brought with it millions of African slaves, none of whom shared even the limited opportunities granted to Hamilton.  The play is by no means unaware of the hypocrisy some of its characters display, demanding freedom while benefiting from slavery--this is the crux of Hamilton's arguments with Jefferson, and several triumphant moments during the war are punctured by the reminder that the freedom it wins isn't for everyone (that said, Hamilton is happy to gloss over the fact that Washington, too, was a slaveowner, painting him as a wholly positive figure, and a fatherly mentor for Hamilton).  But it mostly ignores the larger point, that painting its heroes as underdogs--and especially, doing so by casting actors of color to play them--is a distortion of history whose effect is potentially to erase important aspects of the American story.

  • Having said that, there are multiple levels to this play, and on at least some of them it really doesn't feel as if Hamilton is interested in depicting history.  I don't mean to say by this that the play isn't accurate to the events it depicts--though it gets them right in broad strokes, there are plenty of timeline contractions and other uses of poetic license to make the story flow better, about which it would be ridiculous to complain--but that Hamilton is less a work of historical fiction, and more a contemporary political fable that uses historical events to make its point.  The frequent use of the word "immigrant," for example, feels very pointed.  In another scene, the Schuyler sisters sing that "History is happening in Manhattan and we just happen to be/In the greatest city in the world." This is, of course, entirely inaccurate to the period--New York would not gain the cultural and commercial importance it holds today until at least the middle of the 19th century--and what the line is recalling (beyond paying homage to the city where the play originates, which is also the writer's home town) is the present moment.  And in that present moment, the value of casting people of color as revolutionaries, and giving them the names of people we've been trained to respect, is profound.  It's easy to look askance at the very project of Hamilton--as Kate Nepveu points out, this is still a play in which the protagonist refers to America unironically as a "promised land"--and that strikes me as a fair criticism that is worth exploring.  But the added value of the play, as a sly counterpoint to prevailing wisdom about "good" and "bad" forms of protest, and just as an exceptional work of art, feels more important to me.


Matthew Cheney said...

This is a fascinating analysis (I've enjoyed the cast recording but didn't know there's now a fandom, though it doesn't surprise me).

On the later points about history and inclusion, etc. -- it seems to me the show is using history as a way to access a myth: the national myth, the kind of myth that inspires patriotism. The "Founding Fathers" are, of course, our hugely influential national mythic heroes, with assumptions, perceptions, and opinions about them not just informing popular culture but actually shaping law and politics.

Interestingly, Alexander Hamilton has been less celebrated than others, with many biographers (unlike Chernow) taking an openly hostile view of him. Miranda is returning Hamilton to the pantheon, adding him in the way he's adding people who have traditionally been excluded from the white supremacist idea of the USA, and also adding some gestures to acknowledge that history of white supremacy, but not in a way that in any way undermines the national myth -- there's a sense of "This is our country, too, and so we can celebrate and be part of the national mythology just as well as other people." (Especially interesting when we think about the relationship between Puerto Rico and the US.) Miranda may prove to be the George M. Cohan of our era.

seamus said...

I am reading Chernow book on Washington at the moment and he does not gloss over the fact Washington was a southern slave owner who like a certain other Virginian was in theory against it but in practice did nothing about it cause it paid the bills.

Abigail Nussbaum said...


Most of the examples of Hamilton fandom I've seen have been on tumblr (where Miranda also blogs). See, for example.

I think I might describe the play as trying to create a myth (though that might just be my relative ignorance of American history, and particularly Hamilton's history, talking). I take your point about Miranda wanting people of color to be able to access that myth and see themselves in someone like Hamilton - as I said, I think the things that the play achieves by casting people of color as the founding fathers outweigh the issues it raises by doing so (and certainly things wouldn't be any better if the play were the same but all the actors were white). But there still seem to me to be multiple angles from which to view this tactic. Perhaps it all comes down to that myth, and the problems inherent in it.


Fred Clark has been blogging for a while about Washington's history as a slave-owner, and particularly a case in which he spent years trying to re-kidnap an escaped slave.

Stephen said...

Some great insights here. I like what you said about the benefits/drawbacks of the multiracial casting in particular.

One or two minor thoughts:

"people who saw different performances of the play probably experienced subtly different versions of it as well" Not only subtly: the play continued to evolve (adding/dropping songs, changing lines, etc) right up to the cast album, which seems to have been used as a deadline for locking the show. But I've read at least one reviewer who went twice talking about how the show had evolved in the (pre-Broadway) part of its run.

* "Their revolution was that of one nation's ruling class rebelling against another's over how much of their wealth they'd get to keep.... But it mostly ignores the larger point, that painting its heroes as underdogs… is a distortion of history whose effect is potentially to erase important aspects of the American story." I take your point, but it's a bit more complicated than that. Today we see the founders & their opponents all as equal, since they were all rich white men — but there were differences that, at the time, mattered a great deal & had powerful effects that we no longer see — in large part because, through various events including the American revolution, they have been eradicated. The revolution was not, simply, two ruling classes battling it out; it was a social revolution in many ways. Just not in ways that match the social divisions we're used to. (The classic book on this is Gordon Wood's THE RADICALISM OF THE AMERICAN REVOLUTION.) None of which is to deny the importance of race & class (and of course gender) in power relations then. But there were other factors, and it's a historical distortion not to recall that.

(And, on a similar point, in addition to the social radicalism of the US revolution, it's too easy to forget it's political radicalism: at the time what they called "popular" government (representative Republican gov't, since democracy as an ideal was really a slightly later phenomenon) was a very fringe, radical view. Again, more than elites battling over money.)

* In case you missed it: there is one scene from the produced play left off the cast album. It's in the "apocrypha" section of the genius site, I think; Miranda also posted it on his tumblr here:

* I think that becoming a fan of a musical just from the cast album is less unusual than you imply in this piece. To take one example, Miranda says that's how he approached Broadway growing up.

* Finally, picking up a few strands you left lying around: one reason for the very *fannish* reaction to Hamilton is, I think, precisely the joy of myth appropriation that Mathew Cheney mentions above. I am thinking of the fan art of the characters based on their theatrical roles. It's a joy to see Jefferson etc look like *that*. People respond with fannish glee.

Again, thanks for the review. As a fellow Hamilton-obsessive, I love reading about it, and there's too little critical discussion & too much gushing (understandably: I more or less gush myself. But criticism is interesting & enriching, so I thank you for it.)

Abigail Nussbaum said...


I think that, on some level, the radicalism of the American revolution is acknowledged by the play, mostly through the character of Hamilton himself and its celebration of his social climbing. I take your point that some of the things we take for granted about the character would not have seemed obvious to people of his time. It's here, though, that the play feels most disconnected from its era and connected to ours. The constant references to Hamilton's being an immigrant, while obviously connected to the ways in which the reovlution was changing habits of thought, are clearly more rooted in the present moment.

(By the way, one way in which the play might have addressed the radicalism of the revolution, but which it eventually glances off, is economic issues. These are referenced repeatedly in Hamiton's conflicts with Jefferson - who accuses Hamilton of being "new money" - but it doesn't feel to me as if the play really gets into both the opportunities and the problems created by Hamilton's financial system. In 2015, it's hard not to take Jefferson's warnings of the looming power of the financial class a little more seriously than the characters do.)

Foxessa said...

We argue in our book that the War of Independence was not a revolution but a civil war. All the laws regarding slavery were kept in place once independence was achieved. The Constitution was written to protect slavery and the domestic slave trade.

The real revolution was the War of Southern Aggression in which the laws about slavery were abolished and emancipation and abolition were established as the laws of the land. That was actual change in economic, legal and political systems -- though, of course, not enough. More to the point, in the War of Independence the African Americans fought for the British. They weren't rebelling against them, but created an enormous slave insurrection as they flocked to the British who offered them freedom, as they did also in the War of 1812, another slave rebellion.

The greatest slave rebellion of all was what we all still call the Civil War, though most certainly for the African Americans it was a revolution in which they carried guns, and spilled their blood, and were massacred in a variety of terrible ways for daring to be armed and to shoot.

S Johnson said...

What book, please?

Politically the lineage runs from Jefferson to Jackson and the pro-southern Democrats, which asks if Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson relates to Hamilton somehow?

(On the other side, politically the lineage runs from Hamilton/Washington to the Whigs to the Republicans. But of course a lot of people hate Lincoln and the north.)

Foxessa said...

Jackson was anti federal government and a managed economy -- recall his war on the Second Bank of the U.S. --
"... the bank is trying to kill me, but I shall kill it." Which perpetuated and intensified the Boom and Bust cycle that has been the U.S. economic system from the beginning. Jackson himself, with the destruction of the bank and the creation of nearly 2000 local banks, funded with nothing but their own paper issued in the wild catting land speculation of the territories Jackson ethnic cleansed to make safe for the slavocracy, set off the worst and longest depression in the history of the U.S. until the Great Depression of the 1930's. Jackson was called the Panic of 1837. This is as opposite to what Hamilton and Washington wanted, and planned, with the first Bank of the United States, as could be.

This same sort of uneducated and disastrous ambition caused Jefferson, earlier, to dismantle the U.S. Navy, which President John Adams and Co. had so painfully built up -- leaving the U.S. a sitting duck on the Great Lakes and the Chesapeake, and in the Atlantic for the Brits in the War of 1812. He also didn't believe in as standing army of any stature. Fortunately the privateers and Baltimore ship yards managed to take things in their own hands. But when it came to the land battles, the U.S. failed spectacularly in every engagement -- except Jackson's ethnic cleansing of what was immediately to become the Cotton Kingdom, carried out under the mask of the war with Britain.

The book is The American Slave Coast: A History of the Slave-Breeding Industry, which is a history of the U.S. from the colonial era until 1865, which places the industry of the domestic slave trade and the supplying of it at the center of our history, instead of being ignored or at best a side-bar to most other histories of the U.S. It took us five years to research and write. TASC was published Oct. 1, launched at Brown University, and we have just concluded 7 hard weeks of tour support in the locations of the great slave markets of the U.S., as well as other locations that feature in the book. TASC also went back for a second printing at the end of October. Not too shabby for a book as large as 350 years of history demand, and that retails ate $35 -- though of course, it's significantly less from online retail. There's also an e-edition, which has caused several people to give it a single star review -- from people who haven't read the book, and who don't seem to know what a book review's function is because the single star is given because the book 'costs too much.'

More to the point, at least as far as we're concerned, the reports from people who have read the book is that it reads easily and fast, despite the length. That was something upon which we worked on, with great sweat and tears -- it had to read easily. Despite 1500 citations, this book is not in academic jargon and is geared to the non-academic reader.

S Johnson said...

Thank you for the reply. (And yes, I will be purchasing, but the kindle copy, because I'm a cheapskate.)

Re Jackson and the banks, I'm trying to recall my forty years ago reading of Bray Hammond but details aren't coming. But I did expect that if any cared to quarrel with my recalling Jackson, it would be because the easy but false conclusion from the Nullification crisis that Jackson was above all a unionist, that is, a believer in a republic with majority rule. I believe Jackson's role in permitting the de facto censorship of the US mails in the South was vastly more significant.

As to Jefferson's motives for dismantling the Federalists' national army? It's hard to estimate the importance Jefferson assigned to making sure that Alexander Hamilton didn't have a vehicle for military glory. But it's always seemed to me that Jefferson didn't want a military leadership that traced any traditions back to the Revolutionary days, when African Americans were enlisted. (By the way, although the British lost a frontal assault made through an extremely long field of fire at New Orleans, Lundy's Lane marked the re-emergence of a US regular army that could defeat British regulars. This new military's officer corps had much stronger roots in the South, I think.)

Winnie said...

Ot but are you going to write a review for Jessica Jones? I'd love your take on it

Abigail Nussbaum said...


That's the plan, but I have to watch the thing first! I'm pretty swamped at the moment, so it may be a while yet before I get to it.

Foxessa said...

S. Johnson -- Thank you, for your comment. FYI, for some contractual reason, we get a larger royalty percentage from the Kindle edition.

Also, through Christmas, the publisher on its website is offering any of its books for 50% off. They have the proto-kindle version available there too, something called, what? Mobe?


Foxessa said...

S. Johnson -- Thank you, for your comment. FYI, for some contractual reason, we get a larger royalty percentage from the Kindle edition.

Also, through Christmas, the publisher on its website is offering any of its books for 50% off. They have the proto-kindle version available there too, something called, what? Mobe?


EW said...

“[T]here are multiple levels to this play, and on at least some of them it really doesn't feel as if Hamilton is interested in depicting history. …Hamilton is less a work of historical fiction, and more a contemporary political fable that uses historical events to make its point. [For example,] the Schuyler sisters sing that 'History is happening in Manhattan and we just happen to be/In the greatest city in the world.' This is, of course, entirely inaccurate to the period--New York would not gain the cultural and commercial importance it holds today until at least the middle of the 19th century--and what the line is recalling … is the present moment.”

Consider the song, “Close Every Door” from Joseph and the Amazing Technocolor Dreamcoat, in which Joseph bemoans his fate in prison. It is sometimes suggested that the song refers to the Holocaust (“Just give me a number/Instead of my name…”; “Destroy me completely/Then throw me away….”), which would of course be anachronistic to the story. But more particularly, the song concludes with the rousing thought –

“Children of Israel/Are never alone
For we know we shall find/Our own peace of mind
For we have been promised/A land of our own!”

Within the context of the show, these lyrics are not only anachronistic but absurd. Nothing in the story suggests that Joseph was discriminated against because he was a child of Israel. To the contrary, the chief antagonists in the story – the people who sold him into slavery – were his fellow Jews. And they had already received a land of their own: It was called Canaan, a fact acknowledged in a prior song, the land from which Joseph had been dragged away in chains.

So the idea that Joseph would gain solace by reflecting on his solidarity with the people who had sold him into slavery, or looking forward to the fulfillment of a prophesy that had already occurred, is ludicrous. It seems clear that the song is written not to express the sentiments of Joseph, but of contemporary Jews.

Perhaps coincidentally, contemporary Jews buy more tickets to the show than do the Jews of Biblical times. So maybe it’s just as well….

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