Hamilton already feels outdated
Much of what the musical had to say about America now feels naïve
I am not the first to remark on the strange nature of time these days — the way months seem to compress into the span of weeks, while hours stretch into fortnights and years into lifetimes. Still, I don't think that fully explains why revisiting the Hamilton soundtrack this week felt a little like discovering the ruins of ancient Pompeii: something monumental had clearly existed here once, but a seismic catastrophe has left it pale beneath a layer of dust.
Hamilton feels, anyway, like a relic from a different era. In a sense, it is: Lin-Manuel Miranda's Pulitzer Prize-winning musical emerged during the sunny optimism of the late Obama era, when empowering applause-lines like "immigrants, we get the job done!" were as much a part of the cultural zeitgeist as "I'm With Her" stickers and the push to get Harriet Tubman on the $20 bill. Half a decade on, we now live in a world where Hamilton has failed to age along with it, having idealistically put its full-throated faith into pre-packaged American values and ideals without acknowledging the underlying forces — like the fear-mongering, xenophobia, mean-spiritedness exploited by President Trump — that lay siege to them being realized.
When I bought my ticket to see Hamilton in 2015 — a stroke of dumb luck, I nabbed a pair for face-value just as a new batch were released — the show was already on Broadway but had not yet won its boatload of Tony Awards. Barack Obama was still president, and the Supreme Court had just upheld Obamacare and federally legalized same-sex marriage. When the day of my show finally arrived 11 months later, in September 2016, the nation seemed on the cusp of electing our first woman president. A New York Times reporter had just written an article with the headline: "I Paid $2,500 for a Hamilton Ticket. I'm Happy About It." A month earlier, Hillary Clinton had made not one but two references to the musical during her nomination-acceptance speech at the Democratic National Convention. As I waited to enter the Richard Rodgers Theatre, I had no way of knowing we were only a few weeks away from Vice President-elect Mike Pence getting booed by the audience and called out by the cast at a mid-November show; instead, I was swept up by the fans who'd brought a guitar to lead the queue outside the theater in singing "My Shot."
The filmed version of Hamilton, which arrives on Disney+ on Friday, is not radically different than the version I saw. Now short a few F-bombs and restored to the original Broadway cast (I saw the show four months after it was filmed, and some key actors had been swapped out by then), it is otherwise unchanged, allowing Hamilton superfans to relive the experience of the show now that Broadway has closed and the national tour is paused, and bringing the musical for the first time to those who've never had the opportunity to experience it live themselves. (Full disclosure, I have not seen the version that is appearing on Disney+). But how, I wonder, will it land?
Take, for example, the values espoused by the lyrics: the celebration of diversity and immigrants, freedom being "something they can never take away," the Schuyler Sisters rhapsodizing about "how lucky we are to be alive right now," even Jefferson singing that "we shouldn't settle for less" than life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. None of these ideals are wrong, but they do feel now about as blissfully naïve as hoping Michelle Obama will be magically nominated at the 2020 Democratic Convention. As the Broadway cast was singing away on stage in 2015 and 2016, after all, Donald Trump was rising to power on the currency of open racism, xenophobia, and sexism, which ended up not being a deal-breaker for the 46 percent of voting Americans that ultimately backed him. Freedom, we've learned in the years since, can be taken away, whether that means separating families at the border and locking children in cages, or teargassing peaceful protesters who are exercising their First Amendment rights. Pence might have been berated by the cast of Hamilton, but at the end of the day, he was the one who went home to Number One Observatory Circle.
Consider also the way that Hamilton was once considered to be a radical and groundbreaking "hip-hop musical," lauded for casting diverse actors in the roles of the country's white Founding Fathers. But the Founding Fathers were, make no mistake, largely slave owners and in many cases, slave rapists. The real Alexander Hamilton, for his part, "mistrusted the political capacities of the common people and insisted on deference to elites," and his opposition to slavery was not quite the defining creed that Miranda makes it out to be. The musical, then, is a project of rehabilitation, not a reckoning. "Hamilton's superficial diversity lets its almost entirely white audience feel good about watching it: no guilt for seeing dead white men in a positive light required," wrote Current Affairs in a 2016 pan. Or, as Brokelyn put it around the same time: "I counted three Black people in the entire sold-out Friday night audience … There were 10 times more people of color on the stage than the entire audience combined in a theater filled to the brim … This isn't Oklahoma. It's New York, New York! The melting pot of the American dream! It immediately became the most hypocritical piece of art I'd ever seen."
If today's Black Lives Matter movement has proven anything, it's that America and the modern liberal movement have coasted for too long on these kinds of empty gestures. The past four years have illustrated the devastating limits of representation without accompanying fundamental change; as Dr. Cornel West recently put it, "The system cannot reform itself. We've tried Black faces in high places." Hillary Clinton's campaign, which has been criticized by some progressives for relying too heavily on the presumed virtue of electing a woman president, might be seen as in the same pursuit of mere "representation," a failing we can more readily identify these five years later.
Even the musical-theaterized rap in Hamilton functions as a sort of coddling, making palatable a genre that otherwise might alienate the "old, rich white people" who could afford a Broadway ticket before it went to streaming. Yet rap music is historically a genre that compels listeners to reckon with the suffering, violence, and poverty within the Black community; on a Broadway stage, it is effectively re-engineered for a diametrically opposed purpose. Case in point: Hamilton's "Ten Duel Commandments," an exciting little bop describing the honor code for a gentleman's shoot-out, is an obvious play on Biggie Smalls' "Ten Crack Commandments," which would probably horrify and offend many of the same Broadway audience.
Yet even despite my struggles to buy into Hamilton today, I can understand the appeal. Listening to the soundtrack this week, I felt myself escape back to those days of easy, innocent optimism in 2015 and early 2016. I don't fault anyone for being nostalgic for a time when things seemed so simple and within reach, and Hamilton — unchanged as it is these years later — captures that moment of sunny idealism perfectly.
But as Hamilton also warns us, history has its eyes on you. And surprisingly fast, the musical has already become just that: history.