Columns, Opinions

Krishnamurthy ’19: Hamilton is meh

By
Opinions Editor
Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Hamilton: An American Musical is, without a doubt, among the 21st century’s most popular pieces of art. Since its Broadway debut in 2015, the musical has been on the receiving end of relentless adulation. Much of this acclaim has to do with Hamilton’s unconventional commitment to Americans left on the margins­ — actors of color play the roles of America’s white, slave-owning founding fathers, and the genre of hip-hop is deftly wielded as an instrument of history. In this way, the musical resonantly transposes the reality of racial marginalization onto the most primordial story of the American experience: “young, scrappy” people, freshly emancipated from tyranny, who dare to arrange their own form of government, create their own nation and, ultimately, seek out their own fortune. As theater critic Ben Brantley wrote in the New York Times, “‘Hamilton makes us feel the unstoppable, urgent rhythm of a nation being born.”

But Hamilton isn’t perfect. Nor, I feel, is it deserving of the sorts of unanimous, uncritical praise that progressive urbanites have hyperactively heaped upon it in the past two years. After all, beneath the musical’s inventive lyrics and feel-good narratives lies a more unsettling truth: Hamilton is less an adroit riposte to injustice as much as it is an accommodation of it — three hours of ahistorical propaganda, faux racial redress and sugarcoated struggle meant only to alleviate the moral discomfort of the haves, without doing very much for have-nots.

For one, it doesn’t take years of research to relieve Hamilton of its historical embellishments. The musical portrays Alexander Hamilton, the country’s first Secretary of the Treasury, as a “young, scrappy and hungry” immigrant and consummate republican who exhibits an intimate understanding of the struggles of ordinary folk. But such a depiction is nowhere close to the truth. Hamilton once told the Constitutional Convention that “the mass of the people … seldom judge or determine right” and that society’s most privileged ought to have a “distinct, permanent share in government.” A few years later, Hamilton vigorously supported the Alien and Sedition Acts — specifically the articles that permitted the immediate deportation of immigrants and suppression of anti-Federalist dissent. Alexander Hamilton is scarcely the paragon of democratic forbearance that Hamilton fans want him to be.

Then there’s the more serious problem of who actually gets to see Hamilton. Premium seats at Richard Rodgers Theater, the Broadway theater which houses the production, cost $849; the remaining thousand or so seats cost around $200. And, thanks to scalpers, who resell nearly a quarter of Hamilton tickets, resale of the tickets can exceed $5,000.  These exorbitant rates are prohibitive; the only people who can actually afford to see revolutionary Americans spit anti-colonial fire are the affluent — mostly white, well-educated and sympathetic to the progressive cause.  Close to four-fifths of Broadway audiences are white, so Hamilton’s monochromatic viewership isn’t exactly the fault of its producers. But, for a musical whose primary selling point is the spirited preservation of marginalized perspectives, what good does it do to cast black and Hispanic actors as white guys if black and Hispanic people don’t get to see it? It is wonderful that white people are able to see talented dramatists of diverse backgrounds excel, but the essential thrust of Hamilton — that black and brown Americans are nonnegotiably integral to American history — will never fully resonate with them. Indeed, as one essayist at HowlRound — the online theater journal — observes, it is not difficult to imagine that many white viewers “walk away from Hamilton thinking that they are on the right side of history simply because they exchanged hundreds of dollars for the opportunity to sit through a racialized song and dance.” For me, Hamilton feels more like an excuse for progressives to recuse themselves from the demands of progressivism, from the task of squarely confronting historical injustice.

Just as significantly, the musical’s central premise — that representation in casting somehow makes the prejudice that undergirded the founding of America more palatable, even excusable — is disappointing. That Hamilton boasts a cast of color is commendable; that its cast must incarnate the roles of wealthy whites, and ultimately tell a white story, is substantially less meaningful. At the end of the day, Alexander Hamilton, Thomas Jefferson and the Marquis de Lafayette — all utterly indispensable to American independence — are still white, and actors of color, no matter how phenomenal, cannot change that. If anything, Hamilton simply reaffirms what we already know: At the inception of our republic, white people called the shots.

In the end, it’s this ineluctable whiteness that also cheapens the significance of Alexander Hamilton’s immigrant credentials, upon which the musical places appreciable emphasis. It is true that Hamilton did not belong to the hierarchy of colonial privilege; he was a self-made man who, like most immigrants, started with nothing. The musical recounts his early years as an orphan in the British West Indies, his service in the Continental Army as George Washington’s aide-de-camp and his eventual emergence as one of the country’s most influential founders. Perhaps the most famous lyric in the musical is Hamilton’s and Lafayette’s simultaneous declaration, “Immigrants: We get the job done!” Yet, while Hamilton tries very hard to tacitly rebuke xenophobia, it must be noted that he wasn’t any old immigrant. He was white, he spoke English and he was educated at an Ivy League university. In other words, he had everything going for him. As such, Hamilton — in all his gilded refinement and contempt for democracy — doesn’t represent the value of immigration as much as he does the importance of servicing the agenda of the elite.   

I’m not trying to discredit the inimitable talents of Lin-Manuel Miranda or his co-stars. As a piece of entertainment, Hamilton is unparalleled. In a time when social media can capriciously propel cultural phenomena to popularity and condemn them to obsolescence, the show’s songs and storyline have wielded extraordinary staying power. But it is the transmogrification of Hamilton — from Broadway musical to some sort of salvific opus, at least in the eyes of young liberals — that really bothers me. Sure, Hamilton is wildly entertaining; sure, it has reinvigorated interest in early American history. But to pretend that it does anything more — that it makes a contribution to the project of interracial understanding or even effectively asserts the indispensability of Americans of color — is baselessly wishful.

Anuj Krishnamurthy ’19 can be anuj_krishnamurthy@brown.edu. Please send responses to this opinion to letters@browndailyherald.com and other op-eds to opinions@browndailyherald.com.