About the author
Simon de Laat is a third year History student who is currently doing a Psychology minor in Leiden. In his free time, he likes to play guitar, play volleybal, drink coffee all day long and try out new craft beers. This is the first year in which he is part of an ACE committee
A History Student’s View on the Broadway Smash Hit ‘Hamilton’
There has never been a year in which our patience and resilience has been tested more than this year. In a matter of weeks, we were forced to abandon our usual habits and live a more secluded life than ever before. For many of us, this meant taking online classes, working from home instead of from the office and suddenly having an abundance of free time that we had to fill on our own. Because reality was so confusing and depressing at the same time, we had to look for replacements that were able to take our mind off reality. During the first wave, I tried to escape reality by watching an unhealthy amount of Netflix, binging Brooklyn 99 and re-watching Friends for the gazillionth time. More recently, I was introduced to an amazing piece of art that has entertained, challenged and educated me in more ways than one, and that is the musical Hamilton.
For those of you who have not seen Hamilton or heard of it, the musical tells the story of one of the founding fathers of the United States, Alexander Hamilton, from the moment he arrives in New York all the way to the duel that marked the end of his life. The musical already premiered on Broadway in 2015, but was only truly available to reach a mass audience outside of the U.S. last summer when it became available on Disney Plus. A huge part of its success and the main thing that drew me into the story is the modern and unconventional way in which the story is told. From start to finish, the entire story is told in music, more specifically a mix of hip-hop and R&B with touches of soul and gospel music, which means that nearly every monologue and every interaction in the musical follows a certain rhythm and rhyme scheme.
Another unique feature of the musical is its cast. As director Thomas Kail convincingly stated back in 2016, this is ‘a story about America then, told by America now,’ which results in a cast containing people with Afro-American, Latino, and Asian backgrounds playing historically white figures. This emphasis on diversity is powerful since it is able to give people of colour a sense of ownership and encourages everyone, regardless of background, to rethink their place in society. It also challenges the way in which American history usually has been told and challenges the notion that there is a link between whiteness and American belonging.
However, to say that the musical is an accurate portrayal of the story of Hamilton and early U.S. history would be deceiving and not true. The musical is considered to be a work of historical fiction and thus naturally contains many inaccuracies. Some of these inaccuracies were chosen deliberately, such as the following example. In 1780, Hamilton was married to Elizabeth Schuyler, daughter of Philip Schuyler, a wealthy senator from New York. Even though Philip had both sons and daughters, in the musical he is portrayed as a man with only daughters. Why Miranda opted for this becomes clear in the song ‘Satisfied,’ in which Elizabeth’s sister Angelica Schuyler, who secretly has a crush on Hamilton in the musical, sings the following:
I'm a girl in a world in which my only job is to marry rich
My father has no sons so I'm the one who has to social climb for one
So I'm the oldest and the wittiest and the gossip in New York City is insidious
And Alexander is penniless, that doesn't mean I want him any less
Although the fact that Philip Schuyler did not have any sons wasn’t true, the fact that women were usually deemed unfit to inherit the wealth of their parents was very much a reality. In this sense, Lin-Manuel Miranda used a historical inaccuracy to depict the position of women in the late eighteenth-century and by doing that, he indirectly challenged the patriarchal tendencies that are still present in modern society, which fits well with the inclusive message that Miranda wants to spread.
However, not all the inaccuracies that are present in the musical serve this purpose. The musical has also been accused of glorifying the legacy of Founding Fathers and sticking too much to the white version of the story. This is especially true for the way in which George Washington is portrayed. In the musical, Washington is not only the perfect mentor of Hamilton but also the noble, flawless, charismatic leader the United States needed at its vulnerable infant stage just after the revolution. The fact that Washington, just like many of his contemporaries, owned many slaves and was no stranger to corruption receives almost no attention in the musical. Counterarguments could be that only the Washington that was relevant to Hamilton is portrayed in the musical and that a more negative depiction of Washington could have scared people away because of his almost mythical position within American history.
Even Hamilton’s stance on slavery is a little exaggerated by Lin-Manuel Miranda. True, Hamilton was most certainly no advocate of slavery and a lot more egalitarian in his beliefs than many of his colleagues, but his actions prove that his view on slavery was a little more complex and not as much of a priority as the musical makes us believe. Even though he did write some essays against slavery and he played a vital role in the founding of an abolitionist movement in New York; when he was in a position of power, he prioritized the harmony of the newly established North-South union and his own personal ambitions over progressive abolitionist action.
But is it entirely fair to judge a musical solely from a historical perspective? Miranda himself isn’t a historian (he majored in theatre studies) and as such, he has all the freedom in the world to tell the story of Hamilton his way. Miranda is a storyteller, not a scientific historian, and is an entertainer above anything else. Even as a history student myself, I first got into the music and visual aspects of the musical before diving into its historical accuracy and it is this artistic appeal that has drawn such huge crowds to the Broadway sensation in the first place. Therefore, criticizing the musical’s romanticization of American history purely from a historical standpoint wouldn’t be entirely fair, because romanticization is naturally part of musical theatre and the bigger the audience a musical is able to reach, the better it is able to spread its message.
That being said, there is still definitely something to say about the musical’s unwillingness to adequately counter the whitewashed version of American history. Although the topic of slavery definitely returns more than once in the musical, much is still left out. On the other hand, the musical has encouraged many to revisit the early stages of American history. Furthermore, despite the fact that direct mention of slavery is lacking a little, the intense desire for freedom and recognition shows up in abundance and it is this desire that will resonate with the many non-whites (and whites) watching Hamilton.
In the end, the question that everyone must answer for themselves is the following: is the inspirational benefit of this cultural phenomenon worth looking past its missteps? I believe that it is, but there is no inherently right or wrong answer to this question. Regardless of your opinion on Hamilton, there is no denying that the musical has been hugely successful and has inspired a renewed interest in the historical legacy of the Founding Fathers and the origins of black oppression, which I consider a step in the right direction.