If you know anything at all about musical theatre, you know all about the rise of ‘Hamilton: An American Musical’ in 2016. The musical, written by Lin-Manuel Miranda and adapted from Ron Chernow’s book ‘Alexander Hamilton,’ debuted off-broadway in 2015 and since then, it has become the most popular musical in recent history. The show played in New York City, Chicago, San Francisco and Los Angeles and now a recorded performance with the original cast is streaming on Disney+ for millions of streamers to watch in their own homes.
I am not unique when I say that I fell in love with this musical when I first discovered it. My friends and I would play the soundtrack every day after school and my high school’s marching band even performed its hit song, “Burn,” throughout the football season. My best friends even took me to see the show for my birthday in Chicago a couple of years ago (I have no idea how they swung that because we’re broke college students) and I absolutely loved it.
At first glance, I’m sure many people would not expect a musical about Alexander Hamilton and other Founding Fathers to be a wildly popular sensation. However, the fusion of hip-hop and history is what makes it so entertaining and was the reason I loved it so much. But due to my naivety and ignorance of accurate American history, I saw ‘Hamilton’ as a fun show with cool songs instead of a confusing and distasteful retelling of history. The show has received criticism since its debut at The Public Theater in New York, the majority of which stems from Miranda’s inaccurate retelling and framing of history.
Many critics of color think it is necessary to remember that ‘Hamilton’ is nowhere near an accurate representation of the Founding Fathers. They were not underdog heroes or abolitionists, but capitalists who stole Native American land and enslaved and exploited Black and Brown people. They were white supremacists. Among many atrocities, Thomas Jefferson sexually assaulted Sally Hemmings, an enslaved Black woman who worked in his home, and then enslaved the children. George Washington’s teeth, that many of us were told were made of wood, were teeth from enslaved people. And of course, Alexander Hamilton purchased enslaved people to work for his family. How can we be so far removed from these horrors that we can sing and dance along to songs about these men and ignore the terrors they inflicted on Black people?
After knowing this information, other points of criticism become increasingly valid. For example, some viewers question the choice of hiring nearly all people of color to play the role of white historical figures. In regards to this, Miranda stated he wanted the story to be “told by America now.” But I wonder how this can be successfully done when the whiteness of the Founding Fathers and their families is crucial to why they were able to rise into power. If the story of the Founding Fathers were to be told based on the way America looks now, they should still be portrayed as rich, white men who exploit and oppress low-income, Black people. By erasing that their race had an active role in the power they had to oppress others, we downplay the racism that they wrote into our country’s foundation.
Another major critique focuses on the musical’s use of hip hop to portray white supremacists as relatable and comedic. Miranda believes “hip-hop's the language of revolution and it's our greatest American art form," which I would have to agree with, but whose revolution? Black people were not included in the Declaration of Independence when slave-owner Thomas Jefferson wrote, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.” So why appropriate Black culture to uplift white supremacists? If we want to make a statement about revolution and fighting for freedom in the United States, telling the story of the white men in power seems to be the worst way to do so.
I am puzzled and conflicted about how I feel about ‘Hamilton’ today. I don’t believe Lin-Manuel Miranda or any of the crew and cast purposefully wanted to erase history or offend viewers, and for the most part, many people still love the musical. We cannot deny that ‘Hamilton’ has opened the doors for many performers of color to become household names on Broadway. But as a Black American woman, it makes me wonder how our ancestors would have felt about this story. They were the ones who built this country from the ground up, not Hamilton, Washington, or Jefferson. And yet, we collectively gloss over their stories and hard work.
The criticisms and conversations that people around the world have been having about ‘Hamilton’ dig into important questions about how history should be told and who should be centered in those retellings. Could you imagine if, in 200 years, there were a musical called Trump? We would see actors of color portraying Donald Trump, Mike Pence and Mike Pompeo instead of hearing the stories of Black and Brown people who were targeted and suffering at the hands of this administration. That would be outrageous, and yet, how different would that be from ‘Hamilton?’ We must pay attention to the way we are retelling the stories of the past as not to have our current reality be inaccurately retold in the future.