Web Exclusive: Political Theatre - Accounting for Hamilton’s Fame.
Lin-Manuel Miranda’s lucrative Hamilton has already grossed $46,074,656 in Broadway theatres alone this year, charging an average of$285.65 per ticket and selling 161,292 seats. In January, Miranda accepted a Grammy for the best musical theatre album, after winning the Pulitzer Prize for Drama the year before (gracing Columbia’s Low Steps to claim the trophy). Since its Broadway debut in 2015, the musical has basked in worldwide success and critical acclaim of the highest order. But more than a Broadway attraction and three hours of escapist entertainment, Hamilton lies at the center of public debate, and has become the focal point of discussions on race, diversity and political history. Its searing presence on the public consciousness can be accounted for on the basis of far more than its theatrical entertainment or engaging music. Hamilton is, at its core, a political move, a provocative musical, and a finger up to Broadway and its elitist past.
America loves Hamilton not simply for its exhibition of creative talent, but because it touches on something at the very core of the American experience: a fascination with the Founding Fathers and an insatiable interest in US history. Like a dangling toy before a child, Hamilton evokes our ingrained curiosity about our country’s origins, luring us in with the possibility of understanding more of the birth of the nation we so adore, or that so wears us down. We enter beneath blaring lights shouting “Hamilton” and are surrounded instantly by merchandise bearing that same name and a huge gold star. The focus of the play is immediately clear-- it is the biography of a lesser known Founding Father of modern America. It is with that knowledge that tickets were first purchased and the show first seen, and those first few critics who attended the musical wrote their praises and thrust Miranda’s work into the spotlight.
Although the musical may well be a theatrical masterpiece, the modern American fascination with the Founding Fathers and the nation’s early history are definite contributions to the musical’s success. So when the play made its debut in London’s West End last year, critics worried that this distinctly American play might not garner the same praise.
However, fears were quietened on December 1, 2017, when Hamilton entered the English theatrical scene with roaring success. More than engaging with an American curiosity, Hamilton inserts itself into the global debate on race and diversity. It is one of the first Broadway productions to do so intentionally, publically casting a diverse group of performers, and is certainly one of the first to have non-white men play white historical figures. Hamilton promotes an ideal that many productions strive toward but seem incapable of attaining: diversity and zero racial screening in casting, and a world in which actors and performers are paid for their ability and not for their appearance. But normalizing diversity remains an ideal, and the sad reality of this was forced onto Hamilton’s stage on November 13, 2017.
At the beginning of the evening performance of Hamilton, Vice President Mike Pence—one of the many politicians and high profile guests attending the play—was booed by members of the audience. At the conclusion of the production, Lin-Manuel Miranda delivered a statement directed at Pence, saying, “We, sir, we are the diverse Americans who are alarmed and anxious that your new administration will not protect us, our planet, our children, our parents, or defend us and uphold our inalienable rights, sir. But we truly hope that this show has inspired you to uphold our American values and to work on behalf of all of us.”
In response, President Donald Trump took to his Twitter the following day, weighing in with, “The Theatre must always be a safe and special place. The cast of Hamilton was very rude last night to a very good man, Mike Pence. Apologize!”
By placing an ideal of racial diversity before the public, Lin-Manuel Miranda positioned himself in the firing line of modern hostility to those ideals. The event of November 13 proves that theatre serves as a microcosm of the issues that plague society at large. Broadway musicals may be classified with the sweeping notions of “escapism” and “entertainment,” but are never wholly independent of current political happenings and debates.
However, it is the underlying paradox of the musical’s social commentary that makes it especially interesting. Its values of diversity and encouragement of uninhibited social participation of minority groups are in clear defiance of the current political climate, which is dominated by white men. Hamilton does its best to show what real diversity might look like, but fails to address the striking similarities between Alexander Hamilton and certain politicians of today who are hostile towards diversity in Washington. . Forgetting the socialist, hard-working man of the people the musical presents, many scholars note that Alexander Hamilton was known for his elitism, including a cozy relationship with the big banks, and strikingly anti-democratic suggestions to change the Constitution. Hamilton’s values and policies, when examined away from the Broadway lights, seem somewhat dissonant with those ideas Lee-Manuel Miranda seems to promote.
Furthermore, while Alexander Hamilton did publicly criticize Jefferson’s racist views, he failed to take concrete action against slavery throughout the course of his life. This is ironic, considering that the play is written in such a way that race and slavery are frequently referred to as examples of Hamilton’s moral superiority over Jefferson. Miranda’s Alexander Hamilton thus portrays a somewhat sanitized version of the historical figure.
But this is hardly the only hole in Miranda’s progressive message. As a result of exorbitant ticket prices, urban theater locations, and upmarket style of the whole Broadway experience, Hamilton’s audience is almost exclusively white and upper class.
Theatre operates at the borderline between reality and the created; it is at once a constructed world and a representation of real lives and real experiences. It is, therefore, an excellent platform for exhibiting ideals and what could be possible in the everyday. However, the extent to which these ideals actually mould and permeate society is entirely dependant on the audience that is observing. Is Miranda really working for the masses by waving a vision of what-could-be in the wealthy white faces of those who are not letting it be? Or is he wasting his energy singing “The Story of Tonight” to deaf ears that have maintained their ignorance for centuries?
The discussion this musical alone has sparked suggests Miranda is probably successfully accomplishing the former. Interviews with audience members note the discomfort many felt viewing Hamilton. After all, the play does focus on the people habitually forgotten by history, and the audience is reminded of their culpability in that process of forgetting. The volume of the music and enthusiasm of those dancing demand that the audience remembers the performers and rewrites them into the history of the nation. This unsettling quality is deliberate; it confronts the audience with everything that is wrong with the way history is remembered.
Hamilton also makes a poignant statement on the nature of Broadway entertainment. The actors on stage make up the majority of non-white people in the theatre; this embarrasses and confronts those who let that be so. If we are to laud the theatre as a symbol of artistic talent and cultural progression, why is it so obviously limited to a certain subset of society? And if we are to concede that the medium of theatre wields significant influence over society, as Hamilton has shown us, this contrast demands that we open this experience to all people groups, not just to those wealthy enough to afford the tickets.
Hamilton certainly has theatrical appeal. Its award for best musical theatre album and praise for its performative qualities are justified and deserved, but they do not account for the full weight of the fame the musical now lays claim to. Lin-Manuel Miranda didn’t just create three hours of entertainment— he created a stage of political provocation and social commentary. Intentionally or not, he thrust Hamilton into the heart of ongoing challenges regarding history, politics, diversity, and race, and it is that which gives it the name it now holds.