Like many people, we have watched Hamilton: an American Musical on Disney + in the last few days. We saw it live in London last summer—you must see it live—and it was interesting to compare the original and London casts, and an American and British audience.
Hamilton is as good as musicals get, as good as theatre gets. Lin Manuel Miranda is a genius, with so many strings to his bow, not least such a gifted collaborator (though, dare I say it, not the best of singing voices). But it is important to know what you are watching. This is art, not historical record. Hamilton takes enormous liberties with chronology, geography, and personalities, in order to tell a compelling story in 2 hours 40. Lin Manuel Miranda makes choices as to who ‘lives’, who ‘dies’, who tells the story. If you want to know some of those choices, start with reading Ron Chernow’s biography of Alexander Hamilton, which inspired Lin, and Lin’s own luscious book of the making of Hamilton. And then keep going.
Anyone who comes away seeing Alexander Hamilton as a hero has missed the point. (And, by the way, he was neither an immigrant nor an abolitionist; though he did alienate would-be allies, and was at the centre of America’s first political sex scandal.) Indeed, there are no heroes here. Washington comes closest, but works hard to disabuse us of such a nonsense, to deconstruct his own legend, revealing the human beneath. There are no heroes, or even anti-heroes, but several characters who serve as protagonist and antagonist to one another: Alexander Hamilton, Aaron Burr, George Washington, Thomas Jefferson—founding fathers, all—and, in a sub-plot of their own, Angelica and Eliza. What Hamilton presents to us so well—and here, Lin’s acting of the titular role is so good—is the insecurities that drive each character, the moments of doubt and self-doubt. The ways in which characters that see themselves as polar opposites are, in fact, mirror-images, sharing the same weaknesses. In many cases, despising most in another character what most reflects themselves. Too cautious, too reckless, too clever, too venal.
On reflection, it turns out that Hamilton is history after all. Because, all history is a telling of a story, selective, crafted, certain things placed in the spotlight and others lost in the shadows. And not only history, but a deep exploration of American psychology (note the productions sub-title: an American Musical). It could not be a more current commentary of the contradictions of American politics.
In understanding ourselves, we need neither to simply possess a history nor to erase and replace that history, but, to listen to the ways in which our history—the story we tell—impacts on others, and to listen to their story, their telling of history. Paying special attention to the voices that have been written out of our narrative. Seen in this light, Hamilton is not the final word, but unfinished words that should give hope, and not just entertainment.
You’ll be back.