Hamilton ★★★★

I don’t think I have anything original to say about HAMILTON as musical theater. It’s a real achievement! Fun, exciting, innovative and, at points, genuinely moving. 

I do have a few thoughts on HAMILTON as a historical narrative and as an ideological project, and I’ll use my review to think out loud on both subjects.

The HAMILTON narrative depends on stripping the American founding of much of its context. The only way to present the titular hero as a striving immigrant, for example, is to erase the fact that, at the time of Hamilton’s arrival in New York from the West Indies, both were British colonies. This wasn’t an immigrant moving to a new land, it was a British subject moving from one part of the Crown’s domain to another. The only way to present Hamilton as straightforwardly anti-slavery is to ignore the fact that he married into a prominent slave-trading family and endorsed the constitutional compromises that insulated slavery from the national government. Hamilton’s policy program — assuming continental debt, establishing a national bank — is divorced from his desire to tie the nation’s financial elite to its political elite, which itself reflects his personal elitism, pessimism about the stability of republican government, and deep distrust of democracy. 

The Hamilton of the play is practically a contemporary, versus the real-life Alexander Hamilton, a complicated and challenging figure whose aims and views resist easy cooptation into one ideological perspective or another. 

Beyond the problems in the depiction of Hamilton, there is the reverent, uncomplicated view of the American Revolution. The decision to race-bend the Framers and their associates — which lends an air of radicalism to the proceedings — obscures the extent to which this is a wholly traditional vision of the Founding, focused on entirely on an elite cadre of wealthy owners of land and people. Black and Native people were pivotal to the Revolution, how it began, how it was fought, how it was resolved, but there are no black or Native characters in the play. It’s a narrative where the revolution was fought for freedom from an unjust government, where the character of that injustice is left on the sidelines. In particular, we don’t even get a hint of the influence of fear on creating the conditions for the break between London and its North American colonies: fear of native incursion; fear of slave insurrection; fear of the foreign powers who surrounded the colonies on all sides. 

Which gets to my thoughts on HAMILTON as an ideological project. Whether intended or not, it provides a pleasing, grade-school story of the American Revolution, a celebratory narrative in which the Framers are men to admire without reservation. Through its casting, it invites audiences of color to take ownership of that narrative, as if they should want to take ownership of a narrative that white-washes the history of the revolution under the guise of inclusion. HAMILTON is a daring an innovative musical, but as a cultural product about the Founding Fathers, it is conventional, even conservative.