Whether history repeats itself as a tragedy or a farce seems to be of little importance in the United States, a country where history stomped fresh trails, different from the rest of the world. And yet, this is an exceptional time, of the Broadway spectacle “Hamilton“, the unprecedented presidency of Donald Trump, and the inimitable collision of politics and culture. So, history, it seems, is kicking back. As Adam Gopnik wrote in the New Yorker:
On rare occasions, the American musical can still be central to what we should call our ceremonial culture. A song-and-dance show on Forty-sixth Street can occasionally touch so profoundly on some central preoccupation of a period that, even if relatively few of us actually get to see it live, it still becomes a kind of hearth at the center of a national celebration.
Gopnik argues that “South Pacific,” “My Fair Lady,” J.F.K.’s death, “Camelot,” “A Chorus Line,” and “West Side Story,” were the only musicals in the last half-century to become true ceremonial phenomena. They have now been joined by Lin-Manuel Miranda’s astonishing “Hamilton.”
I dare say more. Hamilton is beyond the scope of previous Broadway shows. It’s exceptional and, of course, overwhelmingly American. Implementing plenty of high technology, the musical is a physically demanding performance of incredible complexity that has been orchestrated to perfection and reinterprets American history in the most simple and vivid way. It’s the must-see the spectacle that offers pure aesthetic pleasure but also captivates with energizing music and a quintessential libretto that wastes no words, creating something that marks in time an American way of life. As a non-fan of Broadway, I was ignoring the Hamilton frenzy until recently, when I finally acknowledged some journalistic advice: “Sell everything you own to get your hands on a ticket”, wrote the Guardian. The show is now performing in Washington DC for the whole summer.
After I read much of American history, I still felt like one of the people described by Ron Chernow, the author of the biography that inspired the musical, when he described his inspiration:
When I started doing the book, most Americans – including I think Lin-Manuel Miranda [the writer of the musical] – knew two things about Alexander Hamilton: he is on the $10 bill in the United States; and he had died in a duel with the vice president at the time, Aaron Burr. But that pretty much exhausted what most people knew. And yet, the more I read about him, I realized that his personal story was far and away the most dramatic and in fact, rather unbelievable story of any of the founders.”
Hamilton’s illustrious career included a position as an aide-de-camp to George Washington during the American War of Independence, prior to gaining military glory at the battle of Yorktown in 1781. After the war, he was a key figure in the ratification of the US constitution and a prolific writer in its defense, and later he served as the first treasury secretary of the United States during Washington’s presidency. Add to this Hamilton’s remarkable rise from his illegitimate birth on a remote Caribbean island, a tumultuous personal life and his involvement in what Chernow calls “America’s first sex scandal”, and it seems amazing that Hamilton’s life was neglected for so long.
When Lin-Manuel Miranda, the American composer, got hold of the book, he was mesmerized: “When I picked up Ron Chernow’s biography [of Hamilton], I was at a resort in Mexico on my first vacation from ‘In The Heights,’ which I had been working seven years to bring to Broadway,” said Miranda in a recent interview. “The moment my brain got a moment’s rest, ‘Hamilton’ walked into it.”
Previously, on the eve of the first performance of Hamilton in London, in December last year, Miranda explained what attracted him immediately to Hamilton:
I didn’t know he was born in Nevis, I didn’t know he grew up in the Caribbean. I didn’t know his Dickensian childhood; it sorts of out-Dickens Dickens. Then I got to the part where he writes about a hurricane that destroys his island and they take up a collection to get him his education on the mainland. I just thought, ‘He’s a hip-hop artist.’ He’s a guy who writes about his struggle so well that he transcends it. And once I had that insight, it kept proving me right.
Miranda read the book in 2008, and by 2009 he composed the first piece of the musical that six years later shattered conceptions of American history. You can see, from his 2009 White House performance, how Miranda was fascinated by Hamilton. That first song of what later on became the “Hamilton” musical was nothing but the announcement of the arrival of a prophet–with the approval of newly elected President Obama–whose words were unearthed from deep in the established history. Chernow explains why Hamilton was neglected for so long:
“Given Hamilton’s personal and professional rivalries,” explains Chernow, the neglect is not such a surprise. “Hamilton’s political enemies were John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, James Monroe – I just named presidents two, three, four and five – and if history is written by the victors, history had very much been written by Alexander Hamilton’s enemies.”
Does Chernow speak as the writer of the book or as the historical consultant for the hip-hop musical? He was working at the side of Miranda for years, thrilled at how much faster and stronger the music was able to transmit the message: “It’s a bit embarrassing that they accurately condensed 40 pages of my book into a four-minute song,” said Chernow in this interview.
Hamilton was known as a political antagonist of Thomas Jefferson. He believed strongly in a central government, while Jefferson believed in states’ rights, inextricably tied to the institution of slavery in the southern states. And while Hamilton’s profile certainly fits better into the 21st century, it was easier to transform Chernow’s biography into an award-winning musical.
But there is more to it. In order to repeat itself, history called for specific circumstances that enabled a dilemma that was posted but not resolved at the end of the 18th century: the contrasting political and economic interests between the federal government and the singular states. While George Washington was president, he was able to contain and keep apart said interests. But when Washington decided to step down, Hamilton’s eccentric genius for building modern, the federal government, which contradicted with a slave-owning society, lost much-needed political support. In the staged melodrama, Hamilton’s progressive ideas get buried in the duel in which the “bastard, orphan, son of a whore and a Scotsman, dropped in the middle of a forgotten spot in the Caribbean by providence, impoverished in squalor” was killed by vice-president Aaron Burr, the opportunistic politician that despised Hamilton’s genius.
Sixty years after the death of Hamilton, slave ownership was abandoned during the civil war. But the Constitution, written by the Founding Fathers, many of whom were slave owners, still reigns over the United States. The long and strenuous fight for human rights in America is far from over. Black Lives Matter and #MeToo movements are two of many examples of the unwritten conclusion of the “Civil War.” During the presidential campaign of 2008, many Americans hoped that the victory of Barack Obama would finally bridge America’s divide. But the election saw the resurgence of racism–the reaction–upon the election of the first black American president, a backlash that continues to whip America around. When it comes to civil liberties, however, such as same-sex marriages or the legalization of cannabis, American society has made big passes forward. But the fundamentals that maintain the separation between white America and ethnic minorities is very much alive. As for Hamilton, his fight for the abolishment of slavery has been achieved, no doubt, though vestiges remain.
“This is a story about America then, told by America now,” Miranda explains in an interview for the Atlantic,“ and we want to eliminate any distance between a contemporary audience and this story.”
“For Lin,” Ron Chernow says, “hip-hop heroes are people who had written their way out of poverty or obscurity through their power, the power of language.”
Not so for historians who, in the search for historical facts, do not hear the music of modern times. As Annette Gordon-Reed, a professor of history and law at Harvard and the Pulitzer-Prize-winning author of “The Hemingses of Monticello,” argues:
“One of the most interesting things about the ‘Hamilton’ phenomenon,” she wrote last week on the blog of the National Council on Public History, “is just how little serious criticism the play has received.”
Ms. Gordon-Reed was responding to a critical essay by Lyra D. Monteiro, in the journal The Public Historian, arguing that the show’s multiethnic casting obscures the almost complete lack of identifiable African-American characters, making the country’s founding seem like an all-white affair.
In the same piece, one that indicates the conservative attitude of some historians, Chernow, the author of Hamilton’s biography, said that the criticisms by Ms. Monteiro and Ms. Gordon-Reed were based on “an enormous misunderstanding” of the show, which dramatizes “a piece of political history at a very elite” — and all-white — “level of society.” Casting black and Latino actors as the founders effectively write non-white people into the story, he said, in ways that audiences have powerfully responded to.
In fact, when I entered into the spacious Kennedy Opera House with my $400 ticket, I felt as if I’d entered into the discount shops like Costco, where real America shops. Every song and word pronounced on the stage was followed with the great attention and grand amusement, rewarded by enthusiastic applause. Something 250-years-old was never as well-absorbed in the history of this country. But when you see the chubby James Monroe Iglehart, a rap star, acting as Thomas Jefferson then the world somehow seems more complete and just. Maybe America too.