The musical Hamilton has brought in a new wave of love and interest in the founding fathers. It has done so with hip-hop, jazz, pop and broadway as its home, yet is it an accurate portrayal of history?
Most historians are suspicious of many mainstream accounts of history. Many ask, what will be left out? What will be mis-said? And what will perpetuate legend and myth without bringing something new to the table?
Yet Hamilton is something new in this telling of the founding fathers. Unlike mid-century musicals and movies that held the founding fathers in a shining god-like light, Hamilton makes the viewer confront historical myths and human mistake.
What helps Hamilton is its base on Ron Chernow‘s massive book on the life and times of Alexander Hamilton and the struggle around the revolution. Chernow’s book resonated with Lin-Manuel Miranda, and when Lin-Manuel sat down to write Hamilton he didn’t throw Chernow’s book in a corner and make his own story, he brought the real Chernow in for some advising and historical context.
If you watch the PBS Great Performances on the making of Hamilton, which follows Lin through creating the musical that has been such a phenomenon, one see just how much the history and the accuracy of the project meant. Lin-Manuel spent a lot of time trying to get everything right and make sure it was telling an honest truth, without compromising the value of a good musical.
He mastered it through and through. While preserving the historical and complicated history of a group of peoples in a three hour musical, he also made it an enjoyable, and as we have seen, massive cultural phenomenon and success! He has made it something more than a play and something more than a historical narrative. At this point in time, Hamilton, and Lin-Manuel Miranda, the nerdy son of a Puerto Rican immigrant, are reaching a legendary status.
As more and more people compare Lin to Shakespeare, let’s argue that in fact, his historical story-telling is even stronger and better presented than Shakespeare was able to do in his own time. While Shakespeare often took stories and re-wrote them to convey his own message, Lin-Manuel took a historical book, one that many find too lengthy and complicated, and turned it into the musical it is now. Which is mighty impressive.
If we analyze the history of the play, compared to the book, Lin did a remarkable job of taking the facts, making them a shorter story, and distilling it into a musical form. Not a mini-series, not a web-series, but a full-blown, but only 3-hour, musical that has the ability to motivate and inspire others. To be able to do something like this is more than making stories, it’s a talent and deep-seated ability that few people can harness.
The history of the musical is so very importantly and respectfully done and it doesn’t try to make one person a hero and another the villain. Instead it seeks to tell the story of a group of persons around Alexander Hamilton, and their trials, triumphs and failures around the American Revolution and in a new nation.
Every character is real, they have downfalls and strengths, quirks and weaknesses, attitudes and emotions. They’re solid beings, just as they would have been in a historical sense. Washington is a courageous and noble leader that glued something of the revolution together in a nation, but he was also a slave owner, and he made mistakes in his past. Jefferson is worldly and wealthy, but his affairs and slave ownership raise questions of values. Hamilton, as intelligent and able as he was, picked battles, and had an affair of which he was then cat-fished for. The musical explores their strengths and weaknesses through song, dance and even the cast that was chosen for the show.
As a final act of rebellion and to drive home our understanding of past in the present, the choice casting of only people of color in the musical is a final statement on the complexity of the founding fathers. In the original casting Washington(Christopher Jackson) and Jefferson (Daveed Diggs) are played by African American men, while their characters had been slave owners (and Jefferson had children with his slave Sally Hemmings, who was also his wife’s half-sister). Lin is Puerto-Rican and plays Hamilton and Phillipa Soo who plays Eliza is the grand-daughter of Chinese immigrants.
The list goes on, but the diverse cast is an important note on the changes that the country has made since its inception in 1776. The best part is that it reflects some of the changes that were set in motion by the act of rebellion and revolution. It also shows that there is so much of a need for more diversity in our entertainment and musicals in 2016. Thus, by casting a diverse group of peoples for the show we are seeing where the best person is given the role, and not just casting by race or a “look”, we see a progression in our artistic endeavors as a culture.
It’s a powerful movement forward.
Of you want to read more on the historical phenomenon of Hamilton, check out Frock Flicks and their take on the costumes and symbolism. If you want to see how historians are embracing Hamilton check out Historiann’s piece (her 18th century class at CSU is awesome btw- Rebecca Lee Robinson).