Article

Alissa Wilkinson


What Is America's Legacy?

How Hamilton reimagines the Founding.

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But that appearance took place a month after he stood before Congress and delivered a heartfelt, non-rapped plea on the same topic, offering whatever help he could give—even Hamilton performances—if they would back relief measures for the poverty-stricken U.S. territory. And that occurred a day after the cast performed parts of the show at the White House, including the Rose Garden rap. Which is to say that the reach of this musical far exceeds a night of light entertainment or even Tumblr-style fan obsession.

The sort of devotion the show sparks is partly due to its infectious music, its unironic, good-hearted patriotism, and its odes to hard work and faithful commitment to one’s friends and ideals. But it also owes much to its unprecedented harnessing of technology and social media. Tickets are absurdly expensive, but the cast album is just $20 on iTunes and can be streamed for free on Spotify. Everyone loves it, children and parents alike. I have a friend who awoke early one morning to hear her tiny son singing “I am not throwing away my SHOT” in his bedroom. Another offered his children the opportunity to go to either Disneyland or Hamilton for family vacation. The Founding Fathers beat out Mickey Mouse and Frozen.

And while only one number from Hamilton has been broadcast widely—the cast performed the opening number for the 2016 Grammys, beamed live from the stage of the Richard Rodgers—fans can interact with the show through Twitter, Tumblr, and Ham4Ham videos, which extend its presence and welcome a much broader and more diverse audience than could ever hope to score tickets. (It’s worth noting that in April, the show started devoting its Wednesday matinee entirely to high schoolers bussed in from underserved districts around New York City, all of whom pay just $10 a ticket.) That extended presence encourages the sort of creativity required to rewrite the entire show to be about a superhero or contemporary politics or any of the many iterations that will doubtless emerge in the future. This is not the passive intake of entertainment that grumpy think-piece writers like to attribute to Millennials. It’s a vibrant culture of creation and improvisation. Some young Lin-Manuel out there will write the next Hamilton.

The choice to cast the show with non-white actors is deeply significant as well, signaling that this is not just a literalist retelling of history but a recasting of the meaning of the Founding itself. Chris Jackson, the towering African American actor who currently plays Washington and cut his teeth as a singer in Midwestern church choirs, leads the cast in prayer backstage before every performance. He told Playbill, “I know that when I was 11 years old, if I had seen a show like Hamilton, it would have changed everything for
me. . . . I think once you see characters like us portrayed in real life, the power is you can somehow see yourself in that.” Wood writes in the New York Review of Books that the casting choice “symbolizes as nothing else could that the history of the founding of the United States belongs to all Americans at all times and in all places and not simply to elite white Anglo-Saxon males who lived in the eighteenth century.”

This, to no one’s shock, has ruffled a few feathers. But even to those who don’t mind, it could sound gimmicky—none of these men and women were people of color, after all. But Hamilton was an immigrant, born in the Caribbean, as the show reminds us repeatedly, to a Scotsman and a prostitute. The show’s telling of the Founding is keenly conscious of the racial injustice and slavery America had yet to confront, even as it sought to throw off oppression. In one rap battle, New Yorker and Treasury Secretary Hamilton spits at Virginian Secretary of State Jefferson, “A civics lesson from a slaver. Hey neighbor / Your debts are paid ’cause you don’t pay for labor. . . . Keep ranting, we know who’s really doing the planting.” This isn’t an anachronism; the Founders hotly debated the issue of slavery, but chose to punt the problem down the road to deal with later—resolved only by a bloody and expensive war, decades after the colonists’ former oppressors in the United Kingdom had abolished slavery themselves.

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