Hamilton The Musical and Political Reception of Art

Emma Pawl

Lin Manuel Miranda’s decision to cast people of color (POC) as white historical figures in Hamilton the musical, both helps to further representation for POC in musical theater, and more accurately depicts the America of today, as well as the music of today, while unfortunately also misrepresenting and glorifying history. Hamilton, as an example, shows what a great impact art has on our society, our politics, and our culture. This essay serves as a response to critics of the show, illustrating how if artists do not have the freedom or do not put in the effort to make these political statements, no real progress of art being a conduit for change would occur. This essay highlights why art should be used to join in discourses surrounding politics and current events, as artists are often the first shepherds of change. Indeed, the impact art has on politics and culture is great, as well as the impact politics has on art. Ethically, it is an artist’s responsibility to be very careful with the power they wield, and how they choose to use it. Brave and careful souls must put forth the work that truly reflects what they are trying to say about the world. These artists are not perfect, and thus the work they create is also imperfect, but if a truthful and noble effort is put forward, it should be treated as such. Without attempts made by artists to break into these political conversations, so much of what makes for truthful art would be lost, including both the worthwhile statements made and those that miss the mark. Both statements are of equal importance as both can be learned from. We as a society can still enjoy art, and seek out the important messages in it, while also holding it accountable for it’s flaws.

For artists not to try and join worthwhile conversations through their art is to resign art to mere entertainment, and although entertainment in of itself has its own purposes such as escapism, it is the art that makes people ask the hard questions that is the most vital. Art inspires important conversations in politics and the many crucial discourses of the times. As Elena Machado Sáez discusses in “Blackout on Broadway: Affiliation and Audience in In the Heights and Hamilton” art produces empathy in people’s hearts in a way that politics nor anything else can. Miranda frames the ethical obligation of art in terms of emotion and identification, suggesting that art is a productive alternative to political activism. The transformative power of art prompts audience members to empathize with, and adopt perspectives different from their own, challenging the more normative affiliations of their hearts and minds (182). Hamilton perfectly demonstrates the transformative power of art in both subtle and not so subtle ways throughout the show. During the number “The Battle of Yorktown” the characters of Hamilton and Lafayette enthusiastically high five saying “Immigrants…we get the job done!” boldly demonstrating Miranda’s claim for justice and equity for immigrants. During the opening number of the show “Hamilton” there are multiple notable lyrics used to paint the picture of Hamilton being an ambitious immigrant seeking to be something greater. The words

How does a 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
Grow up to be a hero and a scholar?
The ship is in the harbor now
See if you can spot him
Another immigrant
Comin’ up from the bottom
describe how this brave immigrant who started with nothing, grew up to be a hero, and one of the most influential men in American history. Miranda demonstrates through these lyrics his belief in the hard working people who have migrated to these shores in search of a better life. As Hamilton portrays, art can both boldly challenge peoples preconceived notions and can also often provide a gentler, less combative approach to challenging people on some of their assumptions and stereo-types while allowing them time for internal reflection. Art is an important tool for change, and if works that encourage people to engage in difficult conversations are stifled, so is any chance of progress towards a more inclusive and just society.

Hamilton evokes many strong emotions for fans and critics alike. As Elizabeth Titrington Craft discusses in “Headfirst into an Abyss: The Politics and Political Reception of Hamilton”, “cultural citizenship” within the show is one example of how Hamilton has made such an emotional impact on minority groups, the show allowing them to “lay claim” to being American, and thus, being an integral part of the American story (431). However, quite controversially Sáez states how the show evokes the “primarily” white audience’s empathy for the founding fathers which simply ends up reinforcing the exclusionary principles upon which the nation was created (183). These two points are both true, yet so contradictory. The fact is that Hamiltion does indeed send both of these messages. One may argue then, that Hamiltion is a hypocritical mess that does not end up saying much of anything. However, the show does inspire great emotion in all who watch it because it does provoke controversial and complicated dialogues. Hamilton does have something to say, hence why everyone is talking about it. The show, despite its shortcomings, succeeds in achieving two important goals; to boldly and unapologetically make a statement and to make fans and critics alike think about its messages, carrying on important conversations that would not have been possible without the show.

Much of the art that artists release into the world is worthy of thought and deserving of the attention it attracts. Artists who can make a cultural impact through their work are especially worthy of discussing and learning from. As Harbert describes in “Embodying History: Casting and cultural Memory in 1776 and Hamilton” Hamilton makes a tremendous cultural impact by reimagining how the founding fathers are presented using its productions to promote current liberal ideals of diversity and inclusivity and to provide an experience of the founding story that exposes historical and contemporary oppression (252). Hamilton does this by not only casting POC as historically white figures but also by casting white people as historically white and oppressive figures: for example, the role of King George. By doing this, Hamilton creates a completely revitalized and reimagined version of the original birth story of America, including characters of color that reinforce the interpretation of the story through a hip hop format also inherent to people of color’s culture.

Additionally, Hamilton is a piece of art that serves a significant purpose in education of America’s rich history. As Sáez discusses, this historical fiction musical also functions as an essential teaching tool, for children and adults alike. Hamilton aids those who study and teach the American Revolution by opening up questions about how historians analyze and interpret the past. Additionally, the musical’s educational impulse is seen as challenging political discourses on citizenship and immigration, such that Miranda argues for racial justice and the acceptance of immigrants (182). Hamilton also has succeeded in creating a place outside the classroom where students can take part in discussions of our nation’s history in a much more engaging and digestible way. As Craft discusses, Hamilton, a musical brought to life in a time of much political turmoil in America, has so brilliantly navigated the contemporary political landscape while also still boldly claiming “cultural citizenship” for the nation’s immigrants and minorities. Designed to reach a mass audience, Hamilton’s brand of politics, primarily democratic liberal ideals, appeal to ideologically diverse viewers and listeners. Its design to reach a mass audience creates moderation and multivalence which soften the impact of its message, but these qualities also broaden its reach and appeal (430). Hamilton, despite its flaws, makes dramatic and worthwhile statements about our culture and politics. Miranda proves that art can be a powerful vehicle of change, and inspires many young artists to continue to create and share their art with the world in different and varied ways.

All of this being said, for all the great conversations Hamilton does indeed spark, Miranda also has made some quite apparent flaws in his arguably greatest work. While encouraging representation and “cultural citizenship” (Craft, 431) Hamilton also unintentionally glorifies American ideals and historical figures. Hamilton has rightfully drawn criticism from many sources such as Machado Sáez who describe how Hamilton uses a diverse cast of people of color to mask problematic issues in the text such as the musical’s overall narrative and staging techniques. These techniques reinforce exclusionary and conservative conversations about American values, history and identity. Assumptions made by American audiences about some of the American Revolution’s greatest heroes are affirmed instead of being challenged. The musical is designed in a manner that reassures the audience about the righteousness of the American cause and the promise of the new nation, completely ignoring its many marginalized and oppressed citizens such as the enslaved populations and indigenous people. (183). Despite casting people of color to play white historical figures in Hamilton, which does send a message and achieve a lot for representation, the story line itself of Hamilton centers around primarily white male figures in positions of power and does not do more than touch upon issues like slavery. Oppression is indeed highlighted in the narrative, however it is mainly brought up through the lens of British oppression against the American colonies and not as oppression against slaves and indigenous people. Hamilton, also glorifies the historical figures that make up the show’s cast and does so to a mass audience that includes young and malleable minds. Elissa Harbert tells a story in her work of theatre scholar Patricia Herrera, who upon originally being exposed to Hamilton believed it to be a masterpiece having created a true “cultural utopia”. She described seeing this world where people who looked like her were front and center in the story of America’s founding, the creation of a free and just democracy. However, Herrera’s illusion was violently shattered when her daughter asked to dress up as Angelica Schuyler, a slave owner, for Halloween (252). For all of the positive, inclusive messages and thought provoking narratives Hamilton brings to audiences across the country, the show also has in many ways contributed to the oppressive doctrine that has been taught in the US. for centuries by continuing the narratives told from people in positions of power and failing to highlight, in any dramatic way, the stories of the underprivileged and oppressed populations of America.

It is of the utmost importance for the musical theater community to create more opportunities for representation for POC, and it is paramount for the show Hamilton to serve as a vehicle for that representation, depicting “the America of today” as Lin Manuel Miranda said in an interview. However, it is equally crucial for the show’s creators to be careful to not misrepresent the true characters of those historical figures depicted, encouraging old and hateful doctrines. If art is such a powerful vessel of change, as it has proved time and time again, it should continue to be used as such. However, the messages we do receive from art should also be treated as conversation starters, not definite answers or divine truths. It is important that we as a society, be culturally curious and aware and be able to take in information from a variety of sources, using those many sources to form well thought out, educated opinions. In turn, art should strive for representation without glorification. Art should serve as one of the many ways this information is grappled with. If we as a people can learn not to shy away from these hard conversations, and instead learn from them, and challenge them, we will be a more educated, compassionate and reflective society who will have also experienced some moving entertainment along the way.

Works Cited

Craft, Titrington, Elizabeth. “Headfirst into an Abyss: The Politics and Political Reception of Hamilton.” American Music, vol. 36, no. 4, Dec. 2018, pp. 429–447. EBSCOhost, doi:10.5406/americanmusic.36.4.0429.

Machado Sáez, Elena. “Blackout on Broadway: Affiliation and Audience in In the Heights and Hamilton.” Studies in Musical Theatre, vol. 12, no. 2, 2018, pp. 181–197. EBSCOhost, search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=rft&AN=A1285659&site=eds-live.

Harbert, Elissa. “Embodying History: Casting and Cultural Memory in 1776 and Hamilton.” Studies in Musical Theatre, vol. 13, no. 3, 2019, pp. 251–267. EBSCOhost, search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=rft&AN=A2067641&site=eds-live.

Emma Pawl is a rising second semester student at Berklee College of Music with a goal of majoring in vocal performance and minoring in musical theater performance. Emma has participated in sixteen theatrical productions throughout her high school career, and over twenty more throughout her childhood. Hamilton, one of her favorite musicals, was one of the reasons she began to seriously study musical theater. Upon being exposed to Hamilton, Emma began to think about art’s connection to politics in a different way. Emma hopes that this piece may inspire those who read it to take action with their art, as she hopes to do so with hers.