Hamilton, the critically acclaimed musical which found its way to the hearts of musical lovers, and others, since 2015 has now found a new life on Disney plus+. With its new audience reach, the musical is now facing more criticism, with many accusing the show to downplay the connections between the historic figures and slavery. Is Hamilton getting #cancelled?
Hamilton: An American Musical 101
In 2009, Lin-Manuel Miranda, accompanied by Alex Lacamoire, performed at the White House Evening of Poetry, Music, and the Spoken Word. He introduced his performance by stating that it was a part of a hip hop concept album he was working on, which was about a man he believed to embody the essence of hip hop: Treasury secretary Alexander Hamilton. This was met with laughter but the performance proved to be remarkable and ended with a standing ovation.
By February 2015, the concept album had developed into a fully-fledged musical, which premiered at the Public Theatre. Hamilton: An American Musical, inspired by a biography by Ron Chernow, tells the tale of the 10-dollar founding father, Alexander Hamilton, from his departure to New York to the duel that would ultimately end his life in 1804. With its diverse cast, hip hop influenced tracks, and even rap battles between founding fathers, Hamilton quickly became a phenomenon and premiered on Broadway in August of the same year.
On July 3rd, a recorded 2016 performance of the show with its original Broadway cast was released on Disney+. While met with enthusiasm by numerous fans around the world, it exposed the musical to further criticism, and as per usual with internet culture, a “#cancel”. The main issue that has been raised is the portrayal of the relationship of the historic characters with slavery, especially Hamilton.
Amongst the musical’s themes of loss, forgiveness, conflict, and legacy, the topic of slavery is not primary on the list. Nonetheless, despite not being the central theme of the musical, slavery is mentioned throughout the show, although often through John Laurens, who in the musical claims “we’ll never be free until we end slavery”. Hamilton, as the character, does speak negatively of slavery, in instants where he reminds Thomas Jefferson that Virginia’s debts are only paid “’cause [they] don’t pay for labor”. Passages like those however tend to be brief and relatively scarce.
The impression one can get from the musical alone is that Alexander Hamilton was an abolitionist. This has been highlighted as an issue, with many mentioning his connection with the slave-owning Schuyler family, or his close relationship with slave-owning Founding fathers, such as George Washington.
The truth is that Hamilton’s stance towards slavery is complicated. Although Hamilton has been praised and declared to have been a strong public abolitionist by some biographers, he has also been described as having anti-slavery views but being able to compromise on those and look the other way when convenient. Miranda himself has recognized in an interview that despite voicing anti-slavery beliefs, Hamilton “remained complicit in the system”.
So, where does this leave the musical?
At the end of the day, there is only so much exploration of complex decades of history that can be done in 2 hours and 40minutes.
All criticism, as acknowledged by the musical’s creator, is valid. The issue of the portrayal of the reality of slavery, as well as the participation of the founding fathers in it, is an issue that has, can and should generate a debate. After all, the new string of critics mirrors the state of the world we currently live in, and no criticism on the portrayal of slavery would not only be odd but also alarming. As Miranda states
“You don’t get to control how you’re remembered […] the show doesn’t escape that fate […] different things in it will rise or fall based on where we are”.
Hamilton: An American Musical, is an art based on history. It has its strengths and it has its flaws. It should be praised for where it succeeds and held accountable for where it falls.
Cover: Disney +