This review contains spoilers (for history).
I don’t write about music on this here blog. I’m not good at it, I don’t know enough to say anything useful about it, and I don’t usually end up having long and involved conversations in my brain about it. (That’s not the same as saying I don’t like music: tuneless singing is something I do pretty much every day of my life.)
I’m making an exception for Hamilton – or, rather, the cast recording of the soundtrack of Hamilton, which, given the fair-to-middling difficulty of getting tickets to see the live show (West End tickets are sold out till June), is how most people, including me, first encounter it. Probably I should have waited to write this until I actually did get to see it, but I have no idea when that will be, and I have many and many a thing to say about Hamilton.
Some context may be useful at this point. Hamilton tells the story – or a story – of Alexander Hamilton, first Treasury Secretary of the United States, from his inauspicious beginnings as the illegitimate child of a Scottish nobleman growing up in the Caribbean, through his role in the American Revolution, to his years of political influence. And it does so through the medium of hip-hop and rap.
That’s one of the interesting things about it. Combining the swagger of rap with the emotional theatricality of Broadway show tunes is one of those things that seems so obvious you wonder why nobody else has done it before. (They might have done it before. I am not an expert.) Throughout the album there’s also this fascinating juxtaposition of old and new: a string melody laid against a heavy bass beat, as in “Yorktown”, or shoot-from-the-lip rap layered with an olde-worlde round (“Farmer Refuted”, not a fan favourite but one that always makes me intensely happy), or, thematically, a cabinet meeting in the style of a rap battle. (Abigail Nussbaum detects Aaron Sorkin’s influence here, which feels weirdly right.)
It’s precisely that old-and-new tension that’s at the core of what Hamilton‘s doing. The other thing you might have heard about the musical is its race-bent casting: pretty much all the main roles (apart from the brilliantly loopy King George III) are played by actors of colour. This, and the choice to tell the story of the Founding Fathers in a musical genre associated with black people, is an explicit gesture of reclamation – a rewriting of history to include those who tend to be written out of it. Hamilton‘s intensely aware that it’s doing this, too: all of its characters at least half-know that they’re fictional, that they are performing their own version of history. “Alexander Hamilton/America sings for you,” goes a line in the show’s opening number; this actually feels like Hamilton referencing itself, as it seems (from Wikipedia the Fount of All Knowledge; my knowledge of US history is limited to a half-remembered GCSE module on the McCarthy era and six-and-a-half series of The West Wing) that the historical Hamilton hasn’t previously attracted much attention. So here is a show that considers itself very much its own thing – one that’s constantly reminding us that history’s really a matter of interpretation. Remember: this is a Broadway musical. A hit Broadway musical. It’s fun and witty and sophisticated and a great joy to listen to and think about.
So, to Hamilton‘s blind spots. Firstly, it believes absolutely and incontestably in the idea of America as the land of the free, “A place where even orphan immigrants/Can leave their fingerprints”; it believes uncomplicatedly that the American Revolution was about people rising up against tyranny (rather than, more prosaically, taxes). Secondly – and this is a common problem for musicals – its need for a tight narrative trajectory, and its consequent slightly myopic focus on Alexander Hamilton, gives some of the complex issues it wants to talk about short shrift.
Despite its avowed progressive politics, and its awareness of how history is whitewashed, Hamilton features no queer representation, or any historically non-white person. Perhaps most problematically, and as a number of commentators have pointed out, its unshakable belief in the myth of America completely erases the Native American populations who were persecuted after the Revolution – by George Washington among others, whom Hamilton sees as unambiguously heroic. (The show also conveniently forgets that Washington was a slaveowner, which slightly undermines Hamilton’s blistering excoriations of Thomas Jefferson for being a slaver while he defends Washington.) “Will the blood we shed begin an endless/Cycle of vengeance and death?” asks Hamilton of the Revolution, apparently blissfully unaware that the cycle’s already begun.
There are a couple of female characters with actual agency, which is nice: Elizabeth Schuyler, Hamilton’s wife, and her sister Angelica both have complicated and evolving relationships with Hamilton himself. But then, in the show’s final number, Eliza sings this:
I stop wasting time on tears.
I live another fifty years.
It’s not enough.
This annoys me every time. Because, let’s be clear, Eliza is more than entitled to her tears. Her husband left her behind repeatedly, refused to go on holiday with her, cheated on her, got her son killed, and, finally, got himself killed. Somewhere in the middle of that she has a brilliant song where she burns Hamilton’s love letters to her: “I’m erasing myself from the narrative” which Hamilton’s constructing to serve as his legacy; and in doing so she’s asserting her personhood, her separateness from him. But, in this last song, she explicitly undoes that: “I put myself back in the narrative”. And she does so to shore up Hamilton’s legacy: “I ask myself what would you do if you had more time?” Essentially, Hamilton denies her right to her own emotional life, and instead gets her to serve her husband’s history.
I don’t really have a good conclusion to all of this – except to note that, real as Hamilton‘s problems are, there aren’t many musicals clever and engaged enough even to raise the questions it provokes. And, after all, it does at least recognise that it is itself only an interpretation of history – only one story among many possible stories – which is far more than, say, Hairspray does. And perhaps it’s unreasonable to ask one single musical to stand against all the horrors of present-day America.
Perhaps it’s enough just to point out its blind spots.