'Hamilton' felt revolutionary in 2015 — but it strikes a different chord today

The world looks and feels different in 2020, and so does this landmark musical.
Hamilton Cast
“Even though the music is great, even though the performances are exquisite, even though the production itself is sublime, ‘Hamilton’ will always be a cast of Black and brown people battling for space in a conversation that intentionally excluded them, rather than one about the people it excluded.”TODAY illustration / Disney+

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/ Source: TODAY
By Cate Young

When "Hamilton" premiered on Disney+ July 3, the excitement was palpable. The award-winning show that made genuine stars of its cast and became a cultural juggernaut would finally be widely accessible to the millions of people who never managed to find the $400 (or more) it took to see the show live. But alongside that excitement was fervent criticism that had gained steam in the five years since the show’s Broadway premiere.

"Hamilton" the film exists within a much different sociopolitical world than "Hamilton" the musical did and that changes the context of the entire project. When the musical premiered in 2015, the U.S. was at the tail end of the Obama presidency and riding high on the Hope and Change™ it had swept in. Obama’s historic election inspired a renewed optimism about the possibilities for transformation in America, specifically about race and racism. "Hamilton" was very much a product of that era, and the show’s author, Lin-Manuel Miranda, reflected that ethos in his work.

"Hamilton" is all about the revolutionary possibilities of inclusion, the value of a diversity of ideas and collaboration and the sheer force of will it takes to change a nation. In casting the roles of the Founding Fathers with Black and brown actors, Miranda achieved two things: He succeeded in creating roles for people of color on Broadway — an institution known for its monolithic whiteness and inaccessibility — and he reclaimed the story of the founding of America for the people who were left out of its telling the first time. Miranda has been quoted as saying that it's “a story of America then, told by America now” and the rich, kinetic vibrance of his musical demonstrates that idea clearly.

The casting choices were notable because they simultaneously placed Black and brown bodies into stories and institutions that had historically rejected them, and forcibly carved out space for them to exist and thrive. At the time, it felt revolutionary and novel. Miranda and his cast were storming the castle. But with the benefit of hindsight, that same choice can feel misguided and hubristic. It feels like erasure. Miranda himself even acknowledged that "all the criticisms are valid."

That isn’t to say that the choice shouldn’t have been made. If there is one undeniable good that "Hamilton" has done it was to expose audiences to so much talent and allow new actors of color to step in behind them. Renée Elise-Goldsberry, Phillipa Soo, Leslie Odom Jr., and Daveed Diggs are merely a handful of the spectacular standouts in a show filled to the brim with exceptional performances. That they were all assembled into the same show is nothing short of true genius.

But premiering online now, while the same country those Founding Fathers built has been rocked by protests about incessant anti-Black racism — the original sin they failed to adequately address — there is a tangible element of discomfort. The show celebrates a slew of white men who owned slaves and built a country that served only themselves. Christopher Jackson’s rendition of “One Last Time” as George Washington is so beautiful and moving and sentimentally conveyed that it’s hard not to shed a tear alongside him. But then you remember that despite being vocal about the evils of slavery during his lifetime, Washington waited until his death to actually free the people he owned. Thomas Jefferson, portrayed in the film and the original cast by Daveed Diggs, enslaved more than 600 Africans during his lifetime, but freed just nine of them. No amount of spectacular performance (and it is spectacular) can elide that fact.

In an essay for Vox, writer Aja Romano gets at this dissonance, saying, “Hamilton is a postmodern metatextual piece of fanfic, functioning in precisely the way that most fanfics do: It reclaims the canon for the fan.” But that begs the question: What precisely is the show a fan of? History? Sure. But that can’t actually be divorced from what the history actually was. The show examines and critiques the men as individuals and in relation to each other, but it doesn’t leave room to contextualize the actual ramifications of their politics. A third "Cabinet Battle" song directly dealing with the question of slavery was dropped from the show altogether. Though, to be fair, the production already has a runtime of nearly three hours.

Romana goes on to say that “'Hamilton' is fanfic, which means its function is partly to argue with its canon, not to simply celebrate it.” But while the show thoroughly argues with Alexander Hamilton the man, it does much less to tackle Hamilton the idea. For as many faults and flaws as the show presents in him, it still ends with his wife devoting the remainder of her life to a kind of hagiography of his. Our current cultural moment makes that fact much clearer because we are now living through the same urgent political climate of the film’s protagonist. That’s why it feels so much harder to suspend our disbelief now than it was under the last administration.

In a way, the production’s excellence is what ironically lends itself to critique. It does what it means to so well — that is, encourage audiences to empathize with its characters — that it obscures that they can never be wholly divorced from the real people they are based on. Even though the music is great, even though the performances are exquisite, even though the production itself is sublime, Hamilton will always be a cast of Black and brown people battling for space in a conversation that intentionally excluded them, rather than one about the people it excluded. That can’t be helped now — and it doesn’t necessarily need to be — but it is a critique that will always exist alongside the show’s brilliance.