STREAMING: AMERICA’S FOUNDING MUSICAL

Published July 19, 2020
Hamilton brings to stage (and now our screens) the story of Alexander Hamilton, America’s “10 dollar founding father”
Hamilton brings to stage (and now our screens) the story of Alexander Hamilton, America’s “10 dollar founding father”

There’s little denying the cultural footprint of Hamilton, the Broadway show that took the theatre world by storm when it first opened. The musical won so many Tony awards in 2016 that some jokingly referred to the ceremony as the ‘Hamiltonys’ that year.

The critical darling has also been a huge commercial success. With some of the priciest tickets on Broadway, the show has made considerable bank over the years. Of course, the hefty price tag has kept many theatre fans from experiencing Hamilton live. Still, the show’s musical album has been listened to millions of times on YouTube. And songs like My shot are wildly popular, even with musical lovers who could only dream of one day seeing the show.

Unfortunately, with Broadway season officially cancelled until 2021 due to Covid-19, no one is watching the play in theatres (in New York, or any of the other venues where the musical eventually opened). But more fans than ever before can finally experience a sleekly produced live recording of Hamilton.

Disney’s new streaming platform Disney+ has given fans (at least the ones in countries where the service has been launched; Pakistan not being one of them) a front row seat to the action. The weekend that Hamilton dropped on the platform, the Disney+ app saw a 74 percent rise in downloads, indicating that fans were not throwing away their shot at availing this unique opportunity.

After making waves on Broadway and becoming a cultural phenomenon, the stage play Hamilton is finally available to watch online…if you can get your hands on a Disney+ subscription. But how do its politics stand up five years later?

AMERICA THEN AND AMERICA NOW

Hamilton brings to stage (and now our screens) the story of Alexander Hamilton, America’s “10 dollar founding father” who remained relatively lesser known outside — and even within — the US before the musical became a cultural phenomenon. Told craftily by Lin-Manuel Miranda, the play lionises Hamilton as a passionate immigrant who “gets the job done” — a sentiment that perhaps resonates more strongly in America today than in the late 1700s.

“Hey, yo, I’m just like my country/ I’m young, scrappy and hungry,” sings Miranda during My shot, while essaying the titular role himself. Of course, the US is no longer young and scrappy, but even as Miranda tells a story set over 200 years ago, his unique treatment of the story makes the subject matter seem contemporary.

The characters mostly sing hip hop. Cabinet meetings are presented as rap battles where insults are thrown around and these historic figures mince no words (at one point Hamilton warns Thomas Jefferson that his shoe can fit in Jefferson’s rear). While campaigning for the presidency, Aaron Burr tells a group of women, “It’s 1800 ladies, tell your husbands, ‘Vote for Burr’;” the line delivered perfectly by Leslie Odom Jr. to give a nod to the ridiculousness of the fact that women could not vote.

These choices make the musical a deeply engrossing watch. Clearly, Miranda has written the play to engage today’s audience. In fact, in the past, he has described Hamilton as a “story of America then told by America now.”

But herein also lies a problem. America today is a very different place than it was five years ago, when Miranda and his cast first started staging their production. Hamilton has been released online at a time when widespread protests broke out around the US after George Floyd, a black man, was killed after a white police officer pressed his knee on his neck for almost nine minutes. In the wake of the incident, that sent shockwaves around the world, protesters are tearing down and defacing statues of slave-owners, and universities are considering renaming departments named after these men.

In the present moment, then, many are not interested in seeing fictionalised depictions of America’s ‘founding fathers’ — many of whom were slave-owners — dance and sing about revolution and freedom.

Hamilton and Race

One of the biggest talking points since Hamilton’s release online has been its depiction (or lack of depiction) of slavery. It is not like the play ignores the issue. During one argument with Jefferson, Hamilton quips, “A civics lesson from a slaver/ Hey neighbour, your debts are paid ’cause you don’t pay for labour.” But as many have pointed out, Hamilton was not quite the abolitionist he is presented as on stage. And Jefferson is far from the only slave-owner in the play, but most other characters’ slave-owning pasts are whitewashed.

These critiques of Hamilton are not new. But they have come back in a much bigger way owing partly to the fact that many more people can now join the conversation and, of course, because of the timing.

Back when audiences and critics were first introduced to the world of Hamilton it was largely lauded for its ‘colour blind’ casting. Because of this decision, we see black and brown actors playing the white founding fathers on stage. Of course, all these actors are powerhouses in their own right and watching them perform is a joy. But these casting choices surely also impact the nature of the story, and the way audiences see these characters. If Jefferson were played by a white man, the insults about slavery would undoubtedly hit differently.

Hamilton and the ‘Truth’

Hamilton has also been criticised for rewriting history. But this particular criticism disregards one key element of the play: Miranda’s constant reminders that nothing should be taken as fact. In a comedic moment, while talking about all the women Hamilton has charmed, Burr says, “Martha Washington named her feral tomcat after him [Hamilton].” Miranda breaks the fourth wall, looks at the audience and says, “That’s true”, apparently alluding to the fictionalised nature of the rest of the play.

If this feels like reading too much into a funny bit, the play also presents plenty of other examples. During the song The room where it happens Burr sings about no one else being in the room where a particular agreement was reached between Hamilton, Jefferson and James Madison. He presents the three men’s differing accounts of the conversation. “Thomas claims, ‘Alexander said, ‘I’ve nowhere else to turn.’’ And basically begged me to join the fray.” “No one really knows how the parties get to yes,” Burr sings. “The pieces that are sacrificed in every game of chess.”

While the song is about Burr’s desire to be in the room, to desperately want a seat at the table, it also paints these characters as unreliable narrators and points to the inconsistencies of memory. Towards the end, Hamilton’s wife Eliza sings about how she will tell his story to the world — one does not expect the man’s widow to be an unbiased narrator of his story.

Nonetheless, since the online release, Miranda has welcomed the debates and called the criticism valid. Others, however, do not have Miranda’s patience and tact. “Watch Hamilton with a critical eye,” TV Writer James Colley recently tweeted. “Many of these large musical numbers never happened.”

All said and done, it is a testament to Miranda’s Pulitzer-winning drama that audiences not only find the story gripping enough to spend 2.5 hours with America’s ‘founding fathers’, but are compelled to investigate further. As filmmaker Ava DuVernay tweeted, “... I wouldn’t have studied any of those “fathers” like I did if it wasn’t for #Hamilton and @Lin_Manuel.”

Same, Ms DuVernay. Same.

Published in Dawn, ICON, July 19th, 2020

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