- Rewritting a Pop Culture History
Renee C. Romano and Claire Bond Potter
Rutgers University Press
396 Pages; Print, $24.95
Playwright Lin-Manuel Miranda's impressive use of social media positioned Hamilton to be a Broadway hit well before it made its off-Broadway debut in January 2015. Starting with a 2008 tweet featuring a picture of himself relaxing in a hammock, while reading Ron Chernow's 2005 biography of Alexander Hamilton, Miranda created a cultural phenomenon that has audiences from multiple backgrounds singing catchy hip-hop tunes about the most capitalist of all American "founding fathers." Since making its way to Broadway about six months after its debut, the play has broken numerous records, from highest-grossing weekly box office in Broadway history to the most Tony nominations for a single show. (It was nominated for sixteen and won eleven.) It is now performed in Chicago and London, and touring companies will soon take it to other cities across the nation. It has become not just a cultural phenomenon but a commercial empire. Fans of the soundtrack have jokingly been diagnosed with "Hamilaria," a disorder that includes "an uncontrollable urge to sing lyrics" from the musical "when prompted by cue lines from everyday conversation."
More impressive than its awards and commercial success is the play's ability to appeal to people on all sides of the political spectrum and to create enthusiasm for history among Americans of various age groups, socioeconomic backgrounds, and ethnicities, many of whom who have never seen (and likely will never see) the play live. Of course, as with any attempt to simplify history enough to appeal to a popular audience, particularly a history as complex and politically charged as that of the nation's founding, the project has created some controversy among academics. While some historians have praised the musical for awakening interest in those fortunate enough to see it in theaters as well as those enamored with its soundtrack and social media presence, others have criticized it for a number of reasons. Even positive assessments admit that some of the history is oversimplified at best and in some cases outright wrong. The question remains: "How much does it matter?" Historians Renee Romano and Claire Bond Potter, having been themselves afflicted with Hamilaria, brought together a number of historians, educators, and theater scholars to work through some of these issues while also helping "students and fans dig more deeply into the show." The result is a collection that provides a variety of insights and offers a venue for experts to decide how important the flaws really are.
The controversies surrounding the play are many. For one matter, Miranda used nontraditional casting, having actors of color portraying white historical figures. Indeed, all of the main characters are played by black or Latinx actors. Miranda did this because he wanted to tell "a story about America then, told by America now." While there are many actors of color on the stage, there are no significant characters of color in the play. As a result, slavery is brought into the story not by enslaved people or significant black figures of the time but by the notion of Hamilton being an abolitionist. Much is made of Hamilton as an immigrant, and this is meant to resonate in today's political climate by celebrating the contributions of immigrants, but historians have pointed out that Hamilton, who simply moved from one part of the British empire to another, was not an immigrant in the same sense the term applies today. Finally, by focusing on a vision of the US today as more open and inclusive than perhaps it really is and portraying Alexander Hamilton as having some important role in setting the stage for the realization of that ideal, the main character comes off as what today would be called a "progressive." This is an odd way to characterize a "founding father" whose elitism led even some of his contemporaries to raise an eyebrow and whose absolute faith in the monied class and...