- Historians on Hamilton: How a Blockbuster Musical is Restaging America's Past ed. by Renee C. Romano and Claire Bond Potter
"Who lives, who dies, who tells your story?" asks the musical Hamilton in the oft-quoted line from its final song. The essays in Renee C. Romano and Claire Bond Potter's edited collection, Historians on Hamilton, examine the question: what kind of story does the musical tell both about Alexander Hamilton and his world and about the world we live in today, and how are these two stories intertwined? To answer these questions, the essays contextualize the musical on two different levels, providing historical background on Alexander Hamilton and his time as well as exploring the origins of the musical itself and the sources of its popularity.
Covering a variety of topics, the essays differ in how central Hamilton is to their analysis. Some comment directly on the accuracy of its portrayal of Alexander Hamilton and his historical context, as Joanne Freeman does in her contribution, which discusses how the musical focuses on Hamilton's personality and character at the expense of the political ideals that drove his actions and policies. Other contributors, however, make less direct reference to Hamilton, using it more as a jumping off point for discussing historical topics that go well beyond the scope of the play, as Michael O'Malley does in his treatment of Alexander Hamilton's understanding of money and banking and the changing representations of Hamilton on US currency.
Of particular interest to public historians will be the essays that examine Hamilton itself as a historical artifact and force. In looking at the sources of Hamilton's popularity and the impact of its mixed political messages, these essays address the relationship between history and the public in important ways. William Hogeland, for example, attributes the musical's misconceptions about Hamilton to the Ron Chernow biography that inspired it, pointing to how the popularity of the biography was part of a broader surge of interest in Hamilton that went back to the 1990s. Alternatively, Elizabeth Wollman shows how, in both its marketing and form, Hamilton draws on a long tradition of Broadway musical theater dating back to the 1866 musical The Black Crook.
Thus, a common thread running throughout the essays is to question how revolutionary Hamilton is in content and approach, despite its own claims to the [End Page 196] contrary. On this point, the controversy over Hamilton's treatment of race and slavery takes center stage. In an essay that originally appeared in this journal (vol. 38, no. 1, February 2016) and has already stirred sharp debate, Lyra Monteiro addresses the much-praised decision to cast the musical almost entirely with actors of color. Far from including people of color in the nation's past, she argues that this decision actually effaces both their role and that of slavery in American history. As she notes, except for a brief glimpse of Sally Hemings, no actual historical people of color appear as characters in Hamilton. And by overstating Alexander Hamilton's antislavery credentials, the musical minimizes how embroiled the founders were in slavery. Likewise, Patricia Herrera argues that the casting of the show silences the voices of enslaved people and whitewashes the nation's roots in racial exclusion and oppression, while David Waldstreicher and Jeffrey Pasley point to how Hamilton's mythic vision of the nation's antislavery founding reaffirms the celebratory patriotism of what has been termed "Founders Chic."
The volume balances the critical bent of these essays with ones that defend the value of the musical. For example, Jim Cullen discusses its usefulness as a teaching tool, highlighting its hybrid character and its ability to bring together different communities. Renee Romano likewise analyzes the musical's appeal to those on opposite sides of the political spectrum, noting its wide acclaim by figures as polarized in their politics as Dick Cheney and Barack...