We have been very fortunate regarding the pandemic Down Under, and many restrictions have recently been lifted. This means that all sorts of entertainment is now on offer again, including the smash musical Hamilton. Dr Rad was lucky enough to attend a recent show at the Lyric Theatre.
Controversies in American History
For those less acquainted with American history, Alexander Hamilton was born around 1755, and in spite of having an inauspicious start in life, he managed to become one of the Founding Fathers of America, serving as the first secretary of the US Treasury. Yes, we are also still in shock that this is the man who is the basis for one of the biggest Broadway hits of the 21st century thus far. With any form of popular history, the question often arises about the accuracy of the version presented. Lin Manuel Miranda and Hamilton biographer Ron Chernow, who worked as his historical consultant, are on the record as saying that their goal was to produce a highly faithful account of the life of this founding father (Langmann, 2020). Of course, trying to cram an entire life into the span of a musical necessitates compromises. For example, not all of Alexander and Eliza Hamilton’s children make it onto the stage. And no one is suggesting that the Revolutionary War was actually a hip-hop battle.
Whilst there is a lot to admire about Miranda’s narrative, there are some interesting critiques that those with a particular interest in American history might find enlightening. For instance, in Historians on Hamilton: How a Blockbuster Musical is Restaging America’s Past, historians discuss the rise of ‘Founders Chic’ and debate whether people are elevating the Founding Fathers in an attempt to deal with contemporary political instability. Ishmael Reed was also inspired to write a rival play in 2019 called The Haunting of Lin-Manuel Miranda, which portrays the playwright as is besieged by the Native Americans, slaves and white indentured servants whose narratives were excluded or overlooked in his history (Langmann, 2020). This is an especially thought-provoking development, as Hamilton is famous for casting people of colour in the majority of roles and the Sydney cast has continued this tradition. Whilst Miranda’s desire to have the past told in a way that properly acknowledges the diversity of society is laudable, questions have been raised about the possible ‘white-washing’ in the story, which passes over opportunities to include slaves or free African-Americans and fails to confront the fact that characters like the Schuylers and Aaron Burr were slave-owners (Keller, 2018).
What is History?
On a different note, what we found most interesting is the conversations that are still being generated by the show about the nature of History itself. In many ways Hamilton is a dream musical for historians as there is a consistent focus on the construction of history. The titular character and those around him sing or rap about the kinds of issues that are often a feature of history classrooms: legacy, who gets to write history, the motivations behind the construction of history and even source material (Bergen, 2015). There are numerous little asides made to the audience by Hamilton himself about details being accurate or not, but the most notable moments to watch for include:
- ‘History Has Its Eyes on You’ – an interesting song about the awareness of living through notable historical events and how one’s actions will shape one’s legacy.
- ‘The Room Where It Happens’ – this number highlights the way that different historical players can provide various accounts of important events – and it’s hard to know who is telling the truth!
- ‘Burn’ – Eliza Schuyler/Hamilton deciding to destroy evidence (Hamilton’s love letters) so that future historians won’t be able to get their hands on them. In this song and the final number, she also discusses taking herself in and out of ‘the narrative [of History]’
- ‘Who Lives, Who Dies, Who Tells Your Story’ – the final number of the show focuses on the lack of control that anyone has over their legacy and who constructs their history, whilst also providing some insight into what happened after Hamilton’s early death. Eliza’s role in collecting his writings (evidence) for posterity is a firmly underlined.
Whether you are a Broadway baby or American history enthusiast, we can certainly recommend the Sydney production of this marvellous show. The cast are an absolute triumph and a delight to watch. We are also firm believers that popular history that inspires the audience to find out more or ponder historiographical questions is a worthwhile endeavour.
Bergen, E. (2015, October 26). ‘On Hamilton and Learning to Think Historically’. AHA Today. Retrieved from https://www.historians.org/publications-and-directories/perspectives-on-history/october-2015/on-hamilton-and-learning-to-think-historically
Keller, K. (2018, May 30). ‘The Issue on the Table: Is “Hamilton” Good For History?’ Smithsonian Magazine. Retrieved from https://www.smithsonian.com/history/issue-table-hamilton-good-history-180969192/
Langmann, B. (2020, July 3) ‘Nearly Five Years After Hamilton’s Debut, Historians Still Debate its Historical Accuracy’. Esquire. Retrieved from https://www.esquire.com/entertainment/tv/a33026113/hamilton-musical-true-story-accuracy/
Schuessler, J. (2020, July 6). ‘Hamilton’ and the Historical Record: Frequently Asked Questions’. New York Times. Retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/2020/07/06/movies/hamilton-musical-history-facts/html