“Hamilton,” the Tonys and History


Tonight comes the televised presentation of the 2016 Tony Awards for Broadway plays.  The Tonys are like the Oscars and most prize-giving events by self- interested groups — designed to draw attention to the larger group endeavor.  The presumption is that recognition and prizes will reawaken audience interest and generate new ticket sales for plays that might still have some legs.

This year Broadway ticket sales have been very healthy, and for a single reason:  “Hamilton,” the hip hop musical that features black and latino actors in the roles of America’s founding fathers.  The play is on its way to becoming the first ever to gross $1 billion in ticket sales.

As such, “Hamilton” is the tail wagging the Broadway dog.  It is nominated for 16 Tonys (including two entrants in the “best actor in a musical” category), and it probably should not win in all its categories.  Its costumes, scenic design and lighting, for example, are just fine but not distinguished.

“Hamilton’s” real triumph has been to bring young people back to theater.  The television generations, starting with Baby Boomers, lost interest in live drama over time, and the most reliable group of enthusiasts became senior citizens.

That wall was pierced somewhat by nontraditional musicals like “The Producers” and “Spamalot” and “Book of Mormon” and also by theatrical versions of Disney movies, which drew families to “Lion King” and other shows.

But “Hamilton” is a serious piece, and it conveys its message in a new vernacular.  It will invite more young playwrights and musicians to come up with plays that speak to a broader range of people, including teenagers, young adults and people of color.

Against this larger canvas,  the Tonys are irrelevant.

I do keep posting about “Hamilton,” I know, but the play has taken on a life of its own.
Young people memorize the script and the score before they take their seats in the theater.  People crowd the stage door after each performance to glimpse and, if they are lucky, commune in conversation with the actors.
Reports that the creator, Lin-Manual Miranda, will leave the lead role this summer have driven ticket resale prices, already very high, into the stratosphere.  (The actor who has been substituting for Miranda on Sundays and who most likely replace Miranda has received excellent reviews, but people still venerate Lin-Manual for his inspiration and want to experience the play with him personally.)
There is a palpable anguish that the larger public, people who cannot afford $2,000 theater seats, cannot see the play.  There is sorrow that it will continue as a theater production in various cities, perhaps for years, before it is made into a movie and becomes more widely available.
In short, the emotional intensity that has attached to “Hamilton” has the characteristics of a religious experience.  I’m trying to think of analogies — Rudolph Valentino in “The Sheik” maybe, the Beatles’ first performances in New York, Muhammad Ali and the Thrilla in Manila, Toni Morrison’s “Beloved” novel for ardent readers.  I’m sure there are others.
The point is this:  Hamilton mania will not last forever.  We should enjoy it while we have it.
In fact, a couple Cornell professors of government tried to prick the “Hamilton” hot air ballon with a thought piece published last week in the New York Times.

Their thesis:  Alexander Hamilton was an elitist.

“The musical’s misleading portrayal of Hamilton as a “scrappy and hungry” man
of the people obscures his loathing of the egalitarian tendencies of the revolutionary
era in which he lived.”

To illustrate:

“Many of the (Constitutional) Convention participants feared the ‘excess of democracy,’
but Hamilton went much further. He wanted to bring an elective monarchy and restore
non-titled aristocracy to America. ‘The people are turbulent and changing,” he declared.
‘They seldom judge or determine right. They must be ruled by ‘landholders, merchants
and men of the learned professions,’ whose experience and wisdom ‘travel beyond the
circle’ of their neighbors. For America to become an enduring republic, Hamilton argued,
it had to insulate rulers and the economy as much as possible from the jealous multitude.”

The professors come down on Thomas Jefferson’s side of the Jefferson-Hamilton debate over the establishment of a national bank, citing “Jefferson’s populist resistance to an economic plan that, in his view, supported the rule of commercial oligarchs who manipulated credit and currency at the expense of debtors and yeoman farmers.”  (This sounds like something a couple of Bern Bros would write.)

They also assert that “Hamilton’s opposition to slavery — reflected, for example, in his being a founder of New York’s Manumission Society — was not central to his political vision.”  (Really?  Hamilton died in 2004, when even freaking England was a slave country.)

There are other elements in their bill of particulars, and I am sure the writers know their stuff.  Their conclusion:

“Hamilton, with his contemptuous attitude toward the lower classes, was perfectly
comfortable with the inegalitarian and antidemocratic implications of his economic
vision. One has to wonder if the audiences in the Richard Rodgers Theater would be as
enthusiastic about a musical openly affirming such convictions. No founder of this
country more clearly envisioned the greatness of a future empire enabled by drastic
inequalities of wealth and power. In this sense, too, ‘Hamilton’ is very much

a musical for our times.”

musical for our times.”

(Did I mention that these guys sound like Sanders supporters?  Hamilton and his crew
opposed top-down imperial meddling with a self-sufficient colony.  The more serious
complaints of drastic wealth inequality came 50 years later, when Karl Marx began to
examine the effects of the Industrial Revolution.)

I have a feeling that, faced with this critique, Lin-Manual Miranda would say this:  Go ahead, professors, write your own Hamilton musical.

The fact is that Broadway plays do not weigh the merits of philosophical discussions.   The genius of “Hamilton” is its appropriation of the man’s best qualities to make a statement about the kind of country its creator would like us to have today.

Arguments like these are not new, and they will continue.  Each generation refracts history through the lens of its own concerns.

For many decades, school children were taught that young George Washington, when asked whether he had chopped down a cherry tree, said, “I cannot tell a lie.”  It was a complete fiction manufactured for a hagiography published in 1800, back when we still deified our founders.

Since then, Thomas Jefferson, who inherited a plantation and slaves and who spent so much of his fortune on other interests that he could not afford to free the slaves when he died, is remembered for these facts as well as the Declaration of Independence and the founding of the University of Virginia.

More recently, we have been re-examining Andrew Jackson, a president hated in his day for his uncouth and populist views, then venerated for them and now held to account for his Native American clearances and his fortune made on the backs of slave laborers.

Woodrow Wilson, much admired for his valiant but failed advocacy of a League of Nations, turns out to have resegregated the federal workforce and to have held other elitist views that could not be expressed in polite company today.

This constant engagement with our history is a good thing.  It is how we try to keep the ideals of democracy alive by re-examining the past and imagining a better future.

I do wonder, however, how long it will be before we condemn past leaders for their failures to support gay marriage and transgender rights.

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