So how does the musical Hamilton hold up, three years after its debut? That is, from its beginnings in the Barack Obama-Hillary Clinton era to today, in this Age of Trump? As we shall see, things have changed.
The historical Alexander Hamilton, of course, is timeless. As aide-de-camp to George Washington during the Revolution, as the most prolific author of The Federalist Papers, as our first treasury secretary—indeed, the most influential figure in President Washington’s cabinet—as the face on the $10 bill, and, more broadly, as the thinker who gave his name to a whole tradition of economic and political thought, Hamilton has always been a bold-print name.
Yet the debut of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton off-Broadway in February 2015 proved that there was yet more oomph in the Hamilton brand. The show was an immediate hit; later that year, it moved to Broadway, where it has established itself as a seemingly permanent ticket- and T-shirt-selling phenomenon. Since then, Miranda, author and original star of the show, has seen his opus win 11 Tony Awards, while he himself has won the Pulitzer Prize.
At the time of its opening, observers were startled and intrigued by four things about the show.
First, it’s done in a rap music format. As such, it isn’t as instantly hummable as, say, Show Boat or Phantom of the Opera, and yet it has a strenuous energy that has to be seen to be believed. The lyrics come fast and furious, and while they are not always family-friendly, they flow so quickly that it was impossible for this aging listener to follow them without a libretto—which, happily, is free online. We might note that the lengthy lyrics come in two parts, which is to say, there’s a lot of material, and so it helps to bone up in advance.
Second, as befits its bulk, the show is a genuine work of history, reflecting closely the themes in Ron Chernow’s admiring 2004 biography, Alexander Hamilton. To be sure, the musical’s treatment of the Compromise of 1790, concerning the federal assumption of the states’ Revolutionary War debt, is hardly encyclopedic, but this casual student of popular culture strongly suspects it’s also the only such pop culture treatment.
In an imaginative set piece, President Washington emcees a debate between Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson—which did, in fact, happen, albeit with different words. In Miranda’s updating, Hamilton rapid-fires his argument: “If we assume the debts, the union gets/ A new line of credit, a financial diuretic/ How do you not get it?/ If we’re aggressive and competitive/ The union gets a boost/ You’d rather give it a sedative?”
As we can see, word choices notwithstanding, Miranda is capturing the essence of Hamilton’s argument, including this follow-up zinger at Jefferson and his fellow Southern agrarians: “A civics lesson from a slaver. Hey neighbor/ Your debts are paid cuz you don’t pay for labor. …Yeah, keep ranting/ We know who’s really doing the planting.”
Third, and by now it should be something of an afterthought, the cast of the show is deliberately multiethnic. Whereas all the significant characters in Hamilton’s life were white (or at least passed for white), most of the actors in the musical are brown or black—and interestingly, in this instance, nobody has ever seemed worried about cultural appropriation.
Fourth, and perhaps most radically, the show is not only pro-Hamilton, but also pro-capitalist. Why, it’s even right-wing. That is, the show takes it as a given that Hamilton’s hard work, drive, and intellect were the keys to his success. Moreover, his financial wizardry—on behalf of himself as well as the United States—is seen as an unalloyed positive. There are no exploited workers to spoil the capitalist karma in this show, and slaves receive only the barest mention. In addition, familiar lefty historical themes, such as the the treatment of Native Americans or the status of women, are entirely unmentioned. It’s even distinctly patriotic; the only true villain on the stage is King George III, about as classically American a point as one could hope for.
So how, then, did the show become such a hit in liberal Manhattan? How did it come to pass that it played in Barack Obama’s White House? Or that Hillary Clinton bragged, during the 2016 campaign, that she had seen the show three times?
The answer to these questions, of course, speaks to the shifting allegiances within the Democratic Party in the last few decades. Beginning with Bill Clinton’s triangulating presidency, much of the Democratic Party embraced capitalism—critics prefer to call it “neoliberalism”—with the avidity of a Wall Streeter seeking his bonus or a Silicon Valleyite seeking his IPO payout.
For his part, the 44th president, that supposed ace progressive, turned out to be a lot more like the 42nd president than, say, a Chicago community organizer. And as with with the Clintons, the Obamas were more at home in Manhattan and Beverly Hills than any working-class lodge or human-services center.
We might add that the substance of the Clinton and Obama presidencies mirrored their style. Yes, formal tax rates rose during the Clinton and Obama years, yet in retrospect we can see that it was mostly for the sake of appearances. That is, all the while, under the surface, accountants and other loophole wideners were working to honeycomb the tax code, and neither Democratic administration objected.
As the New York Times reported in 2015, “Two decades ago, when Bill Clinton was elected president, the 400 highest-earning taxpayers in America paid nearly 27 percent of their income in federal taxes, according to I.R.S. data. By 2012, when President Obama was re-elected, that figure had fallen to less than 17 percent.” In other words, during an era of mostly Democratic presidents, the richest of the rich enjoyed an effective tax cut of nearly two fifths.
To be sure, the Obama era was not quite a throwback to the days of Andrew Mellon. Most obviously, corporate America, like American politics, had grown diverse. Many top officials, in both the private and public sectors, were now something other than white males. And all of them were “woke,” at least insofar as wokeness meant appropriate devotion to LGBT rights, climate change, and other progressive causes. Thus we can see that in its outward appearance, at least, corporate America had changed. As to its inward appearance—that is, how corporations go about making money—critics argued that precisely nothing had changed.
This was the milieu in which Hamilton took its shot. Obama was in the White House and Hillary was on deck, seemingly destined to reclaim the White House for Clintonism. Was Miranda’s musical hip and diverse? You bet it was. And Manhattan was as well: beyond a few Ayn Rand-loving libertarians—who were much closer culturally to the left than to the right—no conservatives could be seen for miles.
So of course, Hamilton struck a chord: it was the right show for the right time. Yes, it was entertaining, done in a fresh way. Indeed, it was fun and informative in a way that made history come alive, especially to the not-yet-fogey. Perhaps best of all, it offered the bourgeoisie a chance to play-act hipster radicalism—the website asks for your e-mail address with the encouraging words “Join The Revolution”—without actually putting anything at risk.
Yet then things started really to change. In 2016, Bernie Sanders happened, and he nearly toppled Hillary. And since then, all the other Democratic Socialists have happened, and they aren’t onboard with capitalism and plutocracy—no matter how diverse it might be.
And, oh yes, Donald Trump happened. The 45th president is not exactly a class warrior, and yet he sometimes seems like one. That is, his contempt for the sort of people who go to Broadway shows is only exceeded, if that’s possible, by their contempt for him. In the meantime, probably not many wearers of MAGA hats have seen Hamilton.
Yet if heartlanders were to sit down and study the show and its historical source material, they might notice that much of the real Alexander Hamilton—that is, the Hamilton who championed a steep tariff and heavy industry, the latter of the kind that supports a strong military—is nowhere to be seen. The Hamilton on Broadway right now is a freebooting financier—you know, sort of like your average Wall Street Master of the Universe. Yet the missing Hamilton of history—author of, for example, the tome-like Report on Manufactures—was also, to be sure, a hard-nosed geostrategist. (One can’t blame Miranda for not writing his show that way—it is, after all, his show; anyone who wants a production of Hamilton the Industrialist had better get to work.)
Still, in the last two years, the cushy financialist world of Hamilton has taken some hard knocks. It’s under siege from both the Ocasio-Cortez left and the Bannonite right.
In the meantime, Hamilton is playing at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., and the swamp-dwellers couldn’t be happier. At a mid-week show in which most tickets went for hundreds of dollars—not factoring in scalping—the house was sold out. Thus we can see: haute Washington is down with 2015-style Hamilton even as the country’s tectonics are shifting.
But then, of course, when it comes to populist rumblings in the provinces, D.C. is always the last to know.