Hamilton: An American Musical is a triumph of a production and an era-defining musical that embodies the hope, resiliency, and inclusivity of the Obama years. In 2015, telling the story of America’s very white Founding Fathers while using a cast of non-white actors felt, dare I say, revolutionary. The significance of the casting felt possible too. After all, America had a Black President representing us in our most powerful elected office. Hamilton: An American Musical’s rise in mainstream popularity practically coinciding with the divisive 2016 election made the musical’s message feel all that more poignant. But the election’s outcome, and the President changing from an ardent art supporter to a notorious art hater, represents a shift in the lens audiences are able to view the story through. The rise in negative critiques to the Disney+ version, even though it is just a filmed version of the original production, underscores a noticeable narrative shift: Hamilton (2020) is the first Trump era musical.
The critiques of Hamilton (2020) are, of course, only possible because of the widespread success of the original staged production. Audiences became enamored with the way Lin Manual-Miranda made the story of America’s establishment fun and flirty, with the added wokeness of non-white actors portraying our Founding Fathers through rap music. Now that the initial hype has died down and the casting gimmick has worn off, watching Hamilton on Disney+ is a new, different experience. Released in the midst of a summer defined by social unrest and the affirmation that Black Lives Matter, the problematic ways Hamilton (2020) used black bodies to white-wash American history cannot be ignored.
Hamilton’s use of black actors to frame the Founding Fathers as figures more progressive than they actually were is best analyzed through lyrics presenting Alexander Hamilton’s relationship with slavery as deliberately one-sided. The early Act I song “My Shot” features Hamilton and introduces the audience to his fellow Revolutionaries (Lafayette, Laurens, and Mulligan). In the song Hamilton raps the lyric “A bunch of revolutionary manumission abolitionists” to describe the cohort, framing them as a group of staunch anti-slavers. In reality, the Founding Fathers’ relationship with slavery was much more nuanced, with Hamilton actually owning slaves himself and generally sacrificing his personal distaste for slavery when it could benefit him politically. However, because Hamilton intentionally surrounds Hamilton with Black bodies, the audience is lulled into accepting the anti-slave narrative put forth in “My Shot.”
The call to violence that’s made in “My Shot” is another aspect of the Hamilton experience that does not translate well to today’s sociopolitical climate. The lyric immediately following the reference to abolitionists has Hamilton practically shout “Give me a position, show me where the ammunition is!” The lighting immediately cuts to blue, magnifying the significance of what Hamilton just rapped. In essentially a call to revolt against the government, Hamilton doubles down on the song’s gun and violence references in the next refrain apologizing that he sometimes “shoots off at the mouth.” After the tragic instances of police officers shooting unarmed Black people this summer, there is something unsettling about a group of Black actors, especially Black actors portraying historical white figures, singing that it’s “time to take a shot!” When Hamilton: An American Musical initially premiered in 2016, this song and it’s call for martyrs came across as the revolutionaries being brave and courageous. Instead in 2020, the recklessness of the white characters basically begging to incite violence and fire their weapons doesn’t sit quite as naturally.
Despite slavery being a defining issue of America’s formative years, slaves are practically erased from the Hamilton narrative. In Act I, Daveed Diggs portrays the French Lafayette who helps the Americans fight against the British forces. His last words in that character are “I give freedom to my people if I’m given the chance.” That conclusion makes it particularly ironic when Diggs is reintroduced in Act II as noted slave owner Thomas Jefferson. This affirms that the quest for freedom and independence sought throughout Act I was only really ever for white people in America. The problem with Hamilton (2020) is that it doesn’t seem willing to tackle this double-standard head-on besides featuring a cast of Black actors.
On the rare chance slavery is actually acknowledged in Hamilton, it is never the show’s focus. Act II opens with the song “What’d I Miss” that introduces Jefferson while he descends from a lofty staircase back to the “ground” at his Monticello plantation. The ensemble resembles Jefferson’s slaves, who are already lined up on the stage-level ready to serve their master’s every need. At one point, Jefferson commands “Sally be a lamb, darlin’, won’tcha open it?” in reference to a letter he’s received. The irony in the phrasing is that it suggests Sally, notoriously one of Jefferson’s slaves he impregnated several times, had any sort of choice in the matter. It also equates Sally to an animal, implying she was nothing more than something pleasurable for him to consume. That lyric also represents the only instance in which an enslaved person is directly referred to throughout the show. Occasionally throughout Hamilton, an ensemble member takes on a small solo to play a bit-part like Samuel Seabury or James Reynolds. Every time this happens the ensemble member is portraying a white character, and there are no instances where an ensemble member speaks or sings while performing as an enslaved person.
Later in “What’d I Miss,” Jefferson climbs up on the staircase structure he arrived on and boasts “Lookin’ at the rolling fields I can’t believe that we are free.” He says this ironic line to the ensemble playing his dutiful slaves, and it furthers cements the one-sided narrative regarding slavery Hamilton (2020) imposes on its audience. Since the audience never hears from a Black character, Jefferson’s implication that Americans are free is accepted even though it only applies to the country’s whites. This ignores that for a large number of Americans, “freedom” from Britain meant nothing. Furthermore, Digg’s positioning on the staircase has him elevated above the ensemble who are working on the ground-level to push him forward. Positioning Jefferson above his slaves shows that his social status as a wealthy, white man places him above his Black slaves in the social hierarchy. The ensemble pushing the staircase also suggests that Jefferson’s legacy has been pushed forward by this historically disenfranchised population who received no recognition for their own contributions but instead elevated their white master in a way that placed him in the best position to succeed.
Lastly, the choice to release Hamilton (2020) in accordance with the July 4th holiday represents more of the tone deafness that accompanies the Disney+ version compared to the theatre production. Commonly referred to as Independence Day, the holiday celebrates the signing of the Declaration of Independence and the colonies subsequent freedom from British rule. But as mentioned earlier, freedom from Britain really only represented “independence” for the white community. Disney+’s decision to release Hamilton (2020) on the holiday white washes the reality of July 4th, which is that July 4th 1776 was a relatively meaningless day for enslaved, Black Americans.
It’s not that the Hamilton released on Disney+ is a bad musical. In fact, it’s still just as brilliant as before. But now the performance, crafted and built during the Obama years, exists as a non-changing entity in an incredibly changed world. In its original iteration as an Obama-era musical, Hamilton: An American Musical allowed white consumers to conflate the color-blind casting of diverse actors portraying historically white figures as proof that equity existed in America. But the tragic events that have unfolded since 2016 prove that is simply untrue. Audiences’ faith and general optimism for American institutions, like the government, has eroded markedly, which makes it difficult to construct a musical where the basic idea of America serves as one of the primary motivators. A product of its release environment (cough *global pandemic where the government horrifically botched its response* cough), Hamilton (2020) opens itself up to this next-level of analysis in the Trump-era. Maybe this is unfair to Lin Manual-Miranda and the Hamilton team. But when you sell your show to a multinational mass media conglomerate for a record-setting $75 million, you should expect some additional critiques.