IS IT OKAY TO LOVE HAMILTON THE MUSICAL?
“I am not throwing away my shot,” I sang out loud while dancing in my bedroom. I was watching Hamilton The Musical on Disney Plus with my 5-year-old. I pressed play on the remote with the thrill of being at the edge of my seat on Broadway without the craning of my neck to see the stage. I was front row, in my pajamas. And let me tell you. I was mesmerized from the start by the lyrical genius at work. It was like watching language pyrotechnics. Every line, rhythmic and divine. I started playing songs over and over again singing with the subtitles and trying to imitate the dance sequences with my son.
We got so into it we decided to write our own musical. Quickly our collaboration failed to meet our ambition. As you can see it’s a work in progress.
Suddenly, my Facebook feed was bombarded by Hamilton haters. Critics were questioning the glorification of the United States’ Founding Fathers who were also slaveowners. In Alexander Hamilton’s case, he married into a family of well-known slave owners, the Schuylers. So, although Hamilton the musical was genius lyrical, in this current climate, in the wake of the blatant racism and injustice, and the Black Lives Matter movement, it becomes highly problematical. The criticism lied in the whitewashing of history, in the erasure of slavery, in Hamilton’s downplaying the role the Founding Fathers played in slavery. They were slaveowners. And I get it. It made me feel guilty for loving the musical. But the question remains. Is it okay to still love Hamilton?
BUT Michelle Obama loved it. It was performed at the White House at the request of Former President and First Lady. Hailed as a high art form. The musical uniquely and artfully converged hip hop, R&B and soul with Broadway tunes. It was blessed by the Obamas. And now it was the target of cancel culture.
BUT Lin Manuel cast mostly Black and brown actors to perform all roles, including the role of the white founding fathers. That was revolutionary and empowering for its time. Especially when you consider Broadway is a sea of white. Lin Manuel explained to the NYTimes in 2015, “This is a story about America then, told by America now, and we want to eliminate any distance. Our story should look the way our country looks.”
BUT so many of his lyrics still inspire and uplift all of us, especially immigrants, or children of immigrants. When he sang, “I’m young, scrappy, and hungry,” I told MIles the story of my grandma who came to America on a boat from China with my father with nothing to her name and how she opened up a laundry business and raised 3 sons alone after her husband died. She was “young, scrappy, and hungry” just like Hamilton. And like so many immigrants, she came here not about to throw away her shot to realize her American Dream. Another lyric that hit me was “immigrants get the job done.” It made me beam with pride to be a child of an immigrant. Because as the play suggests, immigrants get shit done.
BUT Lin Manuel went out of his way to make this musical more accessible to the masses. He created a film version featuring the original cast and is an actual recording of the stage musical.
Anyone with a Disney Plus account can watch it in all its glory. And now I’m reading headlines and hashtags like #cancelhamilton. My mind was blown.
I dug deeper into the threads trying to understand the contradiction in sentiment. In my research, I stumbled upon Tracy Clayton’s tweet. And something in me shifted. My guilt subsided. I could see Clayton’s point. That the mere act of even questioning Hamilton is itself a huge sign of progress. A sign that times were changing. And that challenging didn’t have to negate the beauty and talent of the musical.
Roxane Gay, one of my favorite people on social, tweeted her feelings. The more I read, the more I saw there was no denying the glorification of slaveowners in Hamilton. The erasure of slavery in the retelling of its history. But at the same token, there was no denying its brilliance. It was possible to feel both. And that’s okay.
When I read Lin Manuel’s response to the criticism I loved Hamilton even more. Four simple words, “It’s all fair game.” And there it was, the creator of a revolutionary theatrical musical opening his heart and ears to the critics. I loved and appreciated Lin Manuel for answering with such dignity and self-reflection. His quickness to acknowledge its shortcomings spoke volumes.
There is no doubt in my mind that Black lives matter.
That justice for all the Black victims of racist police killings needs to be served.
That the toppling down of historical statues that represent hate, brutality, and racism need to happen.
That all confederate flags need to burn.
That white privilege and all non-Black privilege needs to be checked, including mine.
But I pause when I hear people hollering #cancelHamilton. Without taking into account all that it inspires for so many. And maybe that’s because I am consumed by my own admiration of the musical. I see all the wonderful things this piece of art gifts to communities of color, and generations of immigrants. But I also acknowledge the pain it must cause to have slavery glossed over in the retelling of history. And maybe it’s okay that there is this polarizing reaction to Hamilton. That we feel two things at once. That we love it, but that part we don’t. That part hurts. That torn feeling is okay. It shows people are being more conscious of words, actions, storytelling. But larger than that it shows how having these hard conversations can bring us closer to making racism history. I think Lin Manuel openly acknowledging and calling Hamilton criticism “fair game” gives me hope that this nation’s people want better. Because talking about racism openly with an open heart and mind is hard. Talking is healing.
I won’t ever stop Hamilton fanning. But I thank the world for making me think twice about storytelling. The power of storytelling and how every word, every image, every nuance counts, as well as the absence of words, an image, or even the darkest and most painful parts of history, that is slavery. It all counts.