The age of Hamilton is over

Image: Aldia News

It is almost cliche to admit you used to love Hamilton.

So much has changed since the next gen blockbuster musical emerged and set New York on fire.

Broadway musicals do this from time to time.

New Yorkers see a new show and their collective hysteria is so captivating, the rest of the world falls in line at the box office, no questions asked.

But Hamilton was a true monster from day one.

Before the off-Broadway tickets sold out, before President Obama took it to the White House, before Lin Manuel Miranda went Disney, before the cast recording, before the reviews, this one had the hallmarks of an earth shaker.

It was about racial relations in an America teetering in early 2015 on the brink of something cataclysmic.

You could feel it in the word of mouth that rumbled out of Manhattan as the whole endeavour grew.

Six years later and as a species, we have collectively seen the way we live reinvent itself in real time.

Hamilton has been part of the soundtrack of a hurtling trainwreck of fascist politicians, terrifying climate change, mass extinction, violent cultural rebellion and trillions poured through consumerisms insatiable cash register.

We are hardly unchanged, so why should the show be any different?

But it is different.

Through the Black Lives Matter movement, through public lynchings and a painful, powerful dialogue about cultural representation and racism in the West, people still love Hamilton, blindly, passionately, almost operatically.

The fastest way to lose friends and alienate people is to announce to a room you find Hamilton problematic.

Said room will divide into two camps and neither one will be happy.

Anyone who puts down the cast recording and picks up a pad long enough to look at Wikipedia will learn in short order, Hamilton is a fairy tale version of history, planted thick with worrying tropes.

The Australian equivalent would be a show about the arrival of the First Fleet and the founding of Sydney town, cast entirely with indigenous actors and with no mention of indigenous people or the holocaust to follow.

Erase the genocide, the slavery and the dire racism with white saviour revisionism and you’ve got the biggest Broadway hit since Les Misérables.

Hamilton was cunning.

It marketed itself as a statement of cultural change in America.

“Immigrants: we get the job done!”

Sadly, the cultural change it was challenging was the music theatre’s overwhelming white privilege.

It’s a worthy enough windmill to tilt at; just ask anyone who saw Kerrie Anne Kennerley in Pippin.

But it’s not enough to warrant existential, cultural revisionism, even if you know it can make you a star.

And it did make its creator Lin Manuel Miranda a star, and a very rich man.

In 160 minutes, Hamilton mentions slavery twice.

Its plot and its casting turns on the idea that because Hamilton himself was born in St Kitts and Nevis, he is somehow less European.

Hamilton’s mother was a French-Englishwoman, his father was Scottish and he was a ginger.

He grew up to be the same cavalier slave owner as the rest of America’s founding fathers and until his RNB resurrection on stage, quite a d-lister amongst them.

The Broadway musical uses an African-American artform and BIPOC American artists to offer an accessible myth about America’s exceptionalist creation.

It’s not the first Broadway musical to try a hook like this and win.

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1776, Peter Stone’s whitewashed musical about American Independence debuted on Broadway in 1969 , its revisionism and mythologising a precursor to Hamilton.

Peter Stone’s whitewashed musical 1776 tells a heavily shaken down origin story of the Declaration of Independence, replete with stately hero worship and erasures of its own.

It makes the question of American independence turn on the proposed abolition of slavery and has a shamefaced Benjamin Franklin announce: independence first, abolition next.

Ninety years of intervening history and a Civil War lay the criminal whopper in that white saviour trope bare, but hey, the score is fun.

Hamilton has won hearts and minds (a Grammy, 11 Tony’s and a Pulitzer) with its score.

It would take a stony heart to listen to tracks like “The Schuyler Sisters” and not feel elated.

It’s also the way artists and audiences alike can bear to hear the story of the people who butchered their ancestors told with the same reverence usually kept to describe the Buddha.

It’s how they can celebrate the story of those people amidst violent racial divisions almost 250 years later and still jump to their feet like Sydney’s opening night crowd did this weekend.

Hamilton is a whitewash disguised behind exploitative casting.

It’s reputation and its artistry are destined to age badly.

Fast forward twenty years and it will be a different creature entirely.

Historians will reference its irresistible, patriotic force on the 2016 and 2020 elections, the latter an election where BIPOC support for President Trump grew by up to seven per cent.

Best case scenario: productions of Hamilton will be preceded by warnings about the inaccuracies and brash cultural exploitations to come.

The sort of preamble you’d usually see before Gone With the Wind in front of a twenty-first century musical and a program note by the director musing about why the author didn’t know better.

(Gone With the Wind had a good score too.)

Worst case scenario: it hits the right-wing paradigm this mythic vision of American history usually, inevitably, finds and the “Cabinet Rap Battles” find themselves being sung by entirely caucasian casts.

Erasure complete.

The age of Hamilton is over?

Sadly, it’s probably just beginning.