Wow…that line looks much less needlessly aggressive in rap form. Anyway, guess which recording of a musical I just watched, that’s right we’re going to have a post about Hamilton.
Ah Hamilton, that sudden juggernaut of a rap musical that everyone – including myself – went completely Loony Tunes over a few years ago. And before anyone starts something I just want to say, I can understand why…ish. All the actors were well cast – except Lin Manuel Miranda of course, but then he’s the creator so what can you do, tell him he can’t headline the show? The music was fantastic on the cast recording and mostly fine in this performance as well. The only one whose voice I didn’t like was Miranda’s and for that, see my earlier comment. And the idea to cast this show about the founding fathers with an almost entirely non-white cast was a fantastic one that most likely opened the door for many a talent performer to get their start. Where’s before they might have been held back by the racism prolific in….well basically everything in the world today.
I’m saying all of this now so that you fully understand that I sat down to Hamilton on Disney plus, fully intending, nay expecting, to really enjoy this thing. Which makes it all the more shocking that I didn’t. I mean seriously, I really did not enjoy this thing. In fact, I’d go even so far as to say I hated it, I stopped watching at the end of act one and only went back , when I’d decided to write this post. So, the thing you must be asking yourself right about now is…why? What was so bad about this performance that I could barely finish it? The answer to that Wee Readers, lies in the overwhelming feeling I felt watching that ticking hour glass between Act One and Act Two.
That is, that I’d been manipulated.
What do I mean by this? Well, the thing about watching a performance compared to just listening to the soundtrack I’ve found – yes even with Hamilton where the soundtrack is just a more polished version of the performance – is that because you have to sit and watch these songs play out with actors on the stage, you’re forced to think about the story they’re trying to tell you. And the story in the first act of Hamilton is ridiculously thin. We get a bunch of filler songs that don’t really advance the plot, and provide character details better summed up in bigger songs. Resulting in the whole act feeling over stretched and boring, act Two is significantly better, but that doesn’t erase the waste of time that was Act One.
Which tells us one very important thing, namely that Hamilton the musical wasn’t written because Lin Manuel Miranda just had to get a story off his chest. He wrote it to convey a message and the plot – at least in Act One – must take a back seat to that message.
Which would be fine if the message was worth saying. After all, surely letting non-white Americans, particularly young people, finally seeing themselves in the history of their country is a noble goal. And I agree, if that were in fact what the story of Hamilton was doing, but it’s not. There’s only one historical person of color on stage – Sally Hemings, the enslaved mistress of Thomas Jefferson. Who, I will emphasis, does not have any lines of her own, and in fact doesn’t even get a proper costume – she’s dressed like all the other chorus members. So, yeah – this is still history told through a white lens, it’s just better hidden than most.
It’s also not really about telling the story of then from the America of today either, except perhaps with casting and the composition of the music – which don’t get me wrong, is most of what Hamilton is – but again the story they’re telling doesn’t really back that up. This is the sort of story we’ve heard a hundred times before: the brave Americans defeat the elitist British, and found their country on the belief that anyone can do anything. Well then surely, you say, it must be telling the story of the American dream, giving the message that in America any one can achieve their dreams and become great. After all, didn’t they say ‘ a place where even orphan immigrants, can make a difference’ and to that I say, if that is what they’re doing, they’re doing it passively. And by that, I mean accidentally, and even if they weren’t, is that really something they should be proud of? The American dream is a very damaging myth, that ignores the realities of most Americans, particularly immigrates and people of color’s actual experience with upward mobility. However, I thoroughly believe that’s not the message, nay the point of Hamilton’s very existence.
No, the real message of Hamilton is – please, please like Alexander Hamilton.
That’s it – anything else is either by complete coincidence or side-lined for this greater message. Don’t believe me? Well, answer me this – why was Act One almost entirely set in the revolutionary war? Sure, Hamilton fought in it but the only connection between this drawn out wale and the much more enjoyable act two, that we really needed to know, was his connection to Washington. And we didn’t really need to devote an entire… what was it? Two, it sure felt like two, hours to establish that connection. They don’t really spend a lot of time delving into it anyway, mostly boiling it down to Washington gives Hamilton a leg up, Hamilton therefore likes Washington, so Washington is cool. Plantation of at least 300 slaves, what plantation of at least 300 slaves?
They don’t really go into that much detail about the war either – there are a about twenty-three songs in Act One, and four of them that are actually about the war itself. And by that, I mean, the nitty gritty battles. And even most of those give way to what Hamilton actually wants to talk about – just how god damn awesome Alexander Hamilton is. He’s so cool you guys, Washington wants him to be his ‘Right Hand Man’ over Burr! Lafayette spends a significant portion of his only solo song telling Washington that they can’t win the war without Hamilton. He even leads his own platoon into Yorktown, and practically wins the whole war himself – okay that last one I exaggerated on, but you see my point. The songs aren’t really here to tell the story of the founding of America, and the hard battles they had to fight before they achieved their independence. They’re here to make sure you understand just how brave, clever and heroic Alexander Hamilton was while he fought in that war. And that’s not even getting into the filler songs that have no other reason to exist, other than to beg us to like Hamilton.
No less than three drinking songs about what he believed the people of future will say about him. Only one of which – the third one – tells us anything about the story at all, and even that one is begging us to feel sorry for Hamilton, and how sad it is that he lost his friend. Farmer Refuted has a similar problem of having no relevance to the story whatsoever, other than to show just how reasonable and moral Hamilton’s support of independence really was. All the men want be Hamilton – Wait for it – and all the women want to be with him – ‘Helpless’ and ‘Satisfied’. I’d imagination that last song is particularly insulting as Angelica Schuyler was already married, happily so, by the time she met Alexander Hamilton. You see now why I called this thing bloody manipulative. The entirety of Act One is devoted to building this scumbag up in the audience’s eyes, and there’s a reason for this, you see despite the massive sympathy hoops the narrative jumps the audience through, Hamilton is extremely unlikable in Act Two.
But Wee Lassie, I hear you cry, didn’t you say that the message of the musical was to beg the audience to like Alexander Hamilton? Why would they make him in anyway unlikable? Well…and granted this is only a guess on my part, so take from that what you will…but I think it’s because Act Two was set in Hamilton’s later life, where he was a much more terrible person all round, they kind of lacked a clear way to redeem him. But remember the play still needs to beg the audience, to please, please like Alexander Hamilton – so the idea of just going through with it and making him unlikable in the second Act was not a notion that was gonna fly in this production. The only option then was to double down on what likability they could mangle out of Act One, and then determine which unlikable aspects of Alexander Hamilton’s life would make him the least hateable to modern audiences for Act Two. Should they focus on his sins at home or at work?
At least five songs devoted to Hamilton’s affair and… let’s see…half a song for the Adams Administration? Gee, I wonder which one they focused on.
You see while I personal found Act One over bloated, and insultingly obviously manipulative – it’s really more Act Two that shows the true problems of structuring your – loudly advertised – progressive retelling of the founding of your country, around the message “Please, please like Alexander Hamilton’. Yes, I am making the legitimate argument that this message is the reason behind two of Hamilton’s main criticisms, that is its historical revisionism and its very weird relationship with racism. Now while those are two separate things, the latter of which is clearly much worse, since they do crossover many times throughout the play, I’m just going to address them both in the same way.
Hamilton does not want to talk about Racism – which is probably why it really doesn’t want to talk about slavery. However, it does want you to know that you should hate people that are racist. Those two things don’t quite mesh, do they? Well, I’d like to explain that by introducing the next segment of this post – that I’d like to call…
The Founding Fathers Hamilton would please, please like you to hate.
Now Jefferson is a weird one because, nothing bad they say about him is particularly untrue. He did own slaves; he did have a relationship of extreme questionable consent with his slave Sally Hemings. And making him a villain on those accounts is not actually a bad idea – I’m personally in favor of anything that calls into question the pedestal we place celebrities both alive and dead on. However, none of those reasons are why Thomas Jefferson is a villain in this musical. He’s a villain purely because he opposes Alexander Hamilton, and we can tell this by the fact that his identity as a slave owner is only really brought to attention when he’s arguing with Hamilton. In glorious rap battle admittedly. But if you actually listen to the argument he’s making in those rap battles, he’s not actually wrong. Hamilton’s debt plan probably will end up taking money from the poor, and putting it into the pockets of the already wealthy. The real Hamilton was an elitist to his core, this was unlikely to bother him. However, that would be one of those pesky unlikable things we don’t really want to talk about in this play. So, the Hamilton on stage has only one choice when a legit rebuttal is nowhere to be found, remind the audience that Jefferson is a slave owner.
Now if you’ve watched and or listened to Hamilton – and no other form of history whatsoever – you’ll know that John Adams was a fat mother****** who fired poor Alexander Hamilton from his cabinet because he (meaning Hamilton) was from the Caribbean. Well, congratulations anyone who was nodding along to that, you just learnt some complete nonsense. Yes, while most of the slandering in Hamilton is at least partially based on historical evidence – or rumor – this part here, is just one long lie. Hamilton resigned from the office of Sectary of Treasury long before Adams was even President. Now, there are many legitimate reasons to dislike John Adams both as a person and a politician, but the thing is Hamilton mentions none of them, because Hamilton can’t mention them. We can’t mention the Alien and Sedition Acts , despite the fact that they might work well as an anti-censoring and pro-immigration message in a play about an immigrant “writing his way out”, because the real Alexander Hamilton was very complicit in that. It’s why we see little to nothing of the actual Adams Administration, because then we’d have to watch our main hero literarily destroy his own party, just to get a man he disliked out of office. If I’m getting any of this wrong please correct me down below, it’s why I have comments in the first place.
However, what always alarmed me about this is that we never see Adams. So unlike Jefferson – who once again we have to remind the audience, was a slave owner – we never see anything besides his prejudices. There’s no actor to redeem or humanize him in anyway, heck King George is more likeable in this play. It’s like if we only heard Hamilton’s side of the rap battles between him and Jefferson, if we only hear one side of the argument how can we help but to agree with it – ironically very much how government censorship works. Miranda has stated this lack of appearance of Adams is because of his love of William Daniels’ portal of him in the musical 1776. And how he couldn’t imagine anyone else in the role – something that never ran completely true to me. First because, high, that’s not how theatre works and last because, he really doesn’t write like he likes the character of Adams at all. Often going out of his way to imply he’s pathetic – particularly in the election of 1800, which I’d like to remind everyone Adams almost won, even despite everything Hamilton did to see him out of office.
Just a last thought before I go full blow rant on this, but the play even implies that Adams, – one out of only two of the first twelve presidents to not own slaves (the second being his own son) – is so racist that he shocks even Jefferson. You know Jefferson, that guy that we’re constantly reminded owns people. Yeah, because that’s how earth logic works.
So, I was watching through the live recording of Hamilton, waiting for one of my favorite songs to come alive on the screen. I waited and I waited, and I waited some more before I realised that we were at the final song and there seemed to be no sign of it whatsoever. And what’s this mysterious song you might ask? Why, “Dear Theodosia (reprise)” of course. What’s that you say, why that’s not on the album, you can only see it online. Because apparently they cut it from the live show before it reached Broadway. That’s right, but I didn’t know that when I watched it first time – so you can imagine my disappointment. Apparently they cut it because people were getting confused that both mother and daughter were called Theodosia – really, people are that dumb? I mean you kept the main ‘Dear Theodosia’ song, why did that get to stay? Oh wait, that had Hamilton singing in it – okay so I see why they kept that.
Still I found it strange that they chose to cut the song where Aaron Burr’s wife Theodosia dies, and he tells his daughter. Because in doing so they’ve transformed the line at the end of the play: ‘I will not let this man make an orphan of my daughter’ from a heart-breaking motivation to kill one of your oldest friends, to just something that was kind of said. Maybe as an excuse for his own cowardice to not embrace death wholeheartedly. Actually, I take it back, it makes complete sense. Because we don’t want the audience to like Burr too much, think of him as a human that made a mistake – rather than as an ungrateful, politically conniving bastard who had to be put back in his place by our hero Hamilton. I focused on this instance of revision, rather than anything historical, because I find it fascinating that the insistence in putting everyone who opposed Hamilton in as worst a light as possible has grown so strong, that they’ve now started editing their own production. I think the character of Aaron Burr was far more popular than they had wanted him to be.
Ultimately I would argue all of Hamilton’s faults – be it the over loaded first half, the slightly insulting depiction of some of America’s founding fathers, the butchering of much of the actual history of the text, not to mention its manipulative use of racism within its narrative – lies not just in the title message of “Please, please like Alexander Hamilton” but the over fixation on telling the story of the founding of America, through one man’s story. To illustrate this, I would ask you to examine two songs. The First a deleted song from Hamilton called “Cabinet Battle #3”, which is one of the only songs written for the musical that deals with slavery directly. The second is a song from the musical 1776 titled ‘Molasses To Rum” dealing with the same topic.
Both songs discuss the issue of slavery, and in particular the culpability of the founding fathers in regards to it. But look at what the first one’s doing, really look. True, it mentions Washington’s involvement in the slave trade – notable that didn’t make it into the final show – but no where dose it mention Hamilton’s own involvement. Regardless of the arguments of whether he actually owned a slave or not, he certainly bought them for other people. And the Schuylers money came from slaves. No mention of that in their introductory number. Now look again at “Molasses to Rum”, it’s explicitly calling attention to the North’s involvement within the Slave Trade, particularly Boston, the home city of our main character. It holds the main character – not just the villain – responsible for not just their culpability in the slave trade, but the benefit they’ve received from it.
Something that we really don’t see even in this deleted song of Hamilton, because the focus isn’t on having a frank discussion on the failings of the founding fathers, but rather making sure that the audience likes, and relates to the main character. Even if the message wasn’t ‘Please, please, like Alexander Hamilton’, he’d still be the title character. He’d still be in the majority of scenes, and thus a large percentage of whether or not you actually pay to see the show again, hangs on how much you like Alexander Hamilton. Ultimately, it would seem that the art suffers because the play depends too much on one man’s reputation.
Though in the end I suppose – it all depends on what we want out of your musical interpretation of a founding father’s life. Do we want realism? Probably better go look for a documentary, because the minute they open their mouth to sing, all realism goes out the door. Want an honest and frank discussion about the failings of the founding fathers, not limited to but including slavery? Well, there’s 1776 for you, if you’re willing to sit through a musical comedy that forgets it’s a musical for one third of the run time. However if all you wanna do is just like Alexander Hamilton for a night, then this may be just the play for you.
Well, I’ve done it, I’ve finally finished this post. If you’ve enjoyed this rant on how a musical’s inner message completely failed to take hold with me – then check me out on Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, Tumblr, Pinterest, and Goodreads. And for all those fiction lovers out there, have a look at my newest published story – The Scientist. Until next time my Wee Readers, take courage, be bold and have a very bonny day.