HAMILTON THE MUSICAL: A CELEBRATION OF NEO-LIBERALISM
BY JOE LANGABEER & ENYA MENICHINI, CO-FOUNDERS OF ART-RISING
With the original Broadway production recently making its debut on Disney+, another confirmation of its continuing popularity and capacity to still attract and fascinate thousands of people, it is useful to examine Hamilton and the implications it has on the theatre industry. This musical has been widely praised for its storytelling which is heavily intertwined with political and revolutionary themes, and for using the stage as a platform to discuss race and gender politics. There is a lot to praise the work for, but it has nonetheless many issues when examined closer. The glorification of American history is problematic, and the biggest problem, from a political point of view, is the celebration of neo-liberal values which have haunted America’s economy (and western culture) for decades. This article will examine the fundamental issues surrounding the glorification of the individual in Hamilton and the mis-selling of a commercial narrative that could potentially harm political education in the youth, the demographic the musical primarily targets.
Hamilton is a musical written by Lin-Manuel Miranda that was workshopped since 2009 and has now been produced around the world, including in New York, Chicago, London, Puerto Rico and soon Australia. In an article entitled “Hamilton and Class,” published by Musical Theatre Studies and written by Matthew Clinton Sekellick, an intersectional Marxist analysis is applied to challenge the aesthetics of race, narrative, politics and class with a focus to the accessibility of the musical. The overall argument presented in this article is the employment of colour-blind casting and the romanticisation of revolution to alter a neo-liberalist narrative and opt-in for a progressive touch to its aesthetic. In the article’s opening statement Sekellick writes: “Hamilton is a willful, forceful writing of the future through the rewriting of the past, but through its narrative, aesthetic strategies and subject matter, it presents a fundamentally bourgeois vision that reifies the American Revolution into a contemporary creation myth for America and its Dream”. The musical is sold as a revolutionary tale, the one, however, of an individual responsible to have instigated a capitalist revolution. The musical is marketed to be sold as a revolutionary show, but the revolution presented, and its problematic and concealed implications, is only part of the musical’s narrative. The character of Hamilton is viewed as flawed protagonist. The audience is showed his victories as well as his many setbacks, and yet his story is one that dogmatically conforms to the American Dream ideal. If we are to look at today’s reality it will be evident that the capitalist vision Hamilton was fundamental in designing has prevented other immigrants from achieving prosperity in North America. He was instrumental, in his race towards the American Dream, to stop other like him from reaching it. Ethnic minorities in North America have been degraded to the most inhumane working conditions, and, without monetary help to begin with, they have not been able to climb the ‘neo-liberal’ ladder. Hamilton believed in the neo-liberal economy, an economy that is failing us in the current Covid-19 pandemic and had previously failed us in the 2008 financial crisis. Hamilton, secretary to the treasury, was the person behind the central economy bank and an advocate for free-market. All these issues expose a real problem within the musical’s progressive politics of equality, as Hamilton’s celebrated achievements have contributed to the same inequalities in ethnic minorities. The colour-blind casting is a good step towards diversity on stage and needs to be widely recognised and adopted by all creatives. However, needed is a more of a truthful retelling of the damages made by the founding fathers, still extremely evident in the current political structures of North America.
Going back to the question of individualism, Lin-Manuel Miranda and Hamilton’s dual connection should be noted. In the previously quoted article the class status of Miranda is discussed:
Miranda is the son of a Puerto Rican immigrant to New York City, but he is also the son of a powerful political operative. Put another way, the Mirandas are members of a ruling political class. Miranda is not a poor man rising to the top but holds a class position that provides access to resources, such as an elite private college education, which has enabled his talents to grow and flourish. When Miranda sings, ‘My name is Alexander Hamilton’, it is not just a tribute to his immigrant-cum-politico father, but also an act of identification along class lines.
The article implies that the connection between Miranda and Hamilton is a way to identify the presence of capitalism ideals in his musical, which underlines its hegemonic status in western economic and political structures. In the book Hamilton: The Revolution it is suggested that the musical has been finely attuned to the newly diversified country, the United States, that is still battling with its own prejudice, but has progressed indefinitely from the 18th Century. It is important to recognise that, whilst the musical promotes race, it is promoted from an individualistic perspective and not a collective one. The show hardly recognises the shackles of class, which is a theme ignored by the vast majority of musicals, with exceptions being, for example, Blood Brothers or Billy Elliot. There is sometimes a certain degree of hypocrisy when dealing with issues of race and class in this format, issues that instead should be prioritised and presented as two elements that deeply affect each other. This is the fundamentally lacking feature that plagues this musical’s storytelling. The misrepresentation of American history, glorified instead of critically analysed, and the hegemonic structures of capitalism that frame the story contribute in undermining the consequences of slavery. It has been documented on several occasions that Alexander Hamilton was never fully critical of the system of slavery, but actually condoned some of its practices. This has been documented in Historians on Hamilton: How a Blockbuster Musical Is Restaging America's Past. For a show that on the surface promotes race and condemns slavery, it should focus less on glorifying these American figures and rather open up a discussion about hegemonic structures within the fabric of the capitalist system and the oppression of BAME groups operated by neo-liberal ideology. This is the only way true reparation for its history can be evaluated. A problem that Britain needs to accept too.
Overall, the musical can be considered a neo-liberal propaganda piece. I have not touched on the feminist issues of the musical, as writers such as Stacy Wolf can offer much more structured analysis than I can. It is important to recognise that the musical needs to be seen through an analytical lens. The colour-blind casting is important, as is the rhetoric for empowerment in BAME communities. The problem arises when it is presented a re-tracing of history which American glorify instead of confront, along with the problematic commercial mis-selling. That is why Hamilton is fundamentally a celebration of the values of neo-liberalist in western culture. The musical must be given better and fairer discussion.