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Kimerer L LaMothe Ph.D.

Hamilton: Making History

What the new hit musical has to teach us about history, racism, and art

"Non-Stop." This song title from the musical Hamilton accurately describes our family’s obsession with playing its soundtrack. Six of our seven are collectively hooked to its entrancing blend of rap beats and pop melodies. Jessica started it. Kyra caught it. Geoffrey bought it. Leif said play it. Kai collected lyrics to “Wait for it.” The only one of us yet to fall is Jordan. We predict that it is only a matter of time.

Even when we are not playing it, one of us is inevitably singing it, or doing some research into The Federalist Papers; personal letters exchanged by the characters that are available digitally through the National Archives, or the biography by Ron Chernow on which it is based. The musical, like Alexander himself, will not stop.

Meanwhile, Hamilton has just won a Pulitzer; its creator and star, Lin-Manuel Miranda is one of Time’s 100 most influential people of the year. The Treasury Department, after planning to remove Alexander Hamilton from the ten-dollar bill, has decided to leave him there. Chernow’s biography is a best seller, and unless you win a ticket lottery (held for every show), you cannot buy a seat for the musical. It is sold out through January 2017.

I am pondering the phenomenon from near and far.

Somehow, because of this musical, early American history, including issues concerning fiscal policy, debt relief, cabinet meetings, government structure, immigration, and slavery, are intensely interesting. Somehow, its selection of songs, spoken and sung by a largely nonwhite cast of actors, transforms intractable facts into cause for applause.

What is going on?

As Miranda and the producers admit, their intention in writing and casting the musical was to collapse the distance between present and past, so that the past would appear as relevant to today. They wanted to tell the story of America-then with people and styles that represent America-now. The founders were flesh and blood humans with high passions, interpersonal dramas, and tragic flaws—just like us.

Yet critics counter that the musical is not true to what really happened. Notably, some claim that the decision to cast nonwhite actors in leading roles glosses the fact that the congressional delegates and founding fathers were all white, male, and that many owned slaves.

Which is it? Does Hamilton color-wash history? Or is it “art,” more accountable to the present than the past?

Sure, the musical takes artistic license in representing established facts. Meetings among characters are invented, and the timing of some events is flipped. For example, the narrative neglects to note that Angelica Schuyler is already married when she meets Hamilton. The song “Satisfied” implies that she decides not to pursue him simply because she knows her sister Eliza is “Helpless” in love. The musical also implies that Hamilton’s son Philip died in a duel before the election of 1800, when he died in 1801, after the election.

Nevertheless, the question of whether or not the musical is true to what actually happened then misses the point—and the power—of the art.

Hamilton is not telling history; it is making history.

The criticism assumes that any moment in time is a self-enclosed entity that is present unto itself. It assumes that we, from our spot in the present, can step outside of our own time and place, forget everything that has happened since, and see this self-enclosed entity in its entirety. It assumes that what occurred in that moment can be summarized within some one’s standpoint.

Yet every moment in history is multiple. It is not only the result of causes made across myriad moments before, it nests a plurality of potentials, jostling and competing with one another, that may or may not be realized in a next moment.

Further, the present is not only shot through with past and future. It is dynamic. Every present is an unfolding. It is an emerging, manifesting, becoming. And this dynamism pertains to the present of those attempting to tell the history of a given past as well.

As a result, any attempt to tell the history of a given past moment represents a possibility that was lodged in that moment of time—a possibility to which that past gave rise. What matters in the telling is how we engage and participate in the potentials that were there then, based on where we are now.

Hamilton enacts this dynamic, plural potentiality of time.

Is it “true” to say that what happened then is that a bunch of white, Christian, landowning men created a government that excluded women and people of color?

Or rather, is it “true” to say that what “really happened” then is that a bunch of white, Christian, landholding men created a nation in which women and men of all races and ethnicities have come to share in the human rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness?

The truth of what happened then is that nonwhite people today can lay claim to that past as their own. To represent on today’s stage that nation-creation as all white would be to repeat and reauthorize the primal exclusion which we are, thanks to the founders, in the process of overcoming.

The beauty of Hamilton, in its casting and musical styles, is that it manifests—and makes real—the inclusive potential that was there in the early moments of the United States, palpably present, regardless of what the founders “thought” they were doing.

Hamilton makes history by participating in the ongoing dynamism of the past--that is, by affirming, manifesting, and advancing one of the trajectories that has emerged from the time and place the musical depicts.

By celebrating the expansive possibilities of our nation’s ideals—the truth of what that time has created—it continues a trajectory evident ever since, of increasing inclusiveness, increasing equality, increasing justice for all, regardless of race, gender, class, or ethnicity.

The truth of that time is that it was a step along the path to today, when Hamilton is an unqualified hit.

The musical is conscious of these themes, as was Hamilton and his wife Eliza. In the musical, Hamilton appears as a man obsessed with his legacy. Eliza, living 50 years past his untimely death, appears as obsessed with doing justice to his memory. George Washington counsels the young Hamilton: "History has its eyes on you."

In realizing the potency buried in a past present, Hamilton reveals the power of art—especially the performing arts of music and dance.

By revealing history as something people make, Hamilton invites people now to participate, as fully and consciously as possible, in continuing to build a better world.

Here, the movement of words and sounds and bodily selves across the stage is the substance of that invitation. The pulse of the rapping, the lilt of the melodies, the joy and anguish evident in the delivery all hook the listener right under the ribs. The musical sounds out what Nietzsche called “elemental rhythms,” revealing the connective tissue of humanity. What happens in response is magical.

Listeners are not only given a picture of history in the making, they have a visceral experience of their own participation in it. The musical would not exist, it would not succeed, it would not continue, if not for a flesh and blood audience that is and can be moved by the movement of other bodily selves.

In this way, the contemporary musical styles and the racial composition of the cast do more than link present and past. They provide those who experience the musical—or its soundtrack—with a visceral connection to the dynamic, ever-unfolding reality of history in the making.

As audience members, we are invited to keep rehearsing the patterns of song and speech that manifest the inclusive potential of the US nation. We are invited to create and become the shapes of attention and action that make that meaning, that reality, true. And with every refrain, clanging through our brain, we do.

Of course, not everyone has access to the Broadway show. Tickets are pricey, as they were for Miranda when he was growing up in Manhattan. As a child, he listened to soundtracks from shows he could not afford to see. But the Rockefeller Foundation is buying tickets for 20,000 school children, who will make up their own raps in response. The show holds a lottery for $10 front row seats every show. And there is the soundtrack, which people like those in our family can play, non-stop. And we do. Helpless.

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About the Author

Kimerer L. LaMothe, Ph.D., is a dancer, philosopher, and author of five books, including Why We Dance, Nietzsche's Dancers, and What a Body Knows.