Sunday, February 14, 2016
Hamilton and Progress
Hamilton is such a peculiar thing.
Here, a Broadway musical, a raging success, sold out shows stretching out to the horizon. The concept, so wildly and remarkably unlikely as a triumph.
Hey, says the playwright at the party, I'm writing a hip-hop musical about the life of founding father Alexander Hamilton.
Uh huh. You can almost see the eyes rolling.
And yet it's soaring. As it should be. It's engaging, it's funny, it's historically grounded, remarkably subtle and intelligent. It was written by a Latino, intentionally cast in the rich warm hues of American diversity, using the forms and styles of both classical Broadway belting and rap. Mostly rap, which I don't usually listen to now that it's descended into subsentient misogyny, consumerist grasping, and the celebration of violence.
But it does this odd thing. It embraces the fundamental humanity of the American creation story, staking a claim on that narrative. This is part of my story, the musical sings. It is the story of the immigrant. The call to shake off the chains of oppression? That's a common story. The human mess of love and conflict that lead to Hamilton's death at the hands of Aaron Burr? That's human. Being human, it's a story we all understand.
How to process it?
For all of its retelling of the Founding Story, it sure isn't right wing, not by the standards of borderline fascism that have come to define the shout-radio fueled madness of American conservatism. Here, a willful recasting of the American narrative, shattering expectations of color and race. Here, a musical that defiantly celebrates immigration as central to the American experience, at the same moment that off-the-rails conservatism seems to have forgotten that completely as it throws its love to fascist demagogues and race-baiting charlatans. Hamilton, in form and intent, resists the shallow, false idol that the right worships in place of the American dream.
But neither is it a creature of the left. The radical left has only contempt for the founding narrative of the United States. It was just the monstrous self-interest of racist oligarchs, wealthy white men who understood "freedom" no further than their own power over their land and the souls they claimed the right to own. Or so I've heard, sitting in the back of classrooms and listening. From this perspective, America was always a lie. That's all it ever was.
There is a hint of truth in that spin, truth that lies in the painful dissonance between revolutionary ideals and the bitter realities of racism in the creation of this nation. But it is not a binary truth, as much as the radical left snarks at Hamilton. "You're forbidden to recast this tale," leftism fumes, in full commissar-thought-police dudgeon.
And yet, honestly, recasting and building on founding stories is the nature of progress. If you cast them in stone, they cease to live. When you endlessly tear them apart, they do not live. But when those stories are allowed to live and change and grow?
They're how things change for the better.