On July 3, Disney gave America a big-ticket birthday gift: the musical Hamilton. After handing over a head-turning $75 million, the company began streaming a filmed version of the Lin-Manuel Miranda Broadway megahit on its Disney+ channel. It could be just what the doctor ordered as an antidote to the nation’s gloomy mood, or it could be the opposite — another cultural touchstone swept up and spit out by the vortex of the Great Awokening.
That second scenario may sound absurd. After all, Hamilton is the beloved masterpiece of the diversity revolution, an ode to the country’s multiracial future and to “immigrants [who] get the job done!” Its cast was almost entirely nonwhite, with one notable exception: a campy, mincing King George III. Miranda himself, son of Puerto Rican parents, played the musical’s namesake hero, Alexander Hamilton.
Audiences were swept up in the mischievous chutzpah of casting black actors as George Washington and Thomas Jefferson and the clever rap couplets evoking the thrill of youthful revolution. “Rap is the voice of the people of our generation, and of people of color,” Miranda, winner of a MacArthur “genius” grant, has proclaimed. Hamilton won a Pulitzer Prize, a Grammy, and 16 Tony Awards. The show has grossed well over $500 million. Beyoncé, Michelle Obama, Hillary Clinton, Stephen Sondheim, Jay-Z, and a long list of other luminaries number among his fans. On social media, followers were counting the days and minutes until the television event. What could go wrong?
Such is the madness of this Jacobin moment that a 2015 progressive musical now looks quaint — even problematic. Hamilton is a rousingly, unabashedly patriotic work -- “American exceptionalism [set to] hip-hop,” as Terry Teachout put it in his Wall Street Journal review.
Since audiences first jumped to their feet to applaud the show, the history Miranda relied on has been toppled like so many statues. The New York Times has endorsed the view that the nation’s birth celebrated in the play occurred not in 1776 but in 1619, with the arrival of the first enslaved Africans on American shores. Following the curriculum now endorsed by the paper of record, educators are preparing to teach the young that the American Revolution was fought, in part, to protect slavery, and that the revolutionaries Miranda celebrates eventually signed the Constitution, whose main purpose was to codify black people’s enslavement. Can millions of teenagers and their parents continue happily to sing the name of one of the Founding Fathers in good conscience?
Equally problematic for the current moment is Miranda’s embrace of the American dream. “[T]he ten-dollar Founding Father without a father / Got a lot farther by working a lot harder / By being a lot smarter / By being a self-starter,” the cast raps in the opening scene. But every red-blooded progressive knows that the American dream of upward mobility is a myth, designed to blame the poor for their own sorry condition. “[A]nother immigrant, comin’ up from the bottom”? Sounds like fake news — or false consciousness.
That’s the way a number of Black scholars viewed the show from the beginning. Soon after the musical opened, Harvard historian Annette Gordon-Reed listed its sins. Hamilton was no man of the people, she argued; he was an elitist and crypto-monarchist. Nor was he innocent of racism; he bought and sold the enslaved for his in-laws and, though a founder of the Manumission Society, had, at best, a tepid interest in abolition. Moreover, the musical is silent about the fact that George Washington owned enslaved people, an omission that even third graders will have no trouble spotting these days.
The playwright and fellow MacArthur Grant recipient Ishmael Reed has dedicated the last few years to de-platforming the musical, which he compares to the Confederate-nostalgic Gone With the Wind (which has also received calls for cancellation in recent weeks). He believes that the show’s multiracial cast is a con to distract audiences from the brutal reality of American racism. Last year, he staged a play called The Haunting of Lin-Manuel Miranda, in which the ghosts of the enslaved and Native Americans come back to correct the lies of the bewildered Hamilton creator. “I think the corrective would be to close the show,” he has concluded.
Hamilton critics are not limited to old-timers. #CancelHamilton has become a Twitter meme. When Miranda took his musical to Puerto Rico to raise money for the stricken country after Hurricane Maria, students and employees at the University of Puerto Rico, where the production was to be staged, rebelled. “He wants to help the community of Puerto Rico as a whole? He needs to sit down and talk to us and stop coming across as a white savior,” one activist scoffed. And so it is that an ur-progressive, Hispanic rap artist can — and will — be accused of white privilege.
Should Hamilton attract the social-justice mobs now that it is being streamed on cable, skeptics of the woke will be tempted to take pleasure in yet another example of the revolution eating its own. That would be a mistake. Miranda is facing the tragic dilemma familiar to the intuitively moderate man caught in an extreme moment. Recently a group in favor of “change for BIPOC [Black, indigenous, and people of color] theatermakers” has circulated a petition demanding more diversity on Broadway. It has already amassed 80,000 signatures. “We have watched you [the white powers-that-be of Broadway] pretend not to see us,” they write. “We have watched you amplify our voices when we are heralded by the press, but refuse to defend our aesthetic when we are not, allowing our livelihoods to be destroyed by a monolithic and racist critical culture.” Miranda has yet to sign. But the progressive who has spun his considerable talents into capitalist gold faces the choice of signing or losing his Black Lives Matter cred.
Miranda is a unique cultural figure, a magician who made diversity palatable to New Jersey matinee clubs and Midwestern tourists while also enlivening American history for high school kids from the Bronx. His friendly, open demeanor and mild nerdiness — he adores American musical theater — has undoubtedly added to his crossover appeal. For years now, the auteur has been posting “g’morning” and “g’night” tweets, “little pep talks for me and you,” as he puts it, adored by fans for their sweet quirkiness. Last year, he played Bert the Cockney chimney sweep, a role that previously belonged to the old-school actor Dick Van Dyke, in Mary Poppins Returns. Somehow, he manages to be both mensch and resolute progressive. In the days of corporate wokeness, Disney and Miranda seem made for each other.
Unless he gets canceled.