With Trump in office, a new culture war has begun. 'Hamilton' was just the first battlefield.
It would be hard to name a work of popular art more emblematic of the Obama years than Hamilton. Long before it became an unstoppable Broadway sensation, Lin-Manuel Miranda's Tony- and Grammy-winning musical made its first appearance in the public and political eye at a White House celebration of the spoken word in 2009.
It would be hard to name a work of popular art more emblematic of the Obama years than Hamilton.
Long before it became an unstoppable Broadway sensation, Lin-Manuel Miranda's Tony- and Grammy-winning musical made its first appearance in the public and political eye at a White House celebration of the spoken word in 2009.
The creator of the Broadway hit In the Heights performed a song from a work-in-progress concept album then called The Hamilton Mixtape. (That also happens to be the title of the new, highly hyped, multiartist collection of alt-versions of Hamilton songs that features The Roots, Usher, Chance the Rapper, Jill Scott, Kelly Clarkson, Busta Rhymes, John Legend, and Miranda himself. It comes out Friday.)
In 2009, Miranda explained that his nerdy, still-gestating project was about the $10 Founding Father who embodied both the self-invention of hip-hop and "the word's ability to make a difference."
His canny decision to cast the play with actors of color turned Hamilton into a metaphoric celebration of a browning, multicultural America during the second term of the nation's first black president.
As Leslie Odom Jr., the East Oak Lane actor who played Aaron Burr, said in these pages before hosting Philadelphia's 2016 Fourth of July celebration, the multicultural cast speaks to the idea that "so much gets made of the ways in which we are not alike, and there are so many ways that we are the same. There is so much common ground in the things that are important to us."
It might have seemed that way before Election Day, but that Hamiltonian idea of inclusiveness was dealt a blow when Donald Trump was elected. Suddenly, with a president-elect who has threatened to build a wall along the Mexican border, the play that boasts a showstopping set piece called "Immigrants - We Get the Job Done" became an oppositional work.
Instead of "there are so many ways we are the same," the new commonly held conception is "two Americas," and Hamilton is an instrument of dissent. The show that's partly set during the Revolutionary War - the new Mixtape features the Miranda rap, "Valley Forge" - is the first battlefield in a new culture war sure to be long and hard-fought.
The first skirmishes happened last weekend, when Vice President-elect Mike Pence went to see the play, and . . . well you know what happened. The future VP, seen as hostile to LGBT issues, entered the Richard Rodgers Theatre, where the show's current star, Javier Munoz, is gay and HIV-positive. He was booed. ("Not by us," Miranda has pointed out. "By the audience.")
At the show's end, Brandon Victor Dixon, who has taken Odom's place as Burr, addressed Pence on behalf of "the diverse America who are alarmed and anxious that your new administration will not protect us . . . we truly hope that this show has inspired you to uphold our American values and to work on behalf of all of us."
Pence has said he wasn't offended, endorsing booing as dissent with a "that's what freedom sounds like" comment that should be music to the ears of free-speech-loving Philadelphia sports fans. But his boss made it a big deal. With fingers on his Twitter trigger, Trump demanded an apology, claimed Pence had been "harassed," and added that he hears the play "is highly overrated."
Much debate ensued about the meaning of the Cultural Critic in Chief's tweets. Is it a dangerous sign of his inability to let go of a feud, no matter how petty? Or a manifestation of a brilliant distraction strategy, focusing media attention on a trumped-up fight with the cast of a Broadway show rather than controversial cabinet appointments?
Taking positions in the new, Trump-dominated media landscape, when social-media reaction can be quick and damning, is fraught. Kanye West canceled his Saint Pablo tour last week - including Dec. 13 and 15 shows in Philadelphia.
Before he was hospitalized Monday, though, the first sign West was in trouble with his audience was when he voiced support for Trump at a concert in San Jose, saying he would have voted for Trump, if he had voted. He was subsequently chastened online by Snoop Dogg and Talib Kweli. Possibly the only thing he could've done to anger the Twitterverse more would have been to attack Beyoncé, which he went out and did the next night in Sacramento.
Bruce Springsteen's E Street Band also got ensnared in Trumpland, when guitarist Steve Van Zandt - a lefty political agitator who said "nobody on this planet disagrees more with everything Pence represents" - nonetheless argued in a series of tweets that the cast owes Pence an apology. "Hamilton made a mistake. Audiences shouldn't have to worry about being blindsided like that. Theater should be sanctuary for art to speak."
Many disagreed publicly, including Miranda and the E Street Band's other guitarist, Nils Lofgren, who tweeted: "Bravo" to the Hamilton cast.
And the Boss of both axmen seemed to take Lofgren's side when he went to a Hamilton matinee two days later and shared a photo of himself and his wife, Patti Scialfa, with the hashtag #freedomofspeech. Sparks fly on E Street!
The culture war can seem one-sided. Hillary Clinton had Stevie Wonder, Beyoncé, Katy Perry, and scores more on her side; Trump had Ted Nugent and Scott Baio. In the days leading up to the election, Trump played rap critic, questioning whether Jay Z was "talking or singing" at a Clinton rally, while proudly boasting that he was able to draw large crowds without celebrity surrogates.
But among Trump supporters, pop-culture opposition is a weapon to fire up passion. As Amanda Hess pointed out in the New York Times last week - or "the failing New York Times," as Trump so frequently refers to it - right-wing sites often mock liberal celebrities, as with Breitbart headlines like "Grieving Lena Dunham Seeks Answers in Arizona Wilderness After Trump Win."
The Girls' creator was also strafed by the Onion in a postelection satiric headline that caught Miranda's play in its crosshairs, too. It read, "DNC Aiming to Reconnect With Working-Class Americans With New 'Hamilton' Inspired Lena Dunham Web Series," pretending to be an account of a hip-hop musical about a factory worker in rural Wisconsin.
Hamilton is an obvious target, easily reduced to the cliche of an impossible-to-get-into, superexpensive indulgence for effete, big-city elitists. (Never mind that this late in its run, most of the audience members who booed Pence were probably tourists.)
Before the Pence kerfuffle even happened, a Boston Globe headline asked: "Was the election a vote against Hamilton?' Trump's targeting of the play presumably plays well to the aggrieved voters who elected him - even as it makes an implied threat to free speech with the power of the presidency. It's also infuriated dissenters like singer Rosanne Cash, who on Tuesday tweeted about Trump being slow to condemn white supremacists celebrating his victory with Nazi salutes "but he took time to excoriate the cast of Hamilton and SNL." (Trump did disavow them in a New York Times interview published Wednesday.)
Speaking of white supremacists, that brings us to Green Day's performance at the American Music Awards, broadcast on ABC Nov. 20. The pop-punk band inserted a protest chant into "Bang Bang," from their new Revolution Radio album. Borrowed from Austin, Texas, punk band M.D.C.'s 1982 song "Born to Die," it targeted the president-elect and any pointy-hooded racists who might dare to show themselves in the current political environment: "No Trump, No KKK, No Fascist USA!," Billie Joe Armstrong and band sang repeatedly to the live television audience. It was an early shot fired in a culture war that's only beginning to rage.