A Hamilton critic on why the musical isn’t so revolutionary.

A Hamilton Skeptic on Why the Show Isn’t As Revolutionary As It Seems

A Hamilton Skeptic on Why the Show Isn’t As Revolutionary As It Seems

Arts, entertainment, and more.
April 5 2016 5:30 AM

A Hamilton Skeptic on Why the Show Isn’t As Revolutionary As It Seems

“It’s still white history. And no amount of casting people of color disguises the fact that they’re erasing people of color from the actual narrative.”

Lin-Manuel Miranda & Cast of Hamilton
Lin-Manuel Miranda addresses the audience after Hamilton’s opening night on Broadway in New York on Aug. 6, 2015.

Lucas Jackson/Reuters

For a long time, a stray tweet from writer Jay Caspian Kang seemed to be the only hairline crack in the monolith of positive public opinion about Hamilton. Before it had even arrived on Broadway, the musical had been called one of the greatest artworks of the 21st century. In September, the show’s composer, lyricist, and star, Lin-Manuel Miranda, won a MacArthur “genius” grant. In the fall, sales of its cast recording and advance tickets for shows began to break records. And a sweep at the 2016 Tony Awards is all but a foregone conclusion.

Rebecca Onion Rebecca Onion

Rebecca Onion is a Slate staff writer and the author of Innocent Experiments

But over the past few months, Hamilton critics have come out of the woodwork. In February, performance studies scholar James McMaster, writing for HowlRound, pointed out how completely the show fails to pass the Bechdel test. In March, writer Gene Demby, a huge fan of the musical, wondered on NPR’s Code Switch why its audience is so resoundingly white. A week later, historian Nancy Isenberg, writing for Zócalo Public Square, cautioned audiences not to look to the musical for historical accuracy.

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But perhaps the strongest entry yet in the small-but-growing canon of Hamilton criticism was published by historian Lyra Monteiro in the journal the Public Historian. Monteiro’s essay is a resounding corrective, questioning the universal understanding of the show as racially progressive, unpacking the unusual casting strategy, and wondering why no historical people of color find a place in Hamilton’s narrative. Acknowledging that the show may have the power to interest kids in the history of the Revolutionary era because of the way its major roles are cast, Monteiro asks: “Is this the history that we most want black and brown youth to connect with—one in which black lives so clearly do not matter?”

I asked Monteiro if she’d be willing to talk to me about her critique of Hamilton and the response it’s received.

Have you been able to see the musical in person?

Oh yes! I definitely have. I saw it the week it opened, actually. 

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What was your relationship to the idea of it before you saw it? Were you excited, or did you have your skeptical-historian hat on? 

I loved [Miranda’s first Broadway musical] In the Heights. I thought it was incredible. So I definitely wanted to see whatever he did next. But I was super skeptical of the concept of Hamilton, because it seemed like a really weird choice for somebody who had done something that I thought was so revolutionary in In the Heights, in terms of talking about nonwhite immigrants in New York today. To go from that to doing really mainstream Founding Fathers history just seemed weird, like a strange choice. Then when we finally went to the theater to see it, of course I was excited because by then it was already a phenomenon. But I actually turned to my husband right before it started and said, “I think I’m going to hate this!” [laughing] Not just because of my historian hat; more because of my public historian hat. Because I care less about historical details, and much more about the way that we tell stories about the past, and why. 

I think that’s an important distinction. 

And so, for me, it was like What the fuck! I think I’m going to hate this, I think it’s going to be shitty. And of course I didn’t! I loved it, it was amazing.

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Oh! You did! OK. 

Yeah! Oh yeah, as a theatrical production, it’s incredible. As a Broadway musical, it’s amazing and deserves all the credit it gets. But as anything that conveys information to people about the past, it’s highly problematic!

The representation of slavery in the musical is one of the things that bothered you the most about Hamilton. What is your argument about the way that slavery is seen or not seen? 

My argument is basically that the play does a lot of this thing that we call “Founders Chic” as a representational strategy. This is a way that writers of popular history (and some academic historians) represent the founders as relatable, cool guys. Founders Chic tends to really downplay the involvement of the Founding Fathers in slavery, and this play does that 100 percent. Yes, sure, it mentions slavery a couple of times, but it’s twice mentioned in the context of just slavery existing and Alexander Hamilton being opposed to it. And then a couple times it’s mentioned in the context of abolition specifically, and Alexander Hamilton supporting that. So the 12th line of the play where it’s mentioned, “he struggled and kept his guard up” is the line right after talking about slaves being slaughtered and carted away. But we have no idea what Alexander Hamilton’s attitude toward slavery was when he was a boy growing up in the Caribbean. He worked on a slave ship. I mean, chances are probably pretty high that he was in favor of it; that was his livelihood. So few white people were opposed to slavery, especially white people in the Caribbean. It’s kind of bonkers to suggest that he was somehow suffering and feeling like slavery was an injustice at that time. There’s no historical evidence to back that up. So that’s one example of them presenting it as if Oh yeah, he was around slavery, but he hated it, and we don’t actually know that that’s the case. John Laurens, sure, was very unusual for being anti-slavery; it’s not really clear that Alexander Hamilton was particularly anti-slavery

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The Schuyler family had slaves.

Oh yeah! They were huge slave owners. And one of the points Ishmael Reed made that I loved is that for Elizabeth Schuyler to be a Kim Kardashian of her era involved several slaves preparing her to be so gorgeous at that ball where Hamilton met her. And to say that he didn’t own any slaves? He was fucking poor! Before the Revolution, the dude had no money, so of course he didn’t own slaves. It wasn’t a moral achievement, just an economic reality. Later on, yeah, he does seem to have been anti-slavery, in his involvement with the New York Manumission Society and things like that, so the fact that he didn’t then purchase slaves is one thing. It’s also definitely documented that he used slaves, that he employed slaves. It was really common for people who didn’t own slaves outright to rent slaves.

By contracting with their owners.

Exactly, it was called “hiring out.” And it was super common, particularly in cities, for people who owned surplus slaves to rent them out by the year, or by the job, to people who didn’t own slaves. And so Hamilton totally did that. He’s absolutely documented to have done that. So it’s not like he was like Oh my God! Don’t let me touch slavery!

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There’s this way that Thomas Jefferson is represented as the one bad Founding Father who did participate in slavery.

Which is a total displacement. And it’s a really common part of this Founders Chic practice, actually, particularly among historians who write about the Federalists, who are all anti-Jefferson. Jefferson’s this horrible elite asshole who has slaves, and they totally play that up, in the show, where the most sustained mention of slavery is related to Thomas Jefferson having slaves in Virginia, during one of the rap battles. But what’s also hilarious from the perspective of a historian is that Washington’s ownership of slaves isn’t mentioned at all. He’s this perfect father figure and he has nothing to do with slavery. Even though he was as embedded in slavery, of course, as Jefferson was. 

So a huge thing is also the fact that all of the main characters are being played by people of color, but there are no historical people of color represented. 

Yeah, that bothers me a lot!

How do you think that could have been done, in an alternate-reality version of Hamilton?

I mention in my article that I doubt if he had a historian of color on his staff that this would have happened, but he was working with a sort of prototypical white historian [Hamilton biographer Ron Chernow]. The way that the story of the founding of the country is told erases people of color so consistently, that it was super easy for him to do it this way. So you know, it’s possible it never occurred to him that black people, for example, were involved in the Revolution. Because that’s probably not what he learned in history in school, and it’s certainly not what he would learn from reading Ron Chernow’s biography of Hamilton. And so, it would be very easy for him to just have the impression that there are no black people in this history because they’re just not there.

Can you explain what the difference is for you between race-blind casting and race-conscious casting, which you argue is what’s actually going on in Hamilton?

Race-blind casting for me would mean something like We’re going to do William Shakespeare, and we’re just going to cast the roles with whoever is the best person for the part. As opposed to race-conscious casting, which is very much saying These are parts that are designed for people of color. The musical styles of the singing are not white styles. The dance is not white. It would be so appalling to audiences and the show would have just completely been a disaster if they had cast white people to play all of these roles. We would have been completely disgusted with the show, and it would be this weird cultural footnote that somebody tried to do that. So to suggest that it’s race-blind casting is really disingenuous. And the initial casting calls also tend to indicate that as well, that they weren’t looking for white actors to do these roles to begin with. And Miranda talks about when he was writing the music that he was casting different hip-hop stars in the roles in his head. So from the beginning he wasn’t envisioning that this was going to be a white cast.

And you identify differences in the way the actors were deployed, in terms of musical style.

I think that comes out really strongly with King George, who is the only major character who’s portrayed by a white actor [Jonathan Groff], and who sings Beatles-style songs, and is obviously representing the Empire, England, as opposed to the revolutionaries, who are all people of color. … And then in terms of the female casting, the female character who sings in a more hip-hop and R&B style [Angelica Schuyler, played by Renée Elise Goldsberry] is black, and the female character who sings more Broadway-style ballads [Elizabeth Schuyler, played by Phillipa Soo] is Chinese American, but she definitely reads as white, and I think that is not a coincidence.

Your critique is not just about the way the roles were cast, but also about the way that the supposedly “color-blind” casting has been deployed as a way to buttress the credibility of the project.

Totally. Basically what the supposedly color-blind casting does, is it gives Hamilton, the show, the ability to say, Oh, we’re not just telling old, white history. This isn’t your stuffy old-school history that’s just praising white people. Look, we’ve got people of color in the cast. This is everybody’s story. Which, it isn’t. It’s still white history. And no amount of casting people of color disguises the fact that they’re erasing people of color from the actual narrative.

Can we talk about the question of the bootstraps narrative a little bit? The musical relies on it, and it’s grafted on this hip-hop aspect of the story …

This idea that if you’re smart enough, you can write your way out of the projects, kind of a thing? I do think it accounts for why the musical has been so popular among conservative commentators, who fucking love it. The bootstrap ideology is just super strong in how it’s presented; it’s emphasized over and over and over again from literally the very first line of the show, the idea that this man is coming from nothing and he pulls himself up to become this incredibly important person, and that he does it through the power of his mind. One of the first lines says that Hamilton “Got a lot farther by working a lot harder/ By being a lot smarter/ By being a self-starter.” It’s this idea that we have in this country that the American Dream is achievable if you work hard enough, and if you are poor and unsuccessful, it’s because you didn’t try, and therefore you deserve what you have, or rather what you don’t have. And it fits, frankly, with what Miranda said about how he identifies with Alexander Hamilton. In interviews, he’s repeatedly said that he wants to be like him, he looks up to him; in one interview, he also compares him to his father, a political power-broker in New York state, and in some ways you could say that Miranda’s family fits into that bootstrap narrative. His dad came as an immigrant from Puerto Rico and was successful, and you know, his son went to Wesleyan and became Lin-Manuel Miranda! It’s a politically dangerous narrative, because it has the tendency to obscure the ways in which so many people are blocked from those kinds of opportunities.

My last question is: What’s it like to criticize something that everyone loves?

[Laughing] Honestly, I haven’t been getting a bad reaction. I’ve only been hearing from people who like the article. I actually heard from [writer] Junot Díaz last night, he just wrote me out of the blue and said, “I love the article, it was really important.” 

That’s amazing!

Yeah! And I honestly haven’t heard from anyone who says something negative about the article. I think enough people today are exposed to the idea that all your faves are problematic, that there’s no such thing as pop culture that isn’t biased and hugely problematic in all kinds of ways. So I think that helps. I have a good friend who’s a huge fan of the musical who has not mentioned this article to me, though I know she’s read it! I think that’s partially because she doesn’t know what to say because she loves it so much. The last of the four responses to the article that the National Council on Public History is publishing is by [historian] Annette Gordon-Reed [author of several books on Thomas Jefferson and the Hemings family], and her response is awesome. She makes it really clear that she loves the musical, and it’s also problematic in all the ways that I describe.

And that’s how I feel. I’ve listened to the soundtrack I-don’t-know-how-many times. I want to see it again. I think it’s an awesome show. I grew up doing musical theater, and there’s part of me that still fantasizes about being on Broadway. And from the perspective of the theater and working actors, it’s incredible to have a show like this that foregrounds people of color so much, and that it would be such a massive hit that’s going to be touring forever and have regional productions, this is really incredible. It’s an awesome opportunity for so many actors. And I don’t want to downplay that, either. That’s the case with all important cultural works, right? They are not ever all bad.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Read more in Slate about Hamilton: