In 2015 a musical about revolution began to take America – and then the world – by storm. Alexander Hamilton was the only Founding Father not to come from the aristocracy. However, very few had a greater impact on the birth of the American nation. Since becoming available to stream on Disney Plus, more people than ever have been able to watch Hamilton.
Hamilton tells the story of the first Treasury Secretary using a variety of musical styles and a non-white cast. In many ways this makes it revolutionary. However, the American Revolution is a story about rich, white men, no matter who tells it. With so much debate surrounding how we view our history, it is difficult to know what to think.
And that is exactly how it was intended to be received.
The show spends a significant amount of time examining the concept of history and legacy. Historical figures have no say over how they will be remembered. As the final song puts it “you have no control…[over] who tells your story”. History is viewed through the lens of the present so, as context changes, so will historical narratives.
Was Alexander Hamilton a flawed genius whose financial expertise allowed the USA to become the power it is today? Or was he a sleazy politician whose personal ambition destroyed the lives of all those around him? Probably both. Thanks to Hamilton, that is a debate which infinitely more people can now engage in.
One of the key points to take away from the Black Lives Matter movement has been the need to examine our history. It is no longer acceptable to plead ignorance to the issues which define our time. Instead we must proactively educate ourselves.
The removal of Edward Colston’s statue in Bristol forced the UK to confront its history of empire and slavery. Meanwhile, Hamilton reminds America (among others) of its own history, including the less comfortable aspects. Problems such as racism and sexism were rife in the eighteenth century, and that is reflected in the show.
Lin-Manuel Miranda, the show’s creator and star, admits that it is difficult to celebrate a society in which slaves were kept and women could not vote. This has seen Hamilton come in for criticism for not doing more to tackle these issues. However, the fact that these debates are being sparked is a victory in itself.
It is not the job of a musical to tell people what to think about race. Or history. Or anything. Hamilton is successful because it is exceptionally entertaining, and the fact it raises important issues is a bonus.
Millions of people like myself will have finished watching Hamilton and then researched more into the issues it raises. Although the show could do more to engage with them directly, it has resulted in more people being educated enough to have the debate.
The non-white casting has unearthed some tremendous talents and provided important representation for ethnic minorities. It also gives the show a new dimension to history. However, it is not revolutionary.
Only people can be revolutionary. Miranda describes Hamilton as ‘America then, told by America now’. It is up to the world now to respond to our history in the light of the Black Lives Matter and #MeToo movements. It should not be remarkable for non-white voices to be heard in our history.
Hamilton is not revolutionary, but this debate could inspire a revolution. It is up to us to ‘fan this spark into a flame’. And we are not throwing away our shot.