‘Hamilton’ and the sound of dissent
It’s pretty much beyond dispute that Lin-Manuel Miranda’s “Hamilton’’ is the definitive musical of our time, a remarkable consensus given that its triumph has unfolded in a polarized environment where almost nothing is beyond dispute.
Miranda’s artistry is obviously central to the show’s epic popularity, but another part of what makes “Hamilton’’ such a consequential achievement is that in four short years it has shown an ability to resonate in an entirely different way as the political context has shifted. Even though the show has remained the same, its message — or, more precisely, the way it is received — has changed.
In the Obama era, the “Hamilton’’ phenomenon meant one thing; now, in the Trump era, it means quite another thing. Perhaps that’s one yardstick by which to measure creative accomplishment: that, like Shakespeare’s plays, a work of greatness always feels timely, always has something urgent to say, no matter when it is performed.
With performances of “Hamilton’’ slated to begin Tuesday at the Boston Opera House, it’s worth tracing the show’s transformation from emblem of celebration to de facto vehicle of protest, as manifested in the relationships — one sunny, one stormy — that this game-changing musical and its gifted, passionate creator have had with successive occupants of the Oval Office.
When it premiered in early 2015 with a cast of African-American and Latino actors portraying the Founding Fathers — including Miranda, the son of Puerto Rican parents, as Alexander Hamilton — “Hamilton’’ registered as both a reflection and an affirmation of the nation’s increasing racial diversity and multiculturalism. Not unlike the presidency of Barack Obama.
In fact, the “Hamilton’’-Obama connection could be traced back six years earlier. Invited to a White House poetry and music event in May 2009, Miranda did not throw away his shot (to borrow a phrase) but seized the opportunity to give the first public performanceof a song from what he then described as a hip-hop concept album about the orphaned outsider from the Caribbean who rose to become the nation’s first treasury secretary.
That song would eventually become “Alexander Hamilton,’’ the opening number of a musical that would both depict and make history. Miranda’s audience that day in the East Room included a clearly delighted President Obama and first lady Michelle Obama.
It’s not hard to imagine the cerebral, disciplined President Obama — whose father disappeared from his life when he was young, who was raised by a single mother and overcame steep odds to become the first African-American president — feeling some kinship with the figure Miranda was describing in song as “the 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.’’ When Miranda was done performing, Obama rose to his feet to lead a standing ovation.
Years later, the Obamas would see “Hamilton’’ on Broadway (Michelle Obama also caught it during its off-Broadway run at the Public Theater). In early 2016, the then-first lady invited Miranda back to the White House, along with the entire cast of “Hamilton,’’ and described the musical as “the best piece of art in any form that I have ever seen in my life.’’
Donald J. Trump has been considerably less inclined to applaud “Hamilton’’ or toss laurels its way — and the feeling has been entirely mutual. Indeed, though its creation predates the Trump administration, Miranda’s musical can be seen as the foremost theatrical symbol of “the resistance.’’ Night after night, before thousands of spectators on Broadway, in Chicago, and in the touring production that is now in Boston, “Hamilton’’ supplies a reminder that the United States is a nation of immigrants. The musical provides a louder, not to mention more tuneful, voice of opposition to Trump’s immigration policies than any elected official you can name.
Moreover, it means something that at a time when the top elected official in the country has been accused of seeking to sow racial division, the most popular musical in the land — one that tells the story of its founding — showcases an overwhelmingly nonwhite cast.
Miranda and Trump are both New Yorkers, but that is where the similarities end. Trump grew up in Queens, the son of a wealthy real estate developer, and made his fortune in Manhattan. Miranda, whose parents came to New York from Puerto Rico, was raised in the Inwood section of Manhattan, not far from the Washington Heights neighborhood that inspired the Tony-winning 2008 musical that made his reputation, “In the Heights.’’
In a small but telling portent of things to come, the young Miranda tweaked Trump in a song from “In the Heights’’ titled “96,000.’’ An ambitious taxi dispatcher fantasizes about winning the lottery, using the winnings to attend business school, and becoming such a financial success that a certain dream becomes reality: “Donald Trump and I on the links, and he’s my caddy!’’
But Miranda was destined to level much sharper critiques at Trump — at first obliquely, then directly.
Trump launched his campaign for the Republican nomination in June 2015 with an attack on Mexican immigrants, saying: “They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists. And some, I assume, are good people.’’ His candidacy quickly gathered steam, and in the new Trumpian context, certain lines from “Hamilton’’ began to reverberate in a different way.
A line from that opening number Miranda had sung in 2009 before the Obamas, extolling Hamilton as “another immigrant comin’ up from the bottom,’’ now registered as a defiant response to Trump. Cheers began to erupt at each performance on Broadway when Miranda, as Hamilton, and the actor Daveed Diggs, playing the Marquis de Lafayette, celebrated their partnership by simultaneously proclaiming: “Immigrants: We get the job done!’’
After Trump won the presidency, the clash between him and “Hamilton’’ grew much more overt. In November 2016, vice president-elect Mike Pence attended a performance of “Hamilton.’’ As he was leaving, the actor Brandon Victor Dixon, who played Aaron Burr, addressed him from the stage, flanked by other members of the cast. After thanking Pence for attending, Dixon said, in a statement written by Miranda along with the show’s director and producer, plus contributions from cast members: “We, sir, we are the diverse America who are alarmed and anxious that your new administration will not protect us, our planet, our children, our parents, or defend us and uphold our inalienable rights, sir. But we truly hope this show has inspired you to uphold our American values and work on behalf of all of us. All of us.’’
Pence listened to the remarks without responding and was photographed smiling as he departed the Richard Rodgers Theatre. But Trump immediately lashed out on Twitter, declaring that Pence had been “harassed’’ by the “very rude’’ cast of “Hamilton,’’ adding: “Apologize!’’ It was an early illustration of Trump’s appetite for revving up his base by wading into culture wars, such as his attacks on NFL players who knelt during the national anthem.
The antagonism between Miranda and Trump was rekindled last fall, after the president assailed San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulin Cruz with a series of tweets sent from his golf club in Bedminster, N.J., as the mayor was struggling to help her city recover from Hurricane Maria. Miranda wasted no time blasting the president on Twitter, writing. “You’re going straight to hell, @realDonaldTrump. No long lines for you. Someone will say ‘Right this way, sir.’ They’ll clear a path.’’ In scorching follow-up tweets, Miranda added: “[Cruz] has been working 24/7. You have been GOLFING. . . . Did you tweet this one from the first hole, 18th hole, or the club? Anyway, it’s a lie. You’re a congenital liar.’’
It’s decidedly rare for a Broadway musical to be in ongoing conversation with a presidency, whether pro or con. The most famous example, of course, is Lerner and Loewe’s “Camelot.’’ After John F. Kennedy was assassinated in 1963, his widow, Jacqueline Kennedy, told journalist Theodore H. White that JFK liked to listen to the “Camelot’’ cast album at night, thereby providing history with a defining image and a shorthand description for Kennedy’s tenure. JFK’s favorite lines from the musical, she told White, were: “Don’t let it be forgot/That once there was a spot/For one brief shining moment that was known as Camelot.’’
The problem for Donald Trump is that “Hamilton’s’’ moment will not be brief. It’s likely to run forever. To paraphrase the famous aphorism attributed to Hippocrates: Art is long, presidencies are short.