Hamilton and the Irony of the “People’s Musical”

From left to right: Daveed Diggs, Okieriete Onaodowan, Anthony Ramos, and Lin-Manuel Miranda

“Hamilton” is the hip-hop musical sensation about the life of Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton. One of the most successful musicals of all time, “Hamilton” has a distinctively young flavour to it: from its hip-hop music, to its portrayal of the Founding Fathers as fiery rebels, to lyrics calling the revolutionaries “young, scrappy, and hungry,” “Hamilton” sets itself up as a musical about and for the common people, those downtrodden and discontent and aching for revolution.

It also had tickets sold at a value of $15,000.

“Hamilton” is revolutionary in many ways: first is its usage of hip-hop, R&B, pop music, and traditional show tunes. Second is its casting of people-of-colour as white historical figures during the American War of Independence. Third is its meteoric rise in popularity, with its Original Broadway Cast album reaching triple platinum and becoming one of the top five best-selling musical albums of all time.

Despite this, “Hamilton” very much remains a Broadway show, and all that Broadway entails. Specifically, high-demand productions with low supply and accessibility. Broadway theatre can only be viewed live: no videos are available to the public and it is forbidden for audiences to record the shows. This leads to an incredibly competitive market with high prices, which then mean that most Broadway shows can only ever be watched by the upper class who can afford them. While a lottery system for tickets exists, the number of lottery winners vary for every showing, and see over 10,000 entrants.

This means that Broadway productions must cater to the tastes predominantly of the elite upper classes, as this is their predominant market. It’s quite telling that the first massively successful hip-hop musical focuses on the formation of the United States and, despite the casting, all principal characters are white landowners.

Creator Lin-Manuel Miranda stated in an interview with Rolling Stone that Alexander Hamilton’s rise from poverty on the power of his writing drew parallels to the lives of many American rappers, who likewise found fame and fortune based on their music. Several songs often borrow from and/or pay homage to rap music, such as “Ten Duel Commandments” and its similarities to “Ten Crack Commandments” by the Notorious B.I.G.

However, rap music was and is often a source of controversy; lyrics from raps have been used by prosecutors in courts of law as evidence against their originators. In 2015, rapper Killer Mike said in an interview with Huffington Post that this practice is used to criminalise black men, and that it showed that “Jim Crow is very much alive.” This discrimination is offered as proof that the larger system is still prejudiced against black people and black music.

The sensitiveness of the larger narrative around hip hop can be seen in “Hamilton”: while it takes steps to promote minorities, and speaks to the revolutionary nature of the Founding Fathers, it does very little in actually criticising the established order and narrative surrounding the United States of America. The status quo familiar to the upper classes is never challenged.

Act I of “Hamilton” focuses on the War of Independence. It is here that much of the narrative of an equal-opportunity America is found. Early in Act I, John Laurens befriends Alexander Hamilton, the Marquis de Lafayette, and Hercules Mulligan, and speaks on his desire for the abolition of slavery, and how he plans to form a battalion of black soldiers. Later, Mulligan is lauded for his service as an American spy with the Sons of Liberty, but his slave, Cato, is absent from “Hamilton” and never mentioned, nor do Laurens and Mulligan ever conflict over slavery. The song “Yorktown (The World Turned Upside Down)” mentions “black and white soldiers” at the Battle of Yorktown, and questions if their victory “really means freedom,” but at the same time declares that “the American experiment begins”, further tying into the narrative of American Exceptionalism.

Act II of “Hamilton” focuses more on the formation of America, and raises questions on the establishment of the capital, and American involvement in the French Revolution. However, the play focuses more on the internal power struggles between Hamilton, Aaron Burr, Thomas Jefferson, and James Madison. Hamilton and Jefferson banter over the issue of slavery in “Cabinet Battle #1” but it rings hollow as the play never addresses that Hamilton himself was a slave-owner. The issue of slavery is never resolved either, as the play instead shifts the narrative to focus on Hamilton’s fall from grace and ultimately fatal conflict with Burr. In his final soliloquy, Hamilton declares America “his great unfinished symphony” and hails it as “a place where even orphan immigrants can leave their fingerprints and rise up,” echoing the self-made man of the American Dream.

This interaction between a theatre production and its elite customers is not new. Theatre director Augusto Boal discusses this conflict in his book “Theatre of the Oppressed.” Boal refers to it as “bourgeois theatre” or finished theatre: productions which cannot be too experimental or deviant from the status quo for fear of losing their upper class audience.

This has been seen previously with Broadway productions across multiple decades. Multiple musicals have presented themselves as the “People’s Musical” and addressing a restlessness in the public, but none are ultimately as revolutionary as they initially appear.

  • “Hair” in the ’60s was a product of hippie counterculture and sexual revolution, but reflects the displeasure with the Vietnam War common among the students in a time when colleges were largely attended only by those who could comfortably afford them
  • “Jesus Christ Superstar” in the ’70s was a rock opera and featured Judas Iscariot as the protagonist, but ultimately concedes to Christian doctrine.
  • “Les Misérables” in the ’80s romanticises student uprisings but simultaneously portrays the ordinary uneducated working-class as greedy and selfish.
  • “Rent” in the ’90s raises awareness for the AIDS crisis and the queer community, but is simultaneously reassuring of the artistic entitlement of the wealthy youth and conforms to the stereotype of bisexuals being promiscuous

“Hamilton” is much the same in this regard. It revitalises Broadway interest among the youth by aiming at the issues which are considered important to them (in this case, issues of race, immigrants, and minorities), but is reassuring of the core values of the wealthy patrons who form its primary demographic. The protagonist is “a bastard, orphan, son of a whore” who comes to “rise up” and make real the American Dream, while the majority of its audience are those affluent enough to afford the exorbitant prices.

An effort is being made to combat this. “Hamilton” will soon appear on West End in the UK from December 6, and its ticket prices start at £38 ($49) and go to a premium of £200 ($259) for the first booking period. Still pricey, but far more affordable, this accompanies a directive forbidding third-party sales and paperless ticketing, all in an effort to prevent the huge mark-ups that occur with ticket resales. Despite this, touts were reselling tickets at £3,000 ($3,900) mere hours after they were put on sale.

I love “Hamilton.” I know the songs by heart and think it is a fantastically written period piece. However, its entanglement with Broadway cannot be ignored, and the irony that accompanies it and its similar “People’s Musicals” must be addressed. Perhaps most telling of the dichotomy in “Hamilton” is one of its core themes: legacy. The musical poses the question of “Who Lives, Who Dies, Who Tells Your Story?” and wonders how narratives will be told and history remembered. For all of its pontificating, the answer is clear from the outset.

History is written by the winners. And in the case of Broadway, the winner is the person with the biggest purse.