It may not be an infamous duel, but some critics are taking their shots at the renewed popularity of the musical “Hamilton.”
With a staged production of the mega-popular show now streaming on Disney+, there is a fresh effort to look at the musical’s portrayal of the Founding Fathers and their complicated history with slavery – especially now with Black Lives Matter being such a large part of the national conversation and more eyes on “Hamilton” than ever before.
“Hamilton” creator Lin-Manuel Miranda even admitted that “all the criticisms are valid” on Twitter Monday. “The sheer tonnage of complexities & failings of these people I couldn’t get. Or wrestled with but cut. I took 6 years and fit as much as I could in a 2.5 hour musical. Did my best. It’s all fair game.”
Miranda’s tweet was in response to a series of missives by writer Tracy Clayton, host of Netflix’s “Strong Black Legends” podcast, saying he appreciated “so much” that Clayton she was giving nuance to the conflicted political environment that “Hamilton” lands in today. She pointed out that “Hamilton” the play – which premiered in 2015 during the Obama administration – and the new movie “were given to us in two different worlds” and called the “willingness” to debate “a clear sign of change.”
In the musical, Alexander Hamilton (Miranda) takes a jab at Thomas Jefferson (Daveed Diggs) for having slaves at his Monticello home during a Cabinet meeting/rap battle: “A civics lesson from a slaver, hey neighbor/Your debts are paid ’cause you don’t pay for labor.” Historically, Hamilton wasn’t known to have kept slaves but he bought and sold those working for his wife’s family, the Schuylers. “He was not an abolitionist,” Harvard history professor Annette Gordon-Reed said in 2016.
One cut song from the musical, a third Cabinet rap battle that’s included on “The Hamilton Mixtape,” finds Hamilton and Jefferson debating ending the African slave trade. Hamilton argues for emancipation, and George Washington ends with the line, “Let’s hope the next generation thinks of something better.” “I had Ham, Madison and Jefferson go in on slavery,” Miranda tweeted in 2016, but said the song was nixed for time “because none of them ended it.”
The criticism around the musical has bubbled over the years as it became a Broadway sensation that won 11 Tonys. Author Ishmael Reed collected his thoughts on “Hamilton” and its creator into a play, “The Haunting of Lin-Manuel Miranda” (partially funded by the late Toni Morrison). In an interview with the Associated Press last year, Louisiana State University history professor – and Aaron Burr biographer – Nancy Isenberg called the musical “a fictional rewrite of Hamilton. You can’t pick the history facts that you want.”
On Friday, writer Roxane Gay tweeted that she had some issues with how “Hamilton” “idealizes the founders, and how such a brilliant musical dangerously elides (their) realities of slavery.” Gay also is not a fan of a moment with Sally Hemings, a slave with whom Thomas Jefferson had a sexual relationship, “played for laughs” in the musical. But she gave kudos to Leslie Odom Jr. and raved that “it’s a brilliant show. … It’s not some vulnerable upstart. The show can handle critical engagement and the performances and book and music will still be absolutely incredible.”
In the Twitter thread Miranda responded to, Clayton, who copped to being “a high ranking priestess in the church of Hamilton,” said she “would have appreciated more context” about the real-life Founding Father’s involvement with slavery, “but to lump it in” with the current controversy of what to do with statues of historical figures like Christopher Columbus and Robert E. Lee “denies this conversation the nuance it deserves (and) we’re capable of giving it that.
“Navigating history and historical figures is hard and messy. Humans are flawed and messy, both the ones who lived then (and) the ones reading and writing about them now.”