Race, Slavery, and Colonial Era Musicals

The airing of the Hamildoc on PBS (which is only available until mid-November! If you haven’t watched it, hurry!) a few nights ago was received with the kind of joy which you’d expect. I was a little surprised at how much it aligned with the Hamiltome, and I was more than a little surprised at how many politicians – two presidents, the Speaker of the House, two Treasury secretaries, Elizabeth Warren, etc. – were brought on as talking heads. All in all, though, it’s a reasonably fun program, worth it for the clips of the show as well as Ron Chernow, who is the Shelby Foote of this short documentary.

Hamilton has very much entered something of a decline phase now that it has so completely saturated American pop culture. Much of the original cast has left the show, for one thing. We’ve also reached the phase where Hamilton fans have been annoying on the Internet and in the New York Times for a while, and the pushback from less fervent folk has been fairly strong. From the “greatest city in the world” anachronism which has  alienated non-New Yorkers (and as I understand, there are more people in the rest of the USA than there are in New York) to Lin-Manuel Miranda’s backing of Hillary Clinton, the left has soured some on Hamilton as a show and as an idea. The things that we thought were new and innovative – primarily casting people of color, using R&B and hip-hop as the major vehicles of a musical – have gotten old simply by the fact that it’s no longer 2015. Some of that criticism hits, albeit with qualifiers. For example, I think even Miranda’s biggest fans would acknowledge that he can be plain corny; whether that’s primarily endearing or primarily off-putting is a personality litmus test. If his show is pro-New York, it’s what one might expect from a guy who’s lived there his whole life; Miranda’s point of view about the Big Apple is provincial in the same way that anyone’s point of view about a hometown they’ve never really left is provincial, but he just has a bigger microphone. (Yes, I think the “greatest city in the world” stuff is obnoxious. But that line of thought takes about five minutes, tops, in a musical that has something like 150 minutes of music.) And the show should not be taken for history; it has been meticulously researched, but I think we go too far in calling it historically accurate. Part of the criticism, I’m sure, stems from people who just didn’t like the musical (or don’t like any musical, which is, of course, a perfectly valid thing) and find it an easy punching bag in the way that the Internet makes everything you like a punching bag.

There is a criticism of Hamilton that’s come up since the Hamildoc that I find particularly interesting, though, probably because it has nothing to do with the musical’s popularity or its pop culture footprint. Why does Hamilton have so little to say about slavery?

Looking back through the lyrics, there’s about as much in there about how great New York is as there is about slavery. Slaves are mentioned in the first minute of the show: “And every day/While slaves were being slaughtered and carted away/Across the waves…” The character of John Laurens speaks up about the wrongs of slavery in most of his verses, although he’s absent from the second act because he’s dead by then. “The World Turned Upside Down” wonders about black and white people alike wondering “if this really means freedom.” There’s a pretty good putdown in “Cabinet Battle #1” about how Hamilton doesn’t need “a civics lesson from a slaver,” and how the new Southern states benefit financially from free labor in a way that the Northern states just didn’t; it comes not long after a sneaky Sally Hemings reference in “What’d I Miss?” In “Who Lives, Who Dies, Who Tells Your Story?” Eliza says: “I speak out against slavery/You could have done so much more if you only had time.” Offhand, that’s about it. Thomas Jefferson is vilified for being a slaveholder on more than one occasion; on the other hand, George Washington’s slaves never come up. Chris Jackson said in the Hamildoc, voicing over a scene where he visits the slave quarters at Mount Vernon, that it was hard for him to play a person who owned other people. It’s not something he’s made peace with. Daveed Diggs, who played Jefferson, takes the documentary’s line on the Founding Fathers: they did both good and bad things, and those good and bad things are equal parts of who they were as people. It’s an intelligent line to take, but it’s not one the musical follows very closely itself.

The point of all this is not to say that slavery needed to be the major issue of the play. It’s a difficult thing to bring into a contemporary work about the past, because people will want to know: where is slavery? how do we bring it into the musical? how much of our time do we need to allot to it so it’s not just a token, throwaway reference? and is there a way to talk about it that fits the rest of what we’re talking about? This isn’t a perfect reference, but in Parade, there’s one song which comes from the point of view of African-Americans in early 1900s Georgia. It’s not a bad song, but the musical isn’t about Jim Crow. And yet Jason Robert Brown could hardly have excluded it; was he going to tell a story in Jim Crow times, just a few miles from the Gateway to the South, where the only black characters are a night watchman and the guy who got away with raping and murdering a white preteen? It’s unthinkable, but Brown dug himself in a hole as soon as he chose Leo Frank as a topic. As far as I can tell, there’s no good way to balance the two in that show. In Hamilton, it’s not much better. Should there have been more scenes at Monticello? Should the fact that George Washington’s private fortune was built on slavery have been mentioned? Should Cato, a slave who was instrumental in Hercules Mulligan’s spying at Yorktown, been involved? All of those, goodness knows, would have been welcome additions. Would they have made it a better show, or just a more aware show? I have no clue.

Hamilton primarily attempted to bring race positively into the show – and famously, as it turns out – by casting actors of color for virtually every important part. (Jonathan Groff’s King George III is the exception for the original Broadway cast.) And I think that’s a key to the show, a non-diagetic element that has made a great deal of difference. Broadway is so white, and this show is so not. It’s changed how we think of the foundation of America, and who was involved in the first place: it was not just white men who fought and died for the early years of the country. (Surprisingly, the Hamildoc falls over itself to discuss the Founding Fathers at the expense of women like Abigail Adams and Dolley Madison, who pop up in a picture for 30 seconds; characters like Eliza Hamilton and Angelica Schuyler Church are almost completely elided from the documentary despite being huge forces in the show.)

At the same time, I’m not sure that Hamilton can claim to have done much with slavery. As I pointed out in March of this year, however, there is a musical about the Founding Fathers which is deeply interested in slavery. As I said then about 1776:

1776 doesn’t address it [slavery] as consistently, but it dominates the last fifteen to twenty minutes of the play; if we’re honest, 1776 as a play is more concerned with the topic of slavery than Hamilton is.

Hamilton has a clear point for a dramatic ending, and it’s in Weehawken when Aaron Burr kills Alexander Hamilton in a duel. 1776 has a clear point, too: the signing of the Declaration of Independence by the present members of the Second Continental Congress. The way that Sherman Edwards drew up the play, the debate over whether or not to include slavery as one of the offenses of King George very nearly tears the Congress apart. In the show’s most stirring number, “Molasses to Rum” (apologies to “Momma Look Sharp”), Edward Rutledge of South Carolina not only defends slavery as an institution but implicates New England’s role – rightly! – in the Triangular Trade. As high-minded as John Adams or Benjamin Franklin would like to be, neither one of them can escape the facts of Rutledge’s sensational monologue: if slavery is a sin, it is not one that you can absolve yourself of. Adams caves, slavery is stricken from the Declaration, and American history is never the same. That worry is carried over in the play’s surprisingly dark ending. Bells toll as the men come up to sign the Declaration. The laughter which characterizes the first act of 1776 is nowhere to be heard in those final moments, as people like John Adams and Ben Franklin – and Thomas Jefferson, who says lies earlier, “I have already resolved to free my slaves” – sign their names to a document which tacitly approves slavery.

To my knowledge, there’s no moment in Alexander Hamilton’s life which so dramatically brings slavery into his story, and certainly not one so near the end of his story. 1776 has it, and remarkably, seizes hold of that moment. For twenty minutes and more, slavery is the primary focus of the play, and the stakes attached to slavery are the stakes of the play. There’s not a black person in 1776, at least not in the original cast or in the movie from the ’70s. I wouldn’t say that 1776 is more sensitive to race than Hamilton. But I would argue that 1776 is much more interested in the effect of slavery on the fledgling American republic than Hamilton is. This does not make 1776 a better show than Hamilton; I can only think of one person I know who would make that case. It just means they have different focuses, and they are entitled to those focuses and to cracks in the fresco which result.

I think there’s a growing movement in the way in which we criticize artistic texts – TV, poetry, film, musicals, novels – where if they don’t adequately address some social issues (both past and present), they are somehow reductive or ignorant or missing the point. I think we need to be extremely careful about how far we want to take that point of view. From my perspective, I wonder if we aren’t starting every text off with a score of 100 and taking points off for not being sensitive enough to this or that, rather than beginning with a score of 0 and adding points for what it’s done well. This is hardly the same issue as something like representation, for example; of course there should be more room and more opportunity for TV shows by and about African-Americans or novels written by and about Asian-Americans or movies by and about Hispanic Americans. But when we try to pressure every text to be about something which it’s not, we risk watering down what is, in fact, already there and already laudable in a text. Hamilton is, by virtue of what we see on stage, ahead on the idea of race, and by virtue of what we don’t hear, behind on slavery. It’s a boring conclusion, but it seems about right to me: Hamilton’s outlook on slavery neither raises the standard of the play nor diminishes it. What we’re most frustrated with more than anything else, I think, is what appears to be a missed opportunity. Lin-Manuel Miranda and company, from Alex Lacamoire to Andy Blankenbuehler, obviously recognize the importance of race to the American experience. It seems to follow that their thoughts on slavery would have been just as important, and it’s cause for regret that we can’t more fully appreciate their acuity.

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