Hamilton in the Summer of Trump
Broadway musicals are generally indifferent to the headlines of the day. (The years-long development process and play-it-safe material tends to preclude timely social relevance.)
But Hamilton, perhaps the most important new musical of the decade and a frequent headline itself, has something to tell us, now, as we embark on another grueling presidential election.
Hamilton is pretty much a perfect show for many reasons: its catchy musical mosaic of hip-hop, pop and classic musical theater; its poignant blending of the personal and the political; its epic scope, like an American Les Miserables, but with humor and a sense of irony.
But it is also the rare musical that feels as if it’s responding and contributing to its cultural moment. With presidential candidates fighting to one-up each other (or just top Donald Trump) in anti-immigrant rhetoric, Hamilton holds up the immigrant experience as a foundational pillar of our country.
“Immigrants: We get the job done,” a line spoken in the show, received a burst of applause at the performance I attended recently, and illustrates well the show's central theme of, and fervent salute to, the role of immigrants in building America.
Over the next 15 months, as we collectively discuss (or argue or fight) about the direction of our country, Hamilton, in not shying from political scandals (including Hamilton’s own infidelity) and partisan bickering, reminds us that these features have always been ingredients of campaigns.
But it also makes a case for rigorous intellectual debate on the role of financial institutions, involvement in foreign conflicts and the question of what makes an effective leader, as exemplified by the stubborn statesman Hamilton or the scheming, simmering Aaron Burr (the show’s narrator).
(There is romance in Hamilton, but the relationship between these rivals is the show's burning core. Though they disagree and trade barbs, they maintain a sense of respectful camaraderie. Of course, that ended in gunfire, which Americans still use to solve or express personal problems, and that incident, like all the recent shootings, delivers the punch of a tragedy that could have been avoided.)
Above all, Hamilton is about loyalty – to yourself, the people in your life, and to your country. Here, each holds equal weight. It is also a reminder of the privilege and responsibility of political engagement, and of the vulnerability and fallibility of our leaders.
Hamilton is a challenge to make political discourse nobler and the process more inclusive, as well as a warning of how the ego of individual men affects the trajectory of a nation, which feels like a direct rebuke to some of the 2016 Republican presidential candidates. It is, brilliantly, as much about our country now as it is about our country then.