In one of “Hamilton’s” most resonant refrains the title character sings: “Let me tell you what I wish I’d known, when I was young and dreamed of glory; You have no control: Who lives, who dies, who tells your story.”
Alexander Hamilton indeed had no control over his historical narrative — both back when it was originally written and when it was reinterpreted by Lin-Manuel Miranda, creator and star of “Hamilton.”
But it turns out in terms of timing, and more important, impressions of his hit musical, Miranda lost at least a little bit of control over his story, too.
Like nearly everything, the pandemic upended the planned “Hamilton” release date. So instead of cineplexes in 2021 it debuted on a streaming service, Disney Plus, over the July 4th holiday weekend. The thematic tie to Independence Day (and a break from the lack of independence due to COVID confinement) made the change work. Whether the smash suffered a hit is unknown. Ratings weren’t released, but Disney Plus download data was, and it reported a 74% jump compared to the average of the previous four weekends in the U.S.
Whether “Hamilton’s” cultural impact was a wave or a streaming-service ripple isn’t quantifiable. But the shift from big screen to small screen is, and it’s a big deal for Hollywood, which has built its business with big-event Marvel movies or other films with built-in audiences — like “Hamilton.”
And yet “by 2021 the whole model may be threatened,” said Jonathan Kuntz, a professor at UCLA School of Theater, Film and Television, who said that streaming video and the virus were “two body blows to the traditional Hollywood model.” No one knows if that model is “dead or not,” Kuntz continued. “Does the next generation want to go out to theaters in a quantity enough to support theatrical films? And will there be theaters?”
If not, what constitutes a cultural moment, at least to the degree that it can be quantified, may change. Box office tallies seem to count more than critical acclaim (until the Academy Awards, that is). On that metric, “Hamilton” was a hit on Disney Plus, just as it was on Broadway, even if the entertaining take on the era wasn’t altogether accurate, according to historians.
But that tracks with how history is presented in culture. “It is important to keep in mind that popular American storytelling media functions to displace history into myth,” Carol Donelan, professor of Cinema and Media Studies at Carleton College, said via e-mail. “Instead, what is represented on stage and screen has more to do with the need of the culture to work through problems in a particular moment, typically having to do with inequalities or injustices in the culture, rooted in differences of race, gender, or sexuality.”
America is having a particular moment.
And it’s got plenty of problems to work through — including the process of working through them.
That much was apparent this week when an artifact that Hamilton would have appreciated — an open letter titled “A Letter on Justice and Open Debate” — was published by Harper’s Magazine. Among the 153 John Hancocks on it were influential intellectuals and artists who stated, among other things, that the “free exchange of information and ideas, the lifeblood of a liberal society, is daily becoming more constricted. While we have come to expect this on the radical right, censoriousness is also spreading in our own culture: an intolerance of opposing views, a vogue for public shaming and ostracism, and the tendency to dissolve complex policy issues in a blinding moral certainty.”
Miranda and his hit musical-turned-movie haven’t been the main target of this so-called “cancel culture.” But “Hamilton,” and Hamilton, haven’t been spared, either.
And just like Hamilton in his day, Miranda admirably didn’t dodge the current controversy, but acknowledged it by responding to one specific critical tweet by writing, “All the criticisms are valid. 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.”
That’s the same sense one gets from some who could be the cruelest critics: historians. While many have identified inaccuracies, in general they’ve been genial, especially since they recognize the role popular culture plays in sparking interest in history.
“Events like ‘Hamilton’ are hugely important,” said Jason Herbert, a doctoral candidate in history at the University of Minnesota. “They draw people to ask more questions. We have some phenomenal scholars doing some phenomenal work, but most people engage in the past through popular media.”
Including Herbert, creator of Historians at the Movies, an online watch party that had more than 6,000 chirping in on Twitter during the “Hamilton” event.
For the most part, Herbert said the response was “overwhelmingly positive.” The musical/movie “helps us understand who we are as a nation, where we come from,” Herbert said. “ ‘Hamilton’ doesn’t speak to the identities of every person, but it does speak to a very large part of America’s national story.”
And not just in the past, but in 2015, when the premiere of “Hamilton” was seen as a coda to the more optimistic Obama era, and in 2020, where it’s seen as a corresponding coda to the tumult of the Trump era. So the healthy, albeit heated, debate over how America’s origin story impacts the present and future U.S. has also included “Hamilton.”
“Our interpretation of history is constantly changing,” said Associate Prof. Katharine Gerbner, who teaches the subject at the University of Minnesota. “A lot of people think of history as the study of dead things, dead facts, and that’s actually the opposite of the truth. It’s a constantly evolving reckoning with the past and to an extent the present. … So I think you see that in the shift in the way ‘Hamilton’ is perceived.”
And this “constantly evolving reckoning” means Manuel’s reinterpretation of Ron Chernow’s bestselling biography of Hamilton is itself being reinterpreted. “The responses we’ve been seeing now is, ‘yes, this is a diverse cast and yes, it’s an exciting revision of the founding period, but at the same time it goes easy on enslavers in some ways,’ ” Gerbner said. “So I think that there are legitimate questions about ‘Hamilton’ that are coming up now in the wake of the uprisings that are really good for people to think about, because the stories we tell ourselves about our founding tell us about our values today.”
In other words — Miranda’s, to be exact — regarding Hamilton the man and the musical, “History has its eyes on you.” But as today’s debate shows, what it sees depends on the current context.
John Rash is a Star Tribune editorial writer and columnist. The Rash Report can be heard at 8:10 a.m. Fridays on WCCO Radio, 830-AM. On Twitter: @rashreport.