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What does ‘Hamilton’ say about our moment in history?

“Hamilton” comes to Disney Plus on July 3. Is this the right moment for the musical to come to a wider audience than ever?

Lin-Manuel Miranda, center, and the cast of “Hamilton” perform at the Tony Awards at the Beacon Theatre on Sunday, June 12, 2016, in New York.
Lin-Manuel Miranda, center, and the cast of “Hamilton” perform at the Tony Awards at the Beacon Theatre on Sunday, June 12, 2016, in New York.
AP, Photo by Evan Agostini/Invision

“Hamilton,” the wildly popular Broadway musical that tells the life story of founding father Alexander Hamilton, comes to Disney Plus on July 3. And, though it wasn’t planned, it might be coming at the perfect moment.

“Hamilton” lyrics like “this is not a moment, it’s a movement” and “history has its eyes on you” have become popular in the last few weeks amid protests across the country over racial injustice. But the decision to bring “Hamilton” to Disney Plus — a move that will make the musical available to a wider audience than ever before — was made in reaction to the coronavirus pandemic, before protests began in May.

Still, whether planned or not, “Hamilton” is coming to a massive audience just as the show’s themes of race and revolution seem more timely than ever.

Lin-Manuel Miranda, the show’s creator, has said he is not surprised at the way “Hamilton” has continued to find new relevance.

“When you write a musical that brushes against sort of the origins of this country, it’s always going to be relevant,” Miranda told NPR earlier this week. “The fights we had at the (country’s) origin are the fights we’re still having.”

When “Hamilton” makes its Disney Plus debut on Friday, viewers can decide for themselves how much the musical about the founding of the United States has to say about the state of the country today. How relevant is “Hamilton” to our country’s current situation? Is it the musical of our historical moment?

‘Hamilton’ and revolution

Writer and activist Rachel Cargle started a conversation about “Hamilton” lyrics on Twitter in early June, inviting her followers to share their favorite lyrics that they felt applied to the present moment.

Cargle suggested a line from the song “The Schuyler Sisters”: “Look around, look around at how lucky we are to be alive right now! The revolution’s happening ...”

Her tweet received over 9,000 likes and dozens of replies, with Miranda himself even weighing in on the debate. Others responded with lines like “we’ll never be truly free until those in bondage have the same rights as you and me” and “revolution is messy but now is the time to stand.”

Revolution is a theme of “Hamilton” — much of the first act of the musical is set during the American Revolution and follows Hamilton fighting alongside George Washington. While Hamilton is pro-revolution, the musical also weaves in other viewpoints and debate over whether the revolution is necessary.

In a tweet, Miranda referred to two lines from the song “Farmer, Refuted,” which displays the debate over the revolution. Samuel Seabury sings, “Chaos and bloodshed are not a solution,” to which Hamilton replies, “Chaos and bloodshed already haunt us.”

“The musical conveys very strongly the feeling of having history happen around you — of having a revolution break out in a society that isn’t prepared for it,” said Eric Hinderaker, a professor of early American history at the University of Utah, in an email to the Deseret News.

And that’s a feeling that seems to be striking a chord right now, as many people over the last few weeks have used these lyrics and many others to express their support for the Black Lives Matter movement.

Miranda said he was “proud” to see his lyrics used on protest signs, but not surprised, according to The Hollywood Reporter. Even though the story of the musical is set over 200 years ago, its connection to the country’s origin and founding continues to make it relevant.

“We’re never done with the past,” Miranda said, according to THR.

Diversity in ‘Hamilton’

Another factor that has caused “Hamilton” to feel relevant to our current climate is the diversity of the cast, according to Hinderaker.

Miranda, who originally took the role of Hamilton in the musical, is of Puerto Rican descent; of the original cast, many of the actors — including those in the roles of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and James Madison — are Black and Latino.

“It is a powerful statement to cast an African American actor to play Thomas Jefferson,” Hinderaker noted.

Daveed Diggs is Marquis de Lafayette, Okieriete Onaodowan is Hercules Mulligan, Lin-Manuel Miranda is Alexander Hamilton, Leslie Odom Jr. is Aaron Burr and Anthony Ramos is John Laurens in “Hamilton,” the filmed version of the original Broadway production. Aug. 6, 2020, marks 5 years since the musical opened on Broadway.
Daveed Diggs as the Marquis de Lafayette, Okiriete Onaodowan as Hercules Mulligan, Lin-Manuel Miranda as Alexander Hamilton, Leslie Odom Jr. as Aaron Burr and Anthony Ramos as John Laurens in “Hamilton,” the filmed version of the original Broadway production.
Disney+ Media Relations

“Hamilton” first came to the stage in 2015, when President Barack Obama was still in office. Obama was an early supporter of “Hamilton” and Miranda performed for him at the White House several times. In many ways, “Hamilton” reflects the time period of the Obama presidency.

“In the Obama era, casting African Americans as prominent political leaders mirrored contemporary reality,” said Hinderaker.

But the context of the show is “dramatically different” since Obama left office, according to Hinderaker, which is something that Miranda himself has also acknowledged.

“In the Obama era, some felt it was hopeful,” Miranda told NPR. “In the Trump era, some felt it was defiant.”

When Vice President Mike Pence attended the show in Washington, D.C., just days after the 2016 election, the cast read a statement at the end of the performance that asked him to “uphold our American values and to work on behalf of all of us,” The New York Times reported at the time.

“Immigrants, we get the job done” was a line from the show that was originally intended as a throwaway line, Miranda told The Associated Press. But he says the words have taken on new life under the Trump administration, and he expects the lyrics from the show to continue to take on new meanings in the future.

“Things hit differently than they did in the Obama administration,” said Miranda, according to AP. “And they’ll hit differently next year.”

What ‘Hamilton’ says about slavery

Despite the diversity that is seen onstage, some historians and activists contend that “Hamilton” does not do enough to grapple with slavery and other racial issues. And those issues are more prominent than ever in the midst of protests over racial injustice.

“Although it employs many African American actors, it depicts no African American characters,” Hinderaker pointed out. “And it overstates Hamilton’s anti-slavery sentiments.”

Slavery is mentioned in the musical, but some critics say it doesn’t go far enough. For example, though Jefferson is at one point criticized for owning slaves, the musical never mentions that Washington was also a slaveowner, according to The New York Times.

But despite the criticism he has received, Miranda has defended the way that slavery is addressed (or not addressed) in “Hamilton.”

“(Slavery) is in the third line of our show,” said Miranda in an interview with NPR. “It’s a system in which every character in our show is complicit in some way or another.”

When “Hamilton” comes to Disney Plus, it is impossible to say whether these issues will affect the way the musical resonates with new audiences.

“I don’t know if it goes far enough, or if the message of this musical will seem directly relevant to the present moment, when awareness of the deep racial divide in American history is more acute than ever,” said Hinderaker.

Will ‘Hamilton’ speak to new audiences?

In an oft-quoted line from the musical, Washington tells Hamilton, “You have no control who lives, who dies, who tells your story.” The idea of legacy — what a person leaves behind when they’re gone — is fundamental to the story of “Hamilton.”

In the few years since “Hamilton” debuted, the context of the show has changed depending on who is in the White House and the politics of the day. When it comes to Disney Plus and a larger audience than ever before, the musical’s context will likely change again. What sort of legacy will “Hamilton” leave? Will it continue to speak to audiences today in a country that’s in turmoil?

“If there’s any thesis about (‘Hamilton’) it’s everything that’s past is present,” Miranda told NPR.

That idea is evident in many ways in the musical, from its use of hip-hop as a way to express the political debates of the Founding Fathers, to its diverse casting. “Hamilton” invites viewers to look at the past in new and unique ways to change their view of the future.

“The show’s argument ... was that American history is an open book. Any of us should be able to write ourselves into it,” wrote The New York Times film critic A.O. Scott.

As protesters continue to use and reuse “Hamilton” lyrics and the nation debates old topics that have become new again, viewers can decide for themselves on July 3 whether the musical truly speaks to our moment today.