Like thousands and thousands of others, I spent two-and-a-half hours on Friday night watching the streaming version of “Hamilton” on Disney+ with my family for the first time.
I was gobsmacked.
I had a hunch that I’d like it — I’m a fan of most musicals and, until recently, a regular theatergoer. But I surprised even myself. I didn’t like it, I loved it.
Lin-Manuel Miranda’s masterpiece was everything a terrific musical should be: stirring, witty, inspiring, anthemic, singable, quotable, dazzling. I’m only mad I didn’t make it a point to see it in the theater, and that I waited so long to add “You’ll Be Back” to my shower repertoire.
Because of COVID-19, art, like expensive Broadway musicals, feature films, even opera and art installations, is being delivered to our living rooms. That incredible democratization, even if by default and not design, is a great thing — but with it comes the increased scrutiny of a wider audience, and at a time when America is collectively reexamining nearly everything we’ve ever made over the course of our history.
In the case of “Hamilton,” the very recent history. Miranda’s musical is just five years old, and yet, through today’s eyes is rubbing some as insufficiently honest about the Founding Fathers’ roles in slavery.
It doesn’t avoid the issue — there are plenty of references to slavery throughout the musical. In one song, Hamilton raps scoldingly at Thomas Jefferson:
“Your debts are paid ’cause you don’t pay for labor/
We plant seeds in the South. We create. Yeah, keep ranting/
We know who’s really doing the planting.”
Nonetheless, some have criticized the glorification of George Washington, who himself owned slaves, and the non-acknowledgment that Hamilton was friends with and married into slave-owning families, leading of course to a #CancelHamilton trending topic on Twitter.
Miranda has responded to calls for its “cancellation,” or ex-communication from polite society, by politely admitting, “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.”
He’s right, of course. No art should be above criticism, and there are certainly ways to see “Hamilton” as glossing over that ugly history. But that’s also OK — it’s not the job of art to be honest.
The debates we’re having over Confederate statues, monuments, military bases and high schools are very different than any we might indulge over “Hamilton.” These memorials were meant to honor men we now roundly agree were in fact dishonorable, traitors and the losers of a war that tore our country apart. Our monuments must be reflective not only of the nation we once were, but the nation we strive to be. Because they are earnest reflections of our aspirations, they must be honest.
Art faces no such burden. Art can lie, it can cheat, it can steal. It can manipulate you, trick you, tease you. Some of the best art is uncomfortable, often offensive, and thought-provoking. Miranda’s musical is — and is allowed to be — all of those things.
Art is under no obligation to be complete, either. Even in the telling of true stories, requiring them to be consummate would be ludicrous, and turn works like “Evita,” “Miss Saigon” and “Les Miserables” into dreary, pedantic, didactic history lessons. Art is incomplete. Art is a collection of decisions. Art is versions.
Art, for the record, is also allowed to be “bad.” From Edgar Degas’ “Little Dancer,” which was detested by the French salons of the time, to Marcel Duchamp’s “Fountain,” excluded from the Society of Independent Artists inaugural exhibit, art need not be pleasing to anybody.
Finally, art is never finished. Miranda’s take on the Founding Fathers isn’t the first, nor should it be the last. There’s room for countless more takes. In this way, the debate over “Hamilton” and whether it covers slavery sufficiently opens the door for something new — a musical that tells that story instead. But leave this one alone.
S.E. Cupp is the host of “S.E. Cupp Unfiltered” on CNN.
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