The first time watching “Hamilton,” it takes every bit of bandwidth to experience creator Lin-Manuel Miranda’s musical as the Broadway game-changer most every critic has agreed it is. The second time (and for a theater and political junkie more than once is required), it is hard to miss how a show about a Founding Father killed in a duel in 1804 is as contemporary as the next political debate.
Start with immigration – as presidential candidates from Donald Trump on have done this contentious cycle. When revolutionaries Alexander Hamilton and Marquis de Lafayette fight against the British monarchy and for colonial independence in “Hamilton,” their cheeky aside, “Immigrants: We get the job done,” stops the show. That’s not just because it acknowledges the role of Hamilton, born in the British West Indies, and Frenchman Lafayette in the creation of the United States of America. The dramatic pause and delayed laughter also is surely because of current debates about immigrants from Mexico, the Middle East and points around the world.
What has the role of immigrants been in the building of America, and should the country’s culture be a mosaic, a melting pot or something else? Laws since Hamilton’s time have opened and closed the border door, keeping the issue in perpetual play. The fact that the country was born during Hamilton’s time didn’t simplify the debate over who is and is not a citizen, as Native Americans – here before he and his friends and political foes arrived – didn’t qualify. For that, the early Americans had to wait until 1924.
In the 2016 presidential campaign, immigration reform is off the table for Republicans, and a Democratic administration’s stepped-up removal of those already given deportation orders has received push back from others in the party. Candidates are being examined for their own citizenship bona fides, with Texas Sen. Ted Cruz – Canadian-born to an American mother – being met with questions raised by Trump and others as well as analysis from law professors and armchair experts.
Cruz, with other candidates, has suggested legal ways to do away with the birthright citizenship of children born in the U.S. to undocumented immigrants. Considering his turn under the microscope, Cruz may wish he had never brought that subject up.
On to foreign policy, the subject of a “Hamilton” rap battle between the title character and Thomas Jefferson. President George Washington provides the setup: “France is on the verge of war with England, and do we provide aid and our troops to our French allies or do we stay out of it?” In Jefferson’s entreaty to “stand with our brothers as they fight against tyranny” versus Hamilton’s warning against “meddling in the middle of a military mess” can be heard echoes of debates over U.S. intervention in countries from Vietnam to Iraq to Libya to Syria – and that’s a very small sample. Jefferson does acknowledge that “revolution is messy.” On that all sides of the debate can agree.
Another rap battle takes on Secretary of the Treasury Hamilton’s plan to establish a national bank, and Secretary of State Jefferson’s opposition. At the show’s end, Jefferson judges Hamilton’s financial system “a work of genius – I couldn’t undo it if I tried,” though he admits. “I tried.” And as national debt has climbed, the role and size of government spending, the deficit and taxes have continued to divide Americans and spawn movements, such as the tea party. While national security for now has supplanted other issues in 2016, talk of the deficit hovers in the background.
Most of the historical men and women in “Hamilton” are portrayed by actors and actresses of color (not talking about you, King George). They convey the energy though not the complexion of those famous figures. It’s an intriguing contradiction highlighted onstage. Democracy and voting were limited, the franchise always guarded, won only after struggle – by women, minorities, the young and more. Settled? Never, as states from Ohio to Texas to North Carolina and across the country engage battles in the courts and on the ground over voting rights, reapportionment and redistricting.
Observers marveling at outrageous claims and harsh attacks among candidates in 2016 can see that political ambition as the lifeblood of the characters in the musical “Hamilton.” The sky-high stakes in the fight to be in “The Room Where It Happens,” as Aaron Burr sings, set the scene for revolutionary allies to become adversaries. Nothing – not even sex scandals, then and now – would be off the table. (“Hamilton” the play doesn’t shy away from portraying Hamilton the man, including his affair with Maria Reynolds, one that affected his personal life and derailed his political one.)
No one gives the modern touches of “Hamilton” a second thought. Ticket hopefuls continue to line up outside the Richard Rodgers Theatre in New York City. Perhaps one reason, aside from the music and dancing, is because events rooted in history could not be more contemporary – without the dueling pistols, one hopes.
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