18 February, 2018

A Short Defense of the Musical Hamilton

Image Source
I am a fan of the musical Hamilton. My willingness to acclaim its merits is quite shameless, actually. This may strike some readers as odd, and perhaps strangely arbitrary. One of Hamilton’s main selling points is its casting of Hispanic and black leads to play historical figures who were in reality lily-white. As with the casting, so with the rest of the production. The entire play is an attempt to translate the events of the American revolution into the idiom of 21st century “inner city” America. But isn’t this just political correctness doing its thing? How can I celebrate this musical on the one hand while turning my nose down on most all attempts to “modernize” Shakespeare with 21st century settings, clothing, gender-swaps, and so forth, on the other?

My answer has to do with a distinction I see between history and heritage.

As a teenager I was a member of a small Mormon congregation in southern Minnesota. Every year, around the last week of November, this congregation would create a special display that would draw hundreds of people to our church house. We hosted what we described as “the largest nativity collection in Minnesota.” A living, breathing nativity scene would meet guests in the foyer (we would all take part—I once role-played a shepherd for several hours), but that was just an introduction to the real treat: hundreds and hundreds of little nativity scenes gathered from all over the world were displayed in the various rooms and halls of the church. Some were carved of wood, others of jade, and others from more ordinary stones. Some were welded from metal. Some were cast in plastic moulds. Each was unique. They all had a baby Jesus, of course, and a mother Mary, father Joseph, and so forth. But no two Marys looked alike. A close look at the scenes would show that each reflected the place that created it: the Peruvian nativity included a llama to witness the Christ-child’s birth, the scene from Kerala was ringed with palm trees, and the beautiful set from Japan showcased a Mary who was quite clearly Japanese. My favorite of the bunch was a small set from somewhere in Polynesia. It was long enough ago that I don’t quite remember the exact island it came from (in those days I lacked the knowledge to appreciate the distinction between objects made in Christchurch and in Apia anyway), but I remember the warmth that radiated out from this carefully carved Pacific rendition of the Christmas story.

I suppose it would be quite easy to pull the plug on all of this nonsense and fault each of those nativities as historical heresies. Christ was not born on a Pacific isle. No llamas were present to hear his first cries. His mother was not Japanese. But this objection rather misses the point. The story of Jesus Christ’s birth heralds glad tidings for all mankind. It claims to be the opening saga of the salvation and exaltation of every man, woman, and child who ever has or ever will live on the Earth. The Christmas story is not just a historical account—it is part of the Christian heritage, and this heritage is freely given, meant to be claimed by any living being with hope in Christ. Where they come from or what they look like does not matter. The story belongs to them. Each of those beautiful little nativity scenes was an affirmation of this truth. Christ may not have been Mexican, or Swedish, or Tahitian, but his message is no less meaningful to the people living in those countries than it was the Jews of the first millennium. These scenes testify a simple faith: this story is also our story!

The Christian story is not the only shared one.

The men who fought and died in the American revolution did so not only for themselves, but also for their posterity—indeed for the broader human race, whom they believed would be blessed by their vanguard fight for liberty. They justified their attempt at independence in radically universal language:
We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. — That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, — That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.
These are powerful things to claim—claims worth dying for. Yet the hope of those who signed that Declaration was not just that men would die for the vision it contains, but that men would live for it. Live we have. And with us lives this vision. The revolution waged to secure the future of these ideals has become a part of the common heritage of the American people. All Americans—no matter their sex, age, or race—have claim to this heritage. It exists to benefit us all.

Like those nativity scenes, Hamilton is an affirmation. “This story is also our story. We too claim these values.” It is true, the leading lights of the American revolution were not black or Hispanic. But if you have even the teeniest belief that the principles they fought for are as valuable to black and Hispanic Americans as they are to the rest of the country, then you must support this musical's aims. For the play is correct: the story is their story. This is America. The story belongs to all of us.