liz writes stuff down

What’s in, what’s out, how it tells your story, and failing to parallel Hamilton’s subversive structure

Content warning: rape, anti-abortion rhetoric

On June 26, I left Richard Rodgers Theatre with an embarrassingly big grin - after all, I had just experienced Hamilton. Like many others, I'd listened to the soundtrack many times before even acquiring tickets to the musical, and I'd heard praises for the costumes, the acting, the staging from my friends who had already seen it. It lived up to the hype.

That giant smile wasn't primarily about performance, but about the racial subversion that underscores the story. Lin-Manuel Miranda painstakingly researched Alexander Hamilton's life to create a transformative work (read: fanfic) that bent race to elevate those who were left out of the formation of my country despite the reality that the oppression of people of color was integral to its creation.

Of course, not everyone got that, but none missed it as poorly for me as Alex Nichols complaining that Miranda's choices "ducked the question of slavery". So when Todd VanDerWerff replied that "it's not a work that tries to excuse Alexander Hamilton’s failure[1] to do anything substantive about slavery" but a "rumination to make a better story", I smiled because someone directly responded to Nichols's criticisms with Hamilton's transformative nature.[2] VanDerWerff speaks to how Hamilton's "story about stories" presented a platform to stories too often robbed of that platform and describes how Miranda picked what to include and what to exclude didn't remove slavery from the narrative - "the story that seemed like the most important one" didn't have to be the most important one - but ultimately I think he missed the point in a way that left me feeling sour.

VanDerWerff draws parallels between the circumstances of his birth - namely his mother possibly being raped by his father and her choosing not to get an abortion - and his father's story to Miranda's approach to Hamilton, but where Miranda's choices change the common narrative of our society, VanDerWerff's continue it.

Miranda chooses not to linger on the Founding Fathers' tacit acceptance of slavery, but that decision wasn't one that meant Hamilton sanctioned slavery. Unlike with Miranda's swift exclusion of slavery, VanDerWerff lingers on never getting his father's side of the story, how he chooses to "never, ever call his father a rapist". Miranda approaches the inexcusable exclusion of people of color from having a say in the conception of the United States subversively, but VanDerWerff continues the status quo by repeating the need for the (usually male) rapist to condemn himself instead of pausing to deeply reflect on the woman victim's story. I do not begin to think it would be easy to think that someone related to you so closely could be guilty of the terrible act of rape, but he could have dropped the subject just as easily as Miranda did the details of slavery in Hamilton instead of repeatedly circling back to the night in question. VanDerWerff could have written the untold story of his father instead of continuing an often told story that damages women.

Inspired by the series of accidents surrounding Alexander Hamilton's involvement in the American Revolution, VanDerWerff discusses the happenstance of his mother's choice not to get an abortion. I agree with his insight that "We are, all of us, accidents, in a sense" like Hamilton. But Miranda's Hamilton subversively focuses on accidents surrounding an immigrant in a time where immigrants are systematically denied the respect they deserve[3], while VanDerWerff plays up the dominant narrative that not getting an abortion ushers joy into a mother's life[4] - the same narrative prioritizes the possibility of a dependent fetus becoming a child that is incorrectly used to pressure a woman out of considering the needs of her own life and body, the story used to pressure women out of getting abortions. It's the same story that incites violence against the women who exercise their right to one despite that undue pressure.

The beauty of Hamilton lies in using catchy beats and phrases to help us think critically about the world we live in, to think about how it could be better by including people of color, respecting immigrants, and praising the works of marginalized groups. Hamilton works specifically because it focuses on important things missing from the narrative we're overwhelmingly taught - instead of picking pieces from the narrative in a way that highlights already common, and damaging, beliefs like VanDerWerff's article.

[1] and the failure of the other Founding Fathers, too.
[2] I also jumped for joy because someone found beautiful, cohesive words that embody my feelings on how Eliza deserved the final number.
[3] Hamilton certainly was when John Adams called him "creole bastard" despite all the Founding Fathers being recent immigrants to America.
[4] and I don't doubt for a second that his existence in his mother's life and the world at large are treasures

Many thanks to Jacky Chang and Geoffrey Thomas for reviewing my drafts.