There is a lot to love about Hamilton, but there is also a lot to critique. In her new book, Prof. Mary Jo Lodge examines how the Broadway smash “cherry-picked” the past
It’s not unheard of for historical Broadway shows to take creative license. Les Misérables, for example, places the French Revolution in 1832, when in fact it began with the storming of the Bastille in 1789. The musical 1776 would have you believe the Declaration of Independence was signed July 4, 1776. In reality, this important American event occurred on a day that receives less fanfare: August 2, 1776.
Nonetheless, these shows have been praised for teaching history—as has Hamilton.
It’s been nearly six years since Hamilton opened on Broadway, and a year since a live recording began streaming on Disney+, where it drew more than 2 million viewers in its first 10 days. In the half decade between, it opened stage productions around the globe and was lauded for teaching history to a nontraditional theater audience in the form of a hip-hop musical.
Playwright Lin-Manuel Miranda has said he tried to keep his production “as historically accurate as possible.” But in the book Dueling Grounds: Revolution and Revelation in the Musical Hamilton, Mary Jo Lodge, associate professor of theater, begs the question of whether Hamilton actually teaches history or instead celebrates heritage.
“Heritage is fictionalized history—or history selectively presented,” says Lodge. “Heritage, above all, celebrates history by presenting a not-necessarily-accurate view. Hamilton is not history. It’s something sort of like history.”
In Dueling Grounds, Lodge discusses how it’s not just the deviation from the historical record that makes Hamilton a heritage musical. It is also in the music itself. It is Hamilton’s finale, “Who Lives, Who Dies, Who Tells Your Story?” that allows the audience to feel greater empathy for the character of Hamilton and to accept the show as a preservation of Hamilton’s legacy, even if it’s historically inaccurate.
Lodge, who has seen the original Hamilton cast three times, still praises the entertainment value of the play.
“Hamilton does a lot of great and innovative things,” she says. “There’s a lot to like, and there’s a reason it speaks to so many people. We just wanted to make sure that while we celebrated those accomplishments, we were also looking at what it’s not doing in terms of being a teaching tool with not a lot of historical accuracy.”
Here, Lodge sets the record straight by identifying a few times Miranda took liberties: