Welcome to Season 2 of Lies Agreed Upon, the podcast that looks at how Hollywood uses history to talk about today.
I’m Lia Paradis.
And I’m Brian Crim.
In our first two episodes of the season, we looked at 4 tv series, all about the Revolutionary War.
In this episode, we’re still going to look at the American revolution but in an entirely different genre – the musical. We’re also going to travel a bit further back in time to appreciate the historical context of the first of our musicals – 1776, which was the Tony award winner for best musical in 1969, and then a 1972 movie with almost the same cast.
Then we’re going to look at Hamilton, which was first staged off-Broadway in 2015. It’s creator, Lin-Manuel Miranda, worked on it for years however, inspired by Ron Chernow’s 2004 biography. And it’s release on the Disney+ streaming platform in 2020 is what brings it under the definition required to be included in our podcast.
Musicals (and straight plays, for that matter) distill and convey complex ideas and arguments through more abstract and metaphorical means. We are, after all, agreeing to suspend disbelief and allow ourselves to be transported from the confines of a stage and a proscenium arch, to wherever the story takes us. And, with a musical, we also are willing to have this happen through song.
The artistic license and use of metaphor can be potent, and also telling, because the broad brushstrokes playwrights depend upon give us a window into the assumptions of the time. With this in mind, there are 3 lies agreed upon that underpin both 1776 and Hamilton – even though they seem so different and were created so many years apart:
First of all, we return to the myth of the noble, selfless and wise founding fathers. But here, more than with our other episodes, we really want to talk about what the danger is of that historical lie.
Secondly, that America’s success was built on the ideals of elite whites, instead of the labor of poor blacks and whites.
And finally, that America can now just sit back and congratulate itself on a job well done.
Pauline Kael – “What could be worse than a folk operetta about the signing of the Declaration of Independence? The movie version.”
1776, the movie, was released in 1972 and it was not the boffo box office hit the play had been three years earlier when it won the Tony for Best Musical. The music and lyrics were written by Sherman Edwards, inspired by the book by Peter Stone. Both the play and the film were directed by Peter H. Hunt. On Broadway, as in Hollywood, the late 60s and early 70s saw weird juxtapositions of old and new guard. For example, Oliver! won the Oscar for Best Picture in 1969, but it was sandwiched between In the Heat of the Night in 1968 and Midnight Cowboy in 1970. And on Broadway, in 1969, 1776 beat out Hair for Best Musical.
The plot is simple: the Founding Fathers are at the Continental Congress in Philadelphia, which ran from May 8 to July 4, 1776.. It’s hot. Everyone is dithering because it seems like a big deal to separate from Britain. John Adams is impatient to get things done but is so disliked he can’t persuade anyone. So Thomas Jefferson is recruited to write a declaration that everyone can be enthusiastic about. He does. There has to be a compromise about slavery to get the Southern vote. There is. It gets signed. The end.
The play and the movie both arrived during the Nixon administration. The play arrived on Broadway a year after the violence of 1968 – fueled by the 2 assassinations of King and Kennedy in the US, and by the Tet Offensive and the US response in Vietnam. Virtually everything except 2 songs are played for laughs or sentimentality – those that aren’t are about slavery and the young dying in a war for a cause they don’t fully understand.
A play that pokes fun at the founding fathers might have seemed a bit cheeky and subversive in its day, but when we put it in the broader context of other movies and plays from the era that were commenting on the state of the nation – Hair, and In the Heat of the Night were a couple mentioned earlier – the low-stakes light-hearted ribbing of 1776 comes across more as complacency and self-satisfaction. Perhaps the 3 years between the play and the movie are why it succeeded on Broadway but not in the cinema. More people’s feelings about the country had become complicated in that short span of time.
It is interesting to read the reviews for the play, which was much beloved and lauded by the finest critics of the day, and then turn to the film reviews. And it’s like . . . what happens when you put a camera on the stage? This review in the Guardian is pretty harsh, but par for the course when you look at film critics’ responses:
“Most history flicks feature at least two of the following elements: swordfights, explosions, gladiators, spies, pirates, cowboys, Nazis, heaving bosoms, cavalry charges, sex, intrigue, murder, torture, ridiculously large guns, and Henry VIII. Work out how to get all of those into one movie, and your fortune is made. The Second Continental Congress, landmark of world history though it was, featured none of them. It was a group of men sitting in a stuffy room in Philadelphia, arguing over details of policy. For six years. Not only have the makers of this film bravely attempted to turn this into popular entertainment, they have made it three hours long. And a musical. Possibly, this whole thing was some sort of money-losing stunt, like in The Producers.”
And I love this gem from Peter Hunt’s Guardian review since I had the same take hearing the songs for the first time:
“Abigail Adams beseeches her own husband to return to Boston: “Just tell the Congress to declare independency/Then sign your name, get out of there and/Hurry home to me/Our children all have dysentery.” Magnificent.
In the verdict section, Hunt leaves it at: “Far too long and mostly terrible, but hilarious.”
To be fair, I am not a fan of musicals and sort of dreaded doing this episode, but Lia made me eat my vegetables and I have a newfound respect for the genre. I even can appreciate 1776, harsh reviews aside, as a fascinating cultural artifact from a period of upheaval and, until recently, an unprecedented crisis in governance. Reading more about the play and actors like Howard Da Silva, who plays Ben Franklin, kept me interested and ready to expand my horizons a little bit.
Hamilton, in stark contrast to 1776, had the opposite historical context. The musical as a genre was also very different since 1776 debuted. Hamilton wasn’t the first Miranda musical to succeed on Broadway. He wrote the music and lyrics for In the Heights, which ran from 2008 to 2011 and also won the Tony for Best Musical (and which is out this summer as a movie that we hope has a better fate than the musical to movie we’ve just discussed). The incorporation of contemporary music styles – hip-hop, salsa – was confounding to some reviewers at the time but was built into the plot and location – the predominantly Hispanic Washington Heights neighborhood of NYC.
One of the most striking and disrupting things about Hamilton – which we’re so used to now that it’s worth reminding listeners about – is that a hip-hop musical about the Founding Fathers with a cast made up almost entirely of non-Caucasians had the potential to be an epic disaster or inadvertent comedic hit in exactly the same vein as Springtime for Hitler in The Producers.
But the play arrived in the last year of the Obama administration. This was a complicated time to be thinking about the principles that founded the nation and their legacies in contemporary America. A Black man was president, but there was a sharp increase in racist rhetoric and actions in reaction to that fact.
Democrats had won the White House 2 terms in a row with a Black president. But his policies were not particularly progressive, on immigration, on Guantanamo Bay, on a whole host of issues. And again – as we discussed before – Racist, deadly events like the murder of Michael Brown in Ferguson, MI and Trayvon Martin in Florida, and the 9 in the Emmaneul AME Church by Dylann Roof, all suggested little had really changed.
Finally – as as we explained in Episode 1, the Tea Party movement was recasting revolutionary era iconography for its own purposes, much of it tinged with white supremacist ideology. And, of course, the election of Donald Trump was widely understood to be the legacy of those earlier conservative trends. This is why Hamilton became so popular. As well as being a brilliant book, score and lyrics, it was also both a celebration of American ideals and a critique of the nation that hadn’t lived up to them. This is why it was such big new that the newly elected Vice President attended the show, and that, from the stage, the cast felt it was appropriate to castigate him about the newly imposed Muslim ban.
We’ll also be discussing the limitations of the play in terms of dealing with the role of Blacks in colonial America. But we can’t forget just how cataclysmic this moment is in the history of the representation of the Founding Fathers.
It was not a small thing to suddenly have this explosion in the popular culture of a musical in which Black men played George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, and the revolutionaries expressed their aspirations and frustrations through hip-hop. Those choices, in many ways, conveyed the rejection of established power structures in the 1770s and 1780s more effectively than anything else we’ve looked at in these episodes, maybe more than any artistic depiction ever has.
Here we have the moment when George Washington first appears on stage – a black man in Washington’s customary blue and white uniform strides from downstage to upstage center, to the fanfare of the chorus.
And I can tell you as someone who saw the show early on, the thrill of that cognitive dissonance – who you expect to see and who you see instead – is incredible.
Let’s break down each one individually and dig deeper into how each chooses to portray the Founding Fathers. We might as well go chronologically, so let’s start with 1776.
Our first lie agreed upon, extending back to the first episode on TV series, is that the founding fathers were noble, selfless and wise. I think the impression we get from 1776 is that these guys were ripe for parody, albeit in an affectionate manner. John Adams was abrasive (we know this), Ben Franklin was rather full of himself and had a dirty mind (we know this, too), and George Washington (who is never on screen), is sort of a humorless downer who can only deliver bad news. But it’s probably Thomas Jefferson who gets demystified the most. Played by the hunky Ken Howard, Jefferson has to be dragged kicking and screaming to his desk in order to write the Declaration. The only way he can cure his writer’s block is to get laid, so Adams and Franklin send for Martha Jefferson, an impossibly young Blythe Danner, but not before praising his “sexual combustibility.”
So you get it, lots of human frailty on display a la Gilbert and Sullivan to go along with some deeper cuts aimed at American conservatism, both the ideology and our institutions, and Richard Nixon’s presidency, which encompasses both the Broadway and film versions of 1776. Speaking of Nixon, he had a personal stake in tempering what I guess he imagined was going to be a popular film. Peter Hunt relates the following nugget in his 2010 review of the DVD release:
In the song Cool, Cool, Considerate Men, Pennsylvania delegate John Dickinson and his chorus of pompadoured Brit-loving conservatives sing about how the poor majority can be conned into supporting the privileges of the extremely wealthy. “Don’t forget that most men with nothing would rather protect the possibility of becoming rich than face the reality of being poor,” Dickinson snarls. It’s unexpectedly incisive, and one of the best moments of the movie (apart from the line about dysentery). It was so on point, in fact, that when this film was released in 1972, President Richard Nixon himself asked his friend Jack L Warner, the producer, to cut this song. Hunt notes it is restored for the DVD.
I find this remarkable, first for the continuity in American conservatism’s success with white working class voters. How often have political scientists noted the GOP’s often effective messaging that “you too can be rich if you turn your backs on labor and the old New Deal coalition . . .” Ronald Reagan certainly picked up this mantle from Nixon a decade later.
Behind all the frivolity and sexual innuendo of 1776 is the reality of a war tearing the country apart. Imagine the state of the country in 1969 through 1972 when the film was released. We might miss some of the references today, but I bet audiences then were hypersensitive to any allusion to the Vietnam war and free speech, no matter how dressed up they were in colonial garb. For example, the delegates are very aware of how putting their demands on paper is treason, defined by the crown, a move Dickinson is wary of and John Adams believes is absolutely necessary. In other words, free speech and protest is threatened by a criminal executive authority. Moderates want to back down, rebels want to double down.
The fighting in Massachusetts is a world away from steamy Philadelphia. It’s a musical after all, but it does intrude periodically. When one delegate raises the very pressing question, “How can a country of two million stand up to a great empire?” it is hard not to think of Vietnam vs. the United States. But the most poignant reference to the war, and just the concept of war in general, is the memorable song “Momma, Look Sharp.,” which ends Act I. The Courier (Stephen Nathan) sings about his two closest friends shot and killed on the same day at Lexington. He describes the final thoughts of one of those dying young men as his mother searches for his body. It is the only indication that the price of freedom is high. Who wouldn’t imagine the tens of thousands of young men dying in Vietnam, calling for their mothers?
1776 isn’t about castigating the Founding Fathers, maybe just some good-natured ribbing about their imperfections. But, it can be read as a possibly overly subtle critique of recent American presidents, none of whom you could claim was “noble, selfless, or wise.”
Our second lie agreed upon, that America’s success was built on the ideals of whites, instead of the labor of blacks, is not really challenged by 1776, as you can imagine, but there is an exception. Slavery becomes the pivotal issue of Act 2, when the text of Jefferson’s draft of the Declaration is being nitpicked almost to death. Adams tells Franklin, as he opposes South Carolina’s demand that Jefferson’s anti-slavery clause be stricken from the Declaration, “Mark me, Franklin, if we give in on this issue, posterity will never forgive us.”
Edward Rutledge from South Carolina, played by the Broadway titan John Cullum (who is really only know to most people as the restaurant owner Holling Vincoeur in Northern Exposure) has a big, almost operatic aria (“Molasses to Rum”) that brings the house down. In it he doesn’t so much defend his colony of South Carolina and the other Southern colonies for wanting to preserve slavery, as he accuses the North of rank hypocrisy, because its New York and Boston merchants also prosper mightily from slavery, through the Triangle Trade transporting slaves from Africa and Caribbean rum to the North.
Again, we can imagine the subtext of this being fairly obvious to audiences, in an era when anger about the neglect of black communities in the North was finally spawning violent revolts.
Lin-Manuel Miranda said about Hamilton – “This is a story about America then, told by America now.” I like this quote because I think it captures the whole idea behind Lies Agreed Upon. Each film or series (or musical) we discuss is a story about a historical period told from a contemporary perspective. We just talked about how 1776 is a reflection of the Nixon era, so what about Hamilton?
When we get to Hamilton, which debuted in 2015, the musical as an art form evolved considerably from something like 1776. [Lia can do more here] But what didn’t change so much was the tendency to treat the Founding Fathers as noble, wise, and selfless. Certainly, academic historians took their shots, and Americans were far more jaded about the mythology underlying this Republic, but the Founding Fathers largely survived revisionism. What is so interesting about Hamilton is Lin-Manuel Miranda’s insistence that Alexander Hamilton enjoy the same treatment as the gang of three – Washington, Jefferson, and Adams. If they get mythologized, why can’t he?
We are not historians of the early republic, but we appreciate those that are and have thought very deeply about the implications this blockbuster has on their little corner of the historical profession. The first dilemma facing historians invested in Miranda’s work centers on this question: Is the inspirational benefit of this cultural phenomenon, Hamilton, the musical, worth looking past its historical inaccuracies and missteps? I think we get excited and nervous whenever pop culture takes on topics we know so much about because we are afraid they’ll get it wrong, or perpetuate the worst myths we spent careers trying to correct.
We want to highlight a great book that gets to the heart of the issues we are touching on in this episode. Historians Renee Romano of Oberlin College and Claire Bond Potter of the New School in New York capture this debate in their new volume Historians on Hamilton: How a Blockbuster Musical is Restaging America’s Past, a collection of 15 essays by scholars on the historical, artistic and educational impact of the musical. We will link to their book on our website.
In one essay, the City University of New York’s David Waldstreicher and the University of Missouri’s Jeffrey Pasley argue that Hamilton continues the trend really popular in the 1990s and early 2000s called “Founder’s Chic” Biographers like David McCullough and Robert Chernow, who wrote the Hamilton biography that inspired Miranda, wrote character-driven, nationalist and “relatable” histories of the Founding Fathers. Interestingly, part of the move in this direction stemmed from what people saw as dangerous and hyperpartisan politics in the 1990s and early 2000s. If you want to restore faith in the Republic, in other words, go back to the biographies of the founding fathers.
Hamilton represents the union of a trained historian’s labor and a brilliant talent like a Lin-Manuel Miranda. We should mention a third figure here, director Thomas Kail. Let’s get a sense of how this team worked together on Hamilton:
In one sense, we are both like – why can’t someone do this with our books? But, as great as it is to see something like Hamilton put history on center stage, so to speak, it comes at a cost. Are audiences getting the full story?
When it comes to our second lie – America’s success was built on the ideals of whites, instead of the labor of blacks – Hamilton has a mixed record. Again, let’s turn to some experts writing in Historians on Hamilton.
William Hogeland criticizes both Chernow and Miranda for portraying Hamilton as an abolitionist who favored the immediate, voluntary emancipation of all slaves. Hamilton was admittedly more progressive than others when it came to slavery, but Hogeland notes it’s likely that he and his family owned household slaves. Chernow and Miranda are downplaying this. Let’s at least acknowledge the cognitive dissonance typical of the time. Hogeland writes that the biography and show give “the false impression that Hamilton was special among the founding fathers in part because he was a staunch abolitionist,” continuing that “satisfaction and accessibility pose serious risks to historical realism.”
Of course, one of the best things about Hamilton is the “race blind” casting. Black and Latino actors fill about 90% of the roles, and all of the Founding Fathers. We can celebrate this and recognize that representation matters in popular culture.
**I’d like to talk more about this here. I think the historical critiques downplay the impact of it by just calling it ‘race blind’ casting. This wasn’t, actually. It was intentionally subversive, very specifically NOT white casting.
However, some scholars point out the ironic tension between the musical’s diverse cast and what they see as an overly whitewashed script. Northwestern University‘s Leslie Harris writes in Historians on Hamilton that there were slaves in colonial New York and none of them are portrayed in Hamilton. There was also a free black community in the city where African-Americans did serious work toward abolition. To her, excluding these narratives from the show is a missed opportunity. “Does the hip-hop soundscape of Hamilton effectively drown out the violence and trauma – and sounds – of slavery that people who looked like the actors in the play might actually have experienced at the time of the nation’s birth?” she writes.
When Hamilton began its run on Disneyplus in 2020 the landscape on race had actually changed dramatically since 2015. The casting wasn’t enough, apparently. Let’s listen to an overview of this debate:
What Miranda, Chernow and Kail has done is truly remarkable and deserves our respect. It is historical fiction grounded in real archival research, and it’s popular! How can that be bad? But let’s use the phenomenon to interrogate the past, demythologize instead of reify, which Hamilton gives us the space to do. Even Miranda welcomes this.