No, we should not #CancelHami­l­ton

Chicago Sun-Times - - OPINION - S.E. CUPP @se­cupp S.E. Cupp is the host of “S.E. Cupp Un­fil­tered” on CNN.


Like thou­sands and thou­sands of others, I spent 2½ hours on Fri­day night watch­ing the stream­ing ver­sion of “Hamil­ton” on Dis­ney+ with my fam­ily for the first time.

I was gob­s­macked.

I had a hunch that I’d like it — I’m a fan of most mu­si­cals and, un­til re­cently, a reg­u­lar the­ater­goer. But I sur­prised even my­self. I didn’t like it, I loved it.

Lin-Manuel Mi­randa’s mas­ter­piece was ev­ery­thing a ter­rific mu­si­cal should be: stir­ring, witty, in­spir­ing, an­themic, singable, quotable, daz­zling. I’m only mad I didn’t make it a point to see it in the theater, and that I waited so long to add “You’ll Be Back” to my shower reper­toire.

Be­cause of COVID-19, art, like ex­pen­sive Broad­way mu­si­cals, fea­ture films, even opera and art in­stal­la­tions, is be­ing de­liv­ered to our liv­ing rooms. That in­cred­i­ble de­moc­ra­ti­za­tion, even if by de­fault and not de­sign, is a great thing — but with it comes the in­creased scru­tiny of a wider au­di­ence, and at a time when Amer­ica is col­lec­tively re­ex­am­in­ing nearly ev­ery­thing we’ve ever made over the course of our his­tory.

In the case of “Hamil­ton,” the very re­cent his­tory. Mi­randa’s mu­si­cal is just five years old, and yet, through to­day’s eyes is rub­bing some as in­suf­fi­ciently hon­est about the Found­ing Fathers’ roles in slav­ery.

It doesn’t avoid the is­sue — there are plenty of ref­er­ences to slav­ery through­out the mu­si­cal. In one song, Hamil­ton raps scold­ingly at Thomas Jef­fer­son:

“Your debts are paid ’cause you don’t pay for la­bor/

We plant seeds in the South. We cre­ate. Yeah, keep rant­ing/

We know who’s re­ally do­ing the plant­ing.”

None­the­less, some have crit­i­cized the glo­ri­fi­ca­tion of Ge­orge Wash­ing­ton, who him­self owned slaves, and the non-ac­knowl­edg­ment that Hamil­ton was friends with and mar­ried into slave-own­ing fam­i­lies, lead­ing of course to a #CancelHami­l­ton trend­ing topic on Twit­ter.

Mi­randa has re­sponded to calls for its “can­cel­la­tion,” or ex-com­mu­ni­ca­tion from po­lite so­ci­ety, by po­litely ad­mit­ting, “All the crit­i­cisms are valid. The sheer ton­nage of com­plex­i­ties & fail­ings of th­ese peo­ple I couldn’t get. Or wres­tled with but cut. I took 6 years and fit as much as I could in a 2.5-hour mu­si­cal. Did my best. It’s all fair game.”

He’s right, of course. No art should be above crit­i­cism, and there are cer­tainly ways to see “Hamil­ton” as gloss­ing over that ugly his­tory. But that’s also OK — it’s not the job of art to be hon­est.

The de­bates we’re hav­ing over Con­fed­er­ate stat­ues, mon­u­ments, mil­i­tary bases and high schools are very dif­fer­ent from any we might in­dulge over “Hamil­ton.” Th­ese me­mo­ri­als were meant to honor men we now roundly agree were in fact dis­hon­or­able, traitors and the losers of a war that tore our coun­try apart. Our mon­u­ments must be re­flec­tive not only of the na­tion we once were, but the na­tion we strive to be. Be­cause they are earnest re­flec­tions of our as­pi­ra­tions, they must be hon­est.

Art faces no such bur­den. Art can lie, it can cheat, it can steal. It can ma­nip­u­late you, trick you, tease you. Some of the best art is un­com­fort­able, of­ten of­fen­sive, and thought-pro­vok­ing. Mi­randa’s mu­si­cal is — and is al­lowed to be — all of those things.

Art is un­der no obli­ga­tion to be com­plete, ei­ther. Even in the telling of true sto­ries, re­quir­ing them to be con­sum­mate would be lu­di­crous, and turn works like “Evita,” “Miss Saigon” and “Les Mis­er­ables” into dreary, pedan­tic, di­dac­tic his­tory lessons. Art is in­com­plete. Art is a col­lec­tion of de­ci­sions. Art is ver­sions.

Art, for the record, is also al­lowed to be “bad.” From Edgar De­gas’ “Lit­tle Dancer,” which was de­tested by the French sa­lons of the time, to Marcel Duchamp’s “Foun­tain,” ex­cluded from the So­ci­ety of In­de­pen­dent Artists in­au­gu­ral ex­hibit, art need not be pleas­ing to any­body.

Fi­nally, art is never fin­ished. Mi­randa’s take on the Found­ing Fathers isn’t the first, nor should it be the last. There’s room for count­less more takes. In this way, the de­bate over “Hamil­ton” and whether it cov­ers slav­ery suf­fi­ciently opens the door for some­thing new — a mu­si­cal that tells that story in­stead. But leave this one alone.


Lin-Manuel Mi­randa (cen­ter) is the creator, com­poser and orig­i­nal ti­tle char­ac­ter in the hit mu­si­cal “Hamil­ton,” shown here in the orig­i­nal Broad­way pro­duc­tion.

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