I’ve read a lot of hot takes on the musical Hamilton. Most of them complain about it being historically inaccurate at times. Well, at times you’re right, but in the end – I don’t care and it’s okay.
What, my readers cry out? A historical musical being historically inaccurate at times doesn’t bother you? Well, it does. When they describe the election of 1800 wrong describing Burr as not on a ticket with Jefferson, and then trying to bypass/stab Jefferson in the back when it went to Congress was disappointing. It was far more dramatic in reality than even the song about the election made it sound. There are inconsistencies in the number of children Hamilton is described in the musical as having. Their timeline on when Hamilton left his cabinet post doesn’t necessarily line up. Yes, there’s inconsistencies, but on the whole – I still find the music and storytelling both compelling and beautiful.
Through music, Lin-Manuel Miranda is able to make a person feel as though they can understand the personalities of Hamilton, Burr, and Washington, coaxing it out through song in a way that sometimes the written word is unable to accomplish. Hamilton’s willingness to write everything down regardless of the consequences, his constant inspirations on how to change the world, were laid out well through song. Burr’s opportunist personality, willing to wait for what he wants and snatch it when the moment appears right was displayed well through various songs. Sure, there is embellishments for effect, but it’s a dramatic retelling on Broadway. That’s how this genre works. Let’s look at a few more, shall we?
Jesus Christ Superstar isn’t 100% Biblically accurate. It combines every Mary mentioned into one person. There is no mention of the resurrection of Christ. There is no romantic relationship between Jesus and any Mary mentioned in the Bible. And yet, Jesus Christ Superstar is a classic and I love the musical. It provides a dramatic retelling of the Gospels from the perspective of Judas, a perspective I never would have considered on my own. It points to some Biblical truths we often ignore. First, we forget at times that Christ is fully man and not merely fully God. He was physically present, He needed to eat, He could be hurt, He could mourn. He was fully a person. But, it also reminds us some truths about Judas. The most important? Judas never understood Christ. At all. In the Gospels, when Judas directly addresses Christ he uses the title “Rabbi” instead of “Lord” as the other apostles do. Despite being right next to Jesus, directly in His presence – Judas never fully understood. This is important in the narrative of the Bible as well as in the narrative of the musical. It helps us understand the people better.
But, surely these are just modern hackneyed musical tropes. Surely historic plays and dramas were more accurate. How about Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar? Shakespeare played with the timeline of Caesar’s life quite a bit for dramatic effect and to ensure the entire story could be told in a reasonable timeframe on stage. Shakespeare wiggled around with turns of phrase such as Et tu Brute? as well as the entire idea of Caesar being warned by a soothsayer. Caesar ignores the warning, but did that really happen? Most likely not and was included again for dramatic effect. The point was to dramatize the rise and death of Caesar while providing a story that reflected much of Elizabethan anxiety over the aging Queen. It served multiple purposes and yes, history was modified a bit in the production for dramatic effect. Does that make this work less pivotal, less interesting, less valid a piece of literature? No, of course not.
In each case, the stories are “based on a true story.” Anything based on a true story is just that, based on it. Is it a 100% accurate picture of reality? Not always and that’s okay. Dramatic works are meant to be dramatic and to keep the audience engaged. Not everything in a person’s life is going to engage an audience so does not always need to be included. On that same line, not everything needs to be 100% accurate in a dramatic retelling for us to enjoy the performance. So enjoy the music, enjoy the wonder of the stage, and enjoy Hamilton.