Ben Shapiro is right about a lot. His defense of conservatism, critiques of Hilary Clinton and Donald Trump, and uber-fact-oriented commentary on the current election are spot on. He has said that his favorite musical is 1776, and it’s mine, too. On Hamilton, however, he is mistaken.
Hamilton, for those of you who haven’t heard, is the biggest thing on Broadway right now: a hip-hop musical presenting the life of Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton. Based on the 700-page biography by historian Ron Chernow, the musical is the creation of Lin-Manuel Miranda, who also plays the lead role. Tickets are sold out forever, it has more publicity than pretty much any film since it debuted excepting Star Wars, and its elaborate lyrics are now being extensively unpacked (historically, poetically, intertextually, etc.) over on Genius.com. Just this month it won about a hundred Tony awards, including Best Musical.
Ben Shapiro has a problem with Hamilton. In his own words, “I think it is garbaggio.” He’s explained that the problem is not with the plot (mostly history, after all) so much as with the concept and craftsmanship—or what he would call lack thereof.
Death of the Author
Shapiro’s first objection is to “the idea behind” Hamilton: translating America’s founding history into modern terms for a generation who couldn’t understand it otherwise. Instead of portraying the history as enacted by a bunch of white guys (how it happened), Shapiro complains, it needs to be rapped by a bunch of people of color. He says, “This is racist.”
There’s evidence to suggest that Shapiro’s critique on this point is accurate. Daveed Diggs, the actor who plays Lafayette and Jefferson, said, “We the performers are sort of asked to eliminate all of the distance between ourselves and the audience, right? Culturally as well as everything else.” The actor who plays Aaron Burr, Leslie Odom, Jr., talked about “roles that are actually written about you” in a similar vein. So Shapiro may be correct about problematic philosophy behind the musical.
And yet – so what? I’m sorry, but Ben Shapiro is the same guy who has said, in political contexts, “I don’t care about your intentions…what matters is what you do.” Why is it different for art?
Suppose that Raphael painted the The School of Athens because he wanted to prove that philosophy is just one huge waste of time: Its most prominent figures are diametrically opposed, foes; their crowning creation is a half-un-built edifice, and so on. That intention would not make the actual Renaissance fresco inferior or any less beautiful. Authorial intentionality isn’t intrinsically inherited by the creation.
Instead of promoting the factious, divisive plague of multiculturalism, Hamilton actually illustrates the greatness of the American Melting Pot. The cultural freedom to associate with themes, styles, and conventions from other cultures hearkens back to a more robust, more humane, and more interesting America. Political commentator Tammy Bruce draws out the distinction between the Melting Pot and multiculturalism in her book The New Thought Police (chapter six):
Multiculturalism – the claim that minority cultures and ways of life should be protected through group rights and privilege – amounts to the Balkanization of this country into blacks, Asians, Native Americans, Hispanic, and so on. It highlights differences and obscures similarities, and it gives each group the idea that it has a special knowledge about itself that no one else can share… Multiculturalism is the antithesis of the American melting pot… Multiculturalism is heralded specifically because it keeps people in separate groups…
The melting pot has served us through generations, making the heritage of every person who has ever immigrated to this country an element in the mixture we know as American culture… The culture exists as American, however, only because of assimilation. As in a terrific Irish stew, every ingredient flavors and is flavored by all the others.
Maybe Shapiro would object that this principle only cuts one way. As he pointed out, some production with MLK Jr. played by a white man would be not OK. Again, as far as this goes, this is probably true, and such a double standard could only be described as racist. However, when assessing Hamilton’s artistic merit in its own right, that hypocrisy never comes into play. The musical fits perfectly into the Melting Pot paradigm.
Arts and Craft
Shapiro’s other criticism is that Hamilton lacks what he calls “craft.” He argues that if someone decides to learn a skill and masters it four hours later, then that technique is not craft; it is something lesser.
Recognizing the effort someone pours into their work will redound to the person and your opinion of him. This is why parents will hang their own children’s drawings on the fridge: They care about their own children more than they care about other people, and the drawing, whatever its objective artistic merit, is emblematic of the children’s growth and nascent faculties.
The amount of effort needed to create something is irrelevant to the product’s merit as art, however. Art is bound to transcendentals – to the good, the true, and the beautiful. The actual creation gains worth according to objective standards of its own merit. After all, what of God, making all creation ex nihilo in one week? Or savants, like the British Daniel Tammet, who spent a week in Iceland to learn and become fluent in one of the world’s most notoriously difficult languages? With reference to the author, effort certainly garners admiration, but with reference to the work of art itself, it must stand or fall on its own merits.
Even if you allow the premise that good art requires effort, the image of some New Yorker falling out of his bed to write a musical doesn’t begin to represent how Hamilton came into being. Perhaps you have seen this video of Miranda rapping at the White House. Note the date. Back in 2009, when Miranda had already created the musical In the Heights, this song was written and the entire project was supposed to be something entirely different—namely, a mixtape. The play didn’t open Off-Broadway until last year. That’s six years of development time.
Furthermore, you can observe subtle changes from the ’09 song to the current one, as Miranda kept constantly refining and tweaking his work. This sort of incessant modification is, after all, a hallmark of good artists. In the vaunted Lincoln-Douglas debates, Douglas hits the same notes and arguments over and over and over, while Lincoln’s reasoning and rhetoric continually undergo modification to maximize logic and persuasive force as much as humanly possible. You can find on Youtube multiple finished cut songs as Miranda worked ceaselessly to make his musical as perfect as he could.
Settling the Score
Shapiro contrasts Miranda’s efforts with a work of art he considers exemplary of craft: the song “Kiss Me” from Sweeney Todd. Incidentally, I find it fascinating that Shapiro chose Stephen Sondheim as a counterpoint, given the Hamilton cast’s tribute to his “demon barber” musical and Lin-Manuel Miranda’s personal acknowledgement of him years ago.
It is true that the melodies and instrumentation of Hamilton are less complex and intricate than those of Sweeney Todd. This needn’t mean, however, that they lack craft: The interplay and recurrence of themes throughout the show are phenomenal. Key melodies do exist, and they are catchy. The spectrum of influencing genres also bear witness to the musical quality of Hamilton: from the 80’s party rap that inform “My Shot”, and the older generation’s southern jazz, boogie-woogie, and ragtime that imbue Jefferson’s introduction, to the Beatlemania (the “British Invasion”) of King George. Even if, second for second, the average Broadway musical features scores with more cathedral architecture, Hamilton is absolutely crafted.
Consider, for instance, the subtle implications of Jefferson’s introduction:
Burr: Someone’s gotta keep the American promise;
You simply must meet Thomas. Thomas!
Company: Thomas Jefferson’s coming home . . .
That last line is repeated in the chorus and throughout this song, which introduces Jefferson at the top of Act II. Jefferson develops into Hamilton’s main Act II antagonist, the man whose constant clashes with Hamilton (“We have fought on like seventy-five different fronts”) created a two-party system. And here, at the very beginning, there’s a subtle positioning of the two at odds with one another by greeting Jefferson with “Thomas Jefferson’s coming home.”
Hamilton is an immigrant. When he came to America, he left his hometown to become a whole new man. This isn’t to suggest that immigrant and natives are doomed to be forever at odds, but the intense political conflict between these two is foreshadowed even here, very subtly, before their acquaintance even begins. When it officially does, the relationship starts amiably enough …except for how Hamilton just sings his name to the tune of his own theme in the middle of Jefferson’s song. This is followed by a barely perceptible record scratch.
Carefully placed touches like this abound in the script. I’ve spent a lot of time looking at analyses of these lyrics and reading Chernow’s biography (which reads, almost comically at times, like a re-telling of Hamilton’s life inspired by the framework and language of the musical), and I keep finding more and more to marvel at. The longer and harder you look at it, the more you see and appreciate.
Perhaps the true yardstick for art is not how much effort the artist exerts to create it, but how much focus and time the audience member must invest to plumb its depths to the fullest.