Our Founding Fathers Were Bad Dads

My life is full of lies. I have spent the past year stressing over elections for politicians that lied straight to my face; my mom keeps telling me I’m special; and my ex says she still loves me. All I ask for is a smidgen of truth or just a temporary escape from the lies of reality, and surprisingly, I often find this safe haven in musicals. Now, I’m not about to argue that Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark is a canonical, historical event nor am I going to claim that Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson should replace our history textbooks (although our education system would be hell of a lot more fun). Musicals can be some of the rawest forms of commercial performance and expression. There is no lying during show-stopping belts or spectacular ensemble choreography, and there’s even a semblance of truth in the acting. Every movement, every note, every expression has truth in it somewhere, and that comfortable feeling of sincerity is one we chase every day.  

After seeing it back in 2018, Hamilton was my safe space. There was a song for every moment in my life that I could retreat to instead of facing reality. For a show centered around the birth of American politics, it is remarkably apolitical, and that’s what makes it so universally appealing. The production number “The Room Where It Happens” isn’t about the formation of the National Bank; it’s about wanting to fit in and being a part of something bigger than oneself. “Burn” provides solace for the heartbroken, and “You’ll Be Back” deploys an 18th century tyrannical monarch to help them cope with this heartache. But, just like every political campaign, just like my supposedly innate uniqueness, and just like my ex’s empty words of affirmation, Hamilton is too good to be true, and for the sake of performative diversity, Lin-Manuel Miranda throws away his shot to make a substantive, meaningful statement on sexism, cyclical political centrism, and the racism that this diversity is meant to battle.

The public opinion of Hamilton has shifted negatively in recent years without a tangible impetus for this downward turn. The music has aged well, the creative players haven’t been involved in any egregious scandals, and the Disney+ release has made the show more accessible than ever. Frankly, Hamilton didn’t change; the world around it did. Similar to Into the Heights marking the beginning of Barack Obama’s presidency, Hamilton’s late 2015 release bookended the other side of it, but its meteoric rise also coincided with that of our current president, who launched his original campaign a month before Hamilton’s Broadway debut. Donald Trump’s populist promises and uncompromising attitude towards lawmaking and the Democratic Party shot him past the more centrist candidates running for Republican nomination, and Hillary Clinton’s similarly bipartisan message did little to slow Trump’s momentum. The situation is more complicated than a one sentence explanation, but the root cause of it is not. The decline of centrism allowed Trump to enter the forefront of national media and enabled his eventual victory.

People are going to bat for this guy?

Hamilton is a celebration of American exceptionalism, unity, and patriotism, all monumental tenets of centrism. Of course, there are moments of discord between the Founding Fathers. Thomas Jefferson and James Madison giddily dance around to celebrate the discovery of the damning Reynolds Pamphlet, and it seems like they can’t stop shooting each other every 30 minutes. But, in the end, they all live happily ever after. Sure, Hamilton unnecessarily dies, but Jefferson and Madison finally recognize his genius, George Washington is honored for being the ultimate symbol of American unity, and all the slaves are freed! (Oh wait…no. Eliza Hamilton just speaks out against slavery.) These idealistic outcomes and revisionist perspectives on political figures are what American politics have revolved around since the country’s inception. Before Trump’s recent defeat, the transition of power between administrations has been largely cordial, and this respect lends itself to forgiveness. Our history books paint Thomas Jefferson as a master negotiator and one of the great American writers of the Revolution, not a rapist and serial slave owner. More recently, George W. Bush, responsible for the backwards Patriot Act and the continuation of the endless war against terrorism (*cough* oil *cough*), is now lauded as a respectful man that brought us out of the dark shadow 9/11 cast upon this country by liberals and conservatives alike. The sins these politicians committed and the regressive policies they passed are forgiven to maintain the image of excellency that we are told our representatives share in common because if our leaders are bad people, what does that make us?

Hamilton projects American exceptionalism for the world to see because that is what its audiences crave; that is the truth they want to believe. No proud American wants to recognize the atrocities of slavery in their totality. So, we’re given smaller, palatable truths to swallow. Sally Hemings was Thomas Jefferson’s mistress, not property. George Washington freed his slaves when he died, excusing his ownership of these men and women during his lifetime, and Hamilton portrays these men in exactly this way. Jefferson and Washington are illustrated as heroes of the Revolution and sympathetic to the struggles of slaves, despite the latter not being further from the truth. Lin-Manuel Miranda had a rare opportunity to tell American audiences the truth. In an industry and world dominated by white men, he had the privilege to shine a spotlight on the reality of America hidden in the shadows for too long, but Americans don’t like that truth. Instead, Miranda compromised, like any “great” politician would do.

Lin may compromise his morals, but he sure doesn’t compromise a good ol’ lip bite selfie!

Miranda takes a Jordan-like approach to his products. In 1990, one of the first African-American senate candidates in North Carolina Harvey Gantt challenged incumbent senator (and unabashed racist) Jesse Helms. Basketball legend Michael Jordan refused to endorse Gantt’s Democratic campaign, justifying his lack of activism with “Republicans buy sneakers too.” Gant lost the election by a narrow 5 point margin. At the end of the day, Miranda’s shows are for-profit products. They are opportunities for him to showcase his talent in front of the brightest lights on the biggest stage. Maybe he wrote this show with the express purpose to make a statement on bigotry and the state of America, but any meaningful attempt at that falls flat. Miranda writes a show that appeals to the centrist ideals of America without alienating any of his potential customers but does throw progressivism a bone in his casting. All of the protagonists are minorities! Again, in such a Caucasian-dominated industry, this is a huge step forward for diversity in Broadway and talented minorities are finally recognized, but simply making the cast diverse is not enough on its own. The diverse cast propped on a pedestal leads to complacent writing that does not acknowledge the full extent of America’s past and makes the audience too comfortable with the false identity of these characters.

Going back to Thomas Jefferson, Daveed Diggs compounds the issue of Miranda’s lack of activist writing. His natural stage presence and charm makes it nearly impossible to dislike Thomas Jefferson. The swagger that he exudes in the Cabinet Battles and his introductory number “What’d I Miss” fills the theatre, and this charisma is what audience members remember. Until my viewing of Hamilton, my only experience with the portrayal of Thomas Jefferson were educational documentaries with dramatic reenactments of historical events and pictures of his uncomfortably greasy hair. Do you expect that relic of American history to compete with Daveed freaking Diggs? Now when the name “Thomas Jefferson” is mentioned the first image that comes to mind is Daveed Diggs with his lavishly purple coat and stylish cane. The musical not only completely disregards Jefferson’s gross mistreatment of his slaves, but it subtly relinquishes the image of Thomas Jefferson as a white, privileged man.

Contrary to Hamilton‘s portrayal, the actual Thomas Jefferson had negative zero swag.

This performative casting diversity continues to be applauded for the future of Broadway that it represents and for getting Leslie Odom Jr., Daveed Diggs, and Chris Jackson all on the same stage, but it distracts from more than just racism and centrism. Male characters dominate Hamilton. That isn’t unique to this show specifically, but the women’s lack of effect on the plot throughout the show is another missed opportunity by Miranda to make a powerful statement on sexism in America. Eliza feels like a pawn waiting to be moved. Alexander Hamilton walks into the ball, and she and her sister immediately swoon over him. She spends the rest of the show pleading for her husband to relax or at the very least survive, neither of which he can do, and in the second act, she is a conduit for the heartbreak that comes with Hamilton cheating on her and her son passing away. Only when Hamilton dies does Eliza finally get the faculty and power to effect change. She and her choices are reactionary to the world around her without the people around her paying much mind to her decisions. It’s rather disappointing because Phillipa Soo’s incredible vocals and strong acting could make a true female lead shine, but Miranda diminishes her to a source of internal conflict for Hamilton and of the resulting soliloquies when he neglects to heed her advice.

American exceptionalism is an ideal that we accept as the truth but do not necessarily believe to be true. From the moment we step in an American public school, everything from the Pledge of Allegiance to President’s Day are empty promises of national greatness, but there’s no reason to believe otherwise without evidence to the contrary. People with privilege and power are the individuals writing our textbooks and producing our shows telling us America is great, and the reality is that most of these individuals are rich, white men. But, sometimes a minority creator defies expectations and is given a platform for their voice to be heard. Lin-Manuel Miranda had the opportunity to tell the American people the whole truth and nothing but the truth. In the midst of rampant unemployment, people drowning in debt, and the perpetual presence of systemic racism, Miranda fed us what centrists and patriots have told us for years. America was great, is great, and always will be great, and we truly believe it when we watch Hamilton. Only when we step out of the theatre and face the reality we desperately tried to escape do we realize the truth of our nation. America was not great, is not great, and will never be great unless we stop compromising for the bigots of the past and present and recognize the flaws of our nation.

The Symbiosis of Sexism and Saigon

Broadway musicals have a knack for hiding things in plain sight. Hadestown’s entire plot seamlessly blends into the onstage set, and Hamilton conceals Lin-Manuel Miranda’s suspect vocals in harmonies with Leslie Odom Jr. and company. For Miss Saigon, the camouflage is much more sinister and pervasive. Despite the original production receiving 11 Tony nominations and widespread praise for the hit musical, Miss Saigon is filled with problematic American ideals. There is a whole number dedicated to American exceptionalism that toes the line of satire a little too closely for comfort. The American soldiers act as white saviors for their Vietnamese counterparts, serving as the keys to America and exacerbating the already unbalanced power dynamics between the two groups. You can expect these issues from a musical written in 1989, produced, and directed by all white men, and the men certainly make their mark in the last enduring American ideal. Sexism oozes out of this musical; it’s unavoidable. At every beat, every number, in every character, traditional gender roles and expectations are palpable, and as disappointing as it is to recognize, the original and continued success of Miss Saigon relies on the perpetuation of these stereotypes.

The most obnoxiously obvious example of sexism as a plot device is between Chris and Kim. The romance of Miss Saigon is a Disney princess movie with a Vietnam War veneer. Kim waits in her dismal circumstances, helpless to change her downward trajectory, until her knight in shining armor shows up, except this knight is a soldier fighting a meaningless war that directly causes Kim’s unfortunate situation. There is plenty to unpack in that tumultuous relationship, but Chris and Kim’s romance is mired with racism and nationalism that diminishes the severity of gender expectations. However, there is one character who can empathize Kim’s experiences with a xenophobic and authoritarian power structure: The Engineer.

The Engineer and Kim share almost no personality traits, but that is exactly what makes this comparison fascinating. The Engineer is rash, excessively ambitious, determined, and on the wrong side of God’s naughty or nice list while Kim is reserved, a prisoner of her situation, and passive unless compelled to act otherwise. They are not nuanced characters; they are caricatures with moments of nuance. They are written to emphasize the extremes of masculinity and femininity, or at least the expectations of the extremes. The only times they abandon these forced norms are in moments of desperation. These uncharacteristic scenes are glimpses at the power each character possesses beyond the shackles of gender stereotypes, and the establishment of Kim and the Engineer’s conflicting characters early on makes these moments that much more powerful and noticeable.

One strength of Miss Saigon’s writing is it does not waste time. From a character’s first few songs, you know his or her background, personality, and ultimate desires. “The Heat Is On” does an excellent job introducing Kim and the Engineer, but it more importantly establishes the difference between the men and women of Miss Saigon through the stark contrast of lyrics and music. The number opens with blaring brasses and a rock-and-roll drumline. The first characters to speak over the orchestra are the men that often reserve their conversations for women and sex, but ever so often one of the women is allowed to speak to the audience of men. The first two sex workers talk dirty to the barbaric applause of the soldiers, but Kim is “so much more than she seems.” For her introduction, the ensemble softens, the blasting brass is replaced with the soft whistle of winds, and the lights focus on the naive and clearly nervous Kim. Instead of seducing her customers, she sings of how young and inexperienced she is. Despite her soft tone, her words scream to the audience of the club and theatre, “I am a woman in a scary situation that needs saving!” and reminds any possible savior that she is more than an object. Of course, her eventual rescuer Chris ignores this reminder and immediately sleeps with her. While their relationship seems like all sunshine and roses at first, there is the looming possibility of Chris leaving and abandoning Kim to fend for herself, and inevitably Chris is evacuated without Kim (surprise, surprise), and a noble transition from her dependence on Chris would be Kim surviving and thriving without her husband that may have been more of a detriment to her life. Instead, the writers lean into the very American idea of a woman needing a man and his income to survive. The following scene, Kim is homeless, dirtier, and loses that glint of youthful hope in her eyes she had when the American military occupied Vietnam.

The Engineer suffers a similar collapse, but the contrast between his former self and the post-war him is much more pronounced because of his spirited beginning. Sporting a bright purple jacket and wielding a charismatic smile expertly, the Engineer is noticeably different than Kim from their first meeting. He talks to the soldiers, his customers, like they have known each other forever, and he tries to leverage his rocky friendship with John into a visa to America in “The Transaction.” From this moment forward, the audience knows the Engineer will do anything to achieve his dreams, and because he is a man, this unrelenting ambition is seen as a positive quality. The Engineer is a likable character because everything he does good and (mostly) bad aligns with the audience’s expectations, and they even root for the Engineer because his comedy makes his sins more or less excusable from their perspective (hey, this is theatre, not ethics). Despite his ambition and charm, the Engineer ends up in a re-education camp following the war. Like Kim, he is without a home or a club, his face is covered in dirt, and he has his purple jacket replaced with prisoner rags. This sudden downfall is much more shocking because it seemed impossible when the Engineer admired and believed in the American Dream. Kim does not have this illusion and aura of infallibility surrounding her though. The entire time she is with Chris, she relies on him for financial and emotional support, and everything that Kim depends on is ripped away when he leaves. Kim is supposed to fail without a man, just like Vietnam was supposed to fail with America.

Unlike the Engineer’s temporary demise, Kim’s failure is necessary though. Every stereotype she represents, every scene of fraughtful passiveness is needed to complete her character. Love is a fickle thing that often hurts more than it heals. While the Act 1 duets between Chris and Kim such as the “Sun and Moon” and “The Wedding Ceremony” are tender and evoke butterflies in everyone’s stomach, there isn’t that raw power of emotion and urgency that this show is lauded for in those numbers. No, these qualities show up when Kim’s son is in danger. Similar to the Engineer making it to America, Kim claims she would do anything for her son and certainly puts her money where her mouth is. Kim moves to Bangkok to feed her son, she kills her ex-boyfriend to protect Tam, and she takes her own life to ensure her son has the future she and the other prostitutes always dreamed of. No one recognizes the timid girl from “The Heat Is On” as the person who finally takes back control of her life from the men who unfairly took it years ago. Her suicide is so shocking because it does not align with the audience’s expectations that the show had cultivated for the previous two hours. Everything leading up to the final number reinforces the assumption that a man (Chris) will decide the fate of Kim and Tam, and yet the price she pays for deserved power is much greater than any man ever has to pay. Chris and the Engineer make decisions by virtue of simply being men. There is no hesitation in making choices. There is no price, and there are certainly no consequences if the decision is the wrong. Kim pays her price and gives her life for choice. She isn’t supposed to decide. The whole show Kim is built to be this passive figure that weathers the storm when it hits. If she had not forced Chris’s hand and simply raised her son in Bangkok, she likely would have been fine all things considered, but when does that cycle stop? Would Tam have to spend his whole life “weathering the storm” too? Even though she starts off as a little raindrop, Kim had to become the storm before it washed her and Tam away completely.This show and its writing does not rely on one aspect to make or break it. Regardless of the sexism, the music is incredible and has aged remarkably well over 30 years, the relatively shallow characters play off each other brilliantly and create an illusion of greater depth, and the acting in the revival does enough to support the emotion of the lyrics, but the inherent sexism elevates all of these aspects. Miss Saigon was not nominated for the “Best Book of a Musical” at the Tonys for nothing. Any great writing depends on suspense, which is a product of expectations. The suspense of Miss Saigon is rooted in sexism. All of the questions waiting to be answered like “Will Chris save his child?” and “Will Chris bring Kim to America?” are all focused on Chris acting as a white savior. If he had done the right thing and brought Tam and Kim to America, there would be little emotional payoff for the audience, and Miss Saigon may not be regarded as much more than a good show. But with Kim determining her destiny and taking control of her life and death, the show provides a devastating, memorable ending and reminds the audience that we all have power over lives, no matter how hard society may try to prevent that.