Performing Arts

Why ‘Hamilton’ can be free to get political without hurting itself

Lin-Manuel Miranda thrust his smash musical “Hamilton” back into the news when he pledged to play Alexander Hamilton one more time in a performance for Puerto Rican nationalist Oscar Lopez Rivera, whose sentence was commuted by President Barack Obama.
Lin-Manuel Miranda thrust his smash musical “Hamilton” back into the news when he pledged to play Alexander Hamilton one more time in a performance for Puerto Rican nationalist Oscar Lopez Rivera, whose sentence was commuted by President Barack Obama. Invision/AP

As President-elect Donald J. Trump morphed into the 45th president of the United States last week, arts organizations, especially the big ones, were tying themselves in knots trying to figure out how to respond during the weekend of inaugural festivities.

Meanwhile, over at “Hamilton,” they didn’t have to worry about keeping their progressive conscience in the news. They were too busy making the news.

Exhibit A, aside from the arrival in the Chicago cast of Wayne Brady, a popular game-show host, was Lin-Manuel Miranda’s public tweet to Melissa Mark-Viverito, speaker of the New York City Council, following President Barack Obama commuting the prison sentence of Puerto Rican nationalist Oscar Lopez Rivera.

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“When you talk to Don Oscar,” Miranda tweeted, “díle I’ve got a show for him in Chicago. It’ll be my honor to play Hamilton the night he goes.”

Not exactly shying away from political controversy in the face of a new administration, right? Not to mention a brilliant leverage of celebrity power and brand promotion with political engagement, although I’m sure Miranda was also tweeting from his heart.

Miranda, of course, could go where big cultural institutions cannot easily go, however much their employees fear or despise Trump.

Since most of them are tax-exempt nonprofit organizations, explicitly partisan political advocacy is perilous and may threaten that status, especially given the evident lack of sympathy from a potentially radical and anti-arts new administration that, the political news outlet The Hill reported recently, already is planning the abolition of the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities.

Arts organizations also have had to weigh the intense feelings and rights of many of their constituent artists, who tend to be outspoken progressives who consider it imperative to be heard, to respond in public about matters Trumpian, with the inconvenient truth that some in their audience — and/or on their board of directors — may well have voted for Trump.

Then there are the views of those moderates who, taking a cue from the outgoing president himself, have felt that respect for the peaceful transition of power in a democracy, for respecting the democratic process and the will of the American people, also need to be considered. And let’s not dismiss the views of those who say that irritating the new federal administration is about the worst thing any nonprofit dependent on scraps of government funding and always needing friends in Washington for legislative matters, should be doing.

A tough spot, all in all. Many divisive internal meetings, all in all. How do you stay in the news — and every arts organization needs to stay relevant — given all of these strictures?

Most institutions are either saying nothing, for which there is a case, or focusing on events such as the Ghostlight Project, wherein theaters across the country displayed a light in their lobbies on Jan. 19 as a symbol of support for individuals threatened by the “dark times ahead.” These very sincere protests have political deniability — they don’t explicitly say what the cause of the dark times will be, despite the implication that it is the great coming of Trump — but then that deniability inevitably blunts the very power that Miranda is commanding.

So how has “Hamilton” pulled this off?

When you pay your own bills as a commercial enterprise, and likely more taxes than the president himself, you can do and say whatever you want. Especially when you are a private company without pesky stockholders.

And although conventional wisdom has it that businesses getting involved in partisan politics is a bad idea — see GrubHub, L.L. Bean and New Balance — when your artistic brand is political engagement itself, you’re exempt from that truism. And if people want your product badly enough that they’ll sit through what Vice President Mike Pence sat through voluntarily in New York when he must have known the risk of protest, you’re exempt twice over.

To put that another way, “Hamilton” can be progressive with dazzling efficacy because it also is populist. It is not merely the bastion of the liberal elite. It is also hot. We often think of hot products as inevitably elitist, not least because market forces usually make them expensive (check out the offerings at your Apple store). But “Hamilton” has avoided all of this mostly, I think, because of the way its producer and CEO, Jeffrey Seller, has leveraged an impenetrable conjoined commitment to education.

This is a show about America itself, and thus its art and its politics are one. That way it avoids the criticism some unfairly leveled at Meryl Streep for her political statements at the Golden Globes: that the venue demanded the apolitical acceptance of an honor. “Hamilton” does not have that problem.

Miranda was being true to his heritage and his politics — and selling more tickets along the way. And since Obama and Miranda have spent time together, it was not entirely a stretch to wonder whether Miranda, or those to whom he is close, had discreetly lobbied Obama on behalf of Lopez Rivera, another political act allied with the show itself.

Either way, who would not want to be in the theater on the night of Miranda’s promised performance and Lopez Rivera’s night out as a free man? That would apply even to someone whose feelings about his release included some ambivalence about acts of violence. “Hamilton” has made itself central again.

It helps, of course, that the show has one gifted spokesman and thus no brand confusion. It helps that the “Hamilton” audience is centered in major cities, where Trump’s support was the most muted. And it helps that its core demographic is younger than the typical Trump voter, and far more diverse.

“Hamilton” has allied itself with the future, which is what every business must do to ensure survival. And thus if it wants to go after the new present, it can. With impunity.

Effective Jan. 20, “Hamilton” moved into a new office: artistic leader of the opposition. It will sit easy on its back, for it will not shy away from the charge.

And the lesson therein for everyone else in the cultural business? Respond through your art and, at the same time, make art that matters to all the American people.

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