Last year, I wrote about the Kennedy Center's decision to honor artists like Gloria Estefan and LL Cool J in its annual ceremony as embracing a big tent mentality towards the arts, rather than spurning classical forms like opera and ballet in a ploy for ratings, since many of the artists honored at the first ceremony in 1978 did not necessarily represent "fine arts" either. Three of them - dancers Fred Astaire and George Balanchine, and composer Richard Rodgers - had first become famous for their work in musical theater, which was not considered a serious art form when they were at the peak of their powers, but was considered one by the 1970s. I wrote:
"Richard Rodgers...probably never heard The Sugarhill Gang’s 'Rapper’s Delight,' which debuted three months before he passed. He had no idea how rap and hip-hop, which didn’t exist as we know them [in 1978] would be influenced by and pay tribute to him. The culmination of this, Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton, is currently entering the second year of its Broadway run at the theater which bears his name."
What I didn't realize is that one year later, the Kennedy Center would honor Hamilton and its creators - writer/composer/star Lin-Manuel Miranda, director Thomas Kail, choreographer Andy Blankenbeuhler and orchestrator Alex Lacaimoire - at its 2018 ceremony. Together, these four men are the youngest artists to ever receive the Kennedy Center Honors, and they deserve it.
Hamilton is not just a great musical, it is an American cultural milestone, one whose influence is only just beginning. However, since its premiere in 2015, Hamilton has transcended the platitudes and awards bestowed on it to become a symbol of the political Resistance the country has enacted in the nearly two years since Donald Trump's election.
Granted, the ties between Hamilton and Barack Obama's presidency were plain from the beginning. The first time most people heard of the project (including myself) was in 2009 when Miranda, fresh off the success of his first musical, In the Heights, performed its opening number at the White House. Six years later, the Obamas attended the show on Broadway, as did Vice President Joe Biden. Michelle Obama went on to call it "the best piece of art in any form that I have ever seen in my entire life" and Hillary Clinton quoted it in her DNC nomination acceptance speech. Since Donald Trump's victory, however, the symbolism of Hamilton took on more valence.
"This is a story about America then, performed by America now," Miranda said of his and Kail's decision to cast the historically white characters with people of color, one which all subsequent productions of the show have honored. Together, they tell the story of a mixed-race immigrant to the United States who becomes integral to its founding. "Immigrants - we get the job done," says one of the most oft-quoted lines in the show. The show not only represents the inclusion that liberals fight for, it also represents the diversity, both of skin color and expression, that Republicans cannot stand.
All this came to a head in November 2016, when Vice-President-Elect Mike Pence attended a performance on Broadway. Just as he was walking up the aisle following the curtain call, actor Brandon Victor Dixon called out to him and read a statement on behalf of the company. "We...are the diverse America who are alarmed and anxious that your new administration will not protect us," he said. "We truly hope that this show has inspired you to uphold our American values and to work on behalf of all of us." Trump then accused the cast of "harassing" Pence, writing:
In hindsight, this was a make-or-break moment for Hamilton. Trump has a way of making any perceived slight entirely about him, backing those who disagree into a corner. Since he took office, he has backed the NFL into a corner over Colin Kaepernick's protests during the national anthem, forcing them to instate penalties and fines for those who kneel. Because he and his base made the protests entirely about him, they felt they had no choice but to acquiesce to his anger. The cast of Hamilton, however, is made of stronger stuff than the NFL. Dixon refused to apologize for his words, and the cast stood by him. Since the beginning of Trump's presidency, Miranda has been an active participant in the Resistance, raising funds for Planned Parenthood and performing at both the March for Our Lives and the Keep Families Together rallies in Washington. He currently plans to star in the show's Puerto Rican premiere to raise funds for the still-battered country that Trump has ignored. Other theaters and theater artists around the country have followed suit, establishing groups like the Ghostlight Project, which fights for diversity and greater social outreach among theaters. Trump, the most culturally illiterate president we have ever known, did not attend the Kennedy Center Honors in 2017 and probably won't attend them this year either. He has not seen Hamilton, but there is no question that it would rankle him. He'll never understand the symbolism of the show, but the Kennedy Center does, and by honoring it, they have issued a direct rebuke to his myopic, hateful administration and its policies that would keep future Alexander Hamiltons from emigrating to the United States and reaching their full potential.