I’ve been fortunate enough to see “Hamilton” twice. The first time, a generous person surprised me with tickets for a performance right before Thanksgiving, and just after the cast had addressed now-Vice President Pence from the stage in the aftermath of an unprecedented election. The second time was in early April on a long-planned trip to New York. Seeing the show a couple of times has given me the opportunity to appreciate a lot of artistic nuances, including how two different men approach the difficult title role and the wonderful humor Brandon Victor Dixon brings to his performance as Aaron Burr. And as a critic who writes about politics, I found myself especially grateful to see “Hamilton” at two very different points in an astonishing political transition.
There’s no question that “Hamilton” is indelibly associated with the Obama administration. Lin-Manuel Miranda, who created the show and originated the title role, performed the first song from the mixtape that would become the musical at an event at the White House in 2009. The presence of a black man, at long last, in the Oval Office probably prepared audiences for a riff on American history that recast the Founding Fathers and Mothers as people of color. And shortly before President Obama left office, Miranda and some of his co-stars performed “One Last Time,” the show’s farewell to George Washington, for the outgoing president:
But frankly, it was a relief to see “Hamilton” with some distance from the Obama era.
Other than a scrim of sentiment for both Washington and Obama, who occupy critical but very different places in the American pantheon and are likely to have very different legacies, the events of “Hamilton” don’t fit the present moment terribly well. Rather than trying to contort the past and the present so that they map neatly onto each other, freeing “Hamilton” from the pressure to provide immediate commentary on American politics makes the show feel more expansive and more distinct. Miranda’s ideas — about sex and politics, about loyalty to values rather than to party and about the importance of having a core self and core beliefs — are certainly relevant to this moment, even if they aren’t actually about the Trump administration.
In the short term, saying a piece of art perfectly explains how we arrived at a given moment or outcome may be a way to boost its immediate relevance. But this sort of analysis has the long-term effect of shrinking a work, as if it’s a single-use prophecy rather than a source of flexible and important ideas that may change our thinking about many outcomes.
I felt a similar way about the end of “Girls,” Lena Dunham and Jenni Konner’s hotly debated series about self-absorbed millennials making — and mostly failing — their way through Brooklyn. The series was an absolutely perfect tool for discussing everything from the decline of the publishing industry, to beauty standards, to contemporary sexual culture, to whose experiences get deemed and marketed as broadly representative, to the responsibility of artists making deliberately narrow works.
As much as “Girls” was an excellent data point for any one of these conversations, it was more than that. And when it became clear that this sixth season of “Girls” would be the series’ last, I felt a certain relief, and not simply because of the whiplash every season put me through. I’m eager to see what “Girls” looks like 10 or 15 years in the future, when our conversations about culture will inevitably be different, and series like Issa Rae’s “Insecure” will have had their own say about a similar stage of life.
The test of “Girls” as a work of art isn’t whether Dunham could power the think-piece industrial complex all on her own, but whether “Girls” will resonate in entirely different ways for viewers who encounter it in a radically different context. And the test of “Hamilton” as political commentary won’t be whether the musical provides a balm to Democrats who can afford tickets to it during the Trump administration, but whether it helps a wider audience think about the fractious history of American democracy.