onuments are toppling. No, really, this time—heads, bodies, bases and all. In the United States, monuments to the Confederacy, itself a failed monument to slavery, are being hog-tied and ejected by laboring protesters, or, more quietly, slated for removal and offsite preservation by local governments with the good sense to know a bandwagon when they see one. But that’s not all. Other icons of oppression and genocide have taken a tumble as well—including Christopher Columbus, much to the ire of certain Italian-Americans who’ve celebrated his Genoan roots as part of their heritage. The targets are both major and minor—or would-be minor, if they hadn’t been memorialized in stone—from George Washington to George Preston Marshall, the founder of the Washington Redskins. Historical figures on the softer side of imperialism have been placed on notice, too. Last week, in Golden Gate Park, in San Francisco, after dethroning the slaveholder (and author of “The Star-Spangled Banner”) Francis Scott Key and the Spanish missionary Junípero Serra, protesters took down a bust of Ulysses S. Grant. Even for some inclined to celebrate the tearing down of statues, this last one was a step too far. “People going after Grant probably just want to break things,” Adam Serwer, of The Atlantic, tweeted. As he and many others hastily reminded everyone, the Union general and eventual President had only owned, like, one slave ever.
So what about cultural monuments? In the summer of 2020, a tale of America’s patrilineal derring-do set to song and dance might seem as inopportune as the added dose of HGTV programming that chased the 2008 financial crisis. And yet, in May, Disney announced that it was moving up its release of the filmed version of “Hamilton” by more than a year, to July 3rd, on Disney+, because, according to the company’s chairman, “In light of the extraordinary challenges facing our world, this story about leadership, tenacity, hope, love and the power of people to unite against the forces of adversity is both relevant and impactful.”
It’s been nearly five years since Lin-Manuel Miranda brought “Hamilton” to Broadway, after a run at the Public Theatre, and its retelling of American revolution, with emphasis on a nearly forgotten Founder, became a national phenomenon. Its rise straddled two earlier reckonings with historical monuments—prompted by the massacre at a black church, in Charleston, South Carolina, and the violent white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia—but was buoyed by the optimism of the Obama Presidency, which was in its final stretch. There was plenty to acclaim in “Hamilton”, which became an eleven-time Tony winner—Miranda’s dexterous score, Andy Blankenbuehler’s bellicose choreography, capital actors and dancers, many of whom are now household names. In the initial wave of rave reviews and afterward, though, critical conversation could hardly get past the novelty of the show’s brown bodies and black music. The terms of appraisal were set by those who could pay the pretty penny (as much as eight hundred dollars per ticket) for the privilege of determining for themselves whether or not the play was sufficiently radical—a doomed metric for almost any artistic discipline, not least musical theatre. Meanwhile, the rest of the country bopped along to the soundtrack, experiencing the production without the benefit of stagecraft.