When Hamilton creator and star Lin-Manuel Miranda announced that he was bringing the film of his acclaimed Broadway production to Disney+, the move was touted as a huge get for Disney’s fledgling streaming service and as a reward for musical theatre fans, who have largely gone without live performances since the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic. Additionally, Hamilton’s streaming debut marks yet another milestone for the musical, which has previously smashed box office records, produced a multi-time platinum album, and dominated the award show circuit. Moreover, in the midst of a pandemic, protests, and a presidential campaign, Hamilton’s release reasserts the public memory of Alexander Hamilton and the Founding Fathers into national conversations about politics, identity, and race.
Since its inception, Hamilton has been a work of public memory—defined by Barbie Zelizer (1995) as, “recollections that are instantiated beyond the individual by and for the collective” (p. 214). In a description particularly relevant to this case, Edward Casey (2004) suggests that public memory is “subject to revision or, for that matter, resumption (for example, when a certain faded memory is revived and revalorized at a later time, such as John Brown’s raid during the civil rights period)” (p. 30). Without a doubt, Lin-Manuel Miranda is responsible for reviving and revalorizing the public memory of Alexander Hamilton, once called the “forgotten founder.” Hamilton’s popularity even saved the founder from being removed from the $10 bill. More importantly, the musical revised the public memory of Hamilton and the founders by casting predominantly Black and Latino actors in the roles and by giving voice to the characters through a modern-day musical palette of hip-hop, rap, and R&B. As Hamilton director Tommy Kail put it, “This is a story about America then, told by America now.”
Another defining characteristic of public memory is that it responds to and is influenced by present-day concerns (Blair, Dickinson, and Ott, 2010, pp. 6-7). When Hamilton opened off-Broadway, in 2015, the show’s pro-immigrant and pro-diversity themes overtly addressed contemporary national issues. Even more directly, the show has responded to events including the Pulse nightclub shooting, President Obama’s departure from the White House, and the election of Donald Trump.
Miranda and Disney+ seem to recognize the significance of releasing Hamilton at this moment in history. On Twitter, Disney+ has advertised the show as “a work that has sparked passion, conversation and the need to confront the past to shape the future.” It remains to be seen how Hamilton will cultivate public memory in a time when the nation deals with protests focused on racial injustice, a pandemic that disproportionately endangers the lives and livelihoods of people of color, and a deeply divisive presidential campaign.
Casey, E. S. (2004). Public memory in place and time. In K. R. Phillips (Ed.), Framing public memory (pp. 17-44). University of Alabama Press.
Dickinson, G., Blair, C., & Ott, B. L. (Eds.). (2010). Places of public memory: The rhetoric of museums and memorials. University of Alabama Press.
Zelizer, B. (1995). Reading the past against the grain: The shape of memory studies. Critical Studies in Mass Communication, 12(2), 214-239.