NEW YORK CITY — Race matters, but it's not all that matters. That's the lesson of "Hamilton," the Broadway musical that everyone is pulling strings to see. (My 17-year-old grandson and I lucked out.) "Hamilton" teaches a little history using rap and music as the sugar to make the history go down. The musical doesn't ignore slavery, the perpetual thorn in the weeds of the American narrative. It's on stage at the beginning when Thomas Jefferson recalls that Alexander Hamilton saw slaves "slaughtered and carted away across the waves," but it puts the evil of slavery into the bigger picture.
President Obama and the first lady, in a video prepared for the Tony Awards broadcast, introduced "Hamilton" as a civics lesson about "the miracle that is America," a place where ideas can be debated "with passion and conviction" in a culture of inclusiveness, diversity and opportunity.
That's true enough, so far as the president's words go. But off Broadway, where the rest of us live and history is not syncopated and told with hip-hop enthusiasm, civics lessons are often neither honored nor so neatly packaged. Such civics values are often hard to find in popular culture or on university campuses, where the young and their professors prefer to dig up dead white men so they can bury them again under a torrent of words about how the values of the Founding Fathers don't speak to them.
It's ironic and perhaps hopeful that Lin-Manuel Miranda, the author of "Hamilton" and second-generation American whose father came to the United States from Puerto Rico when he was 17 — almost the same age as Alexander Hamilton when he arrived here — portrays all those dead white male founders energetically and sympathetically as they argue aggressively over how to launch democracy in America. "Hamilton," one might say, is the author's own Miranda rights.
He's so confident that the words of the founders have contemporary significance that he put them in the mouths of men and women of different colors, extending universal appeal in a stifling politically correct culture so blinkered that the obvious is often difficult to see. The musical, rising in form from the black ghettos of urban America, generates the unexpected message that the dead white man on the $10 bill was "a brother" after all. Black slang as a unifier. Who knew?
The sugar that makes the history go down is nevertheless fused with the bitter herbs and poison pills that slavery pumped into the nation's bloodstream. But the play is compelling and refreshing to the common pride in the nation's beginnings, told with aesthetic authority and a flourish uncommon in popular entertainment. It's make-believe, syncopated and joyous, and it has real history to tell, too.
Richard Primus, professor of constitutional law at the University of Michigan Law School, writes in The Atlantic magazine how "Hamilton" aims to "let nonwhites feel ownership of the Founding, not by offering nonwhite historical figures with whom to identify but by creating conditions in which a black American today, as a black American today, can identify with Washington, or Hamilton, or even perhaps with Jefferson, villain though he be." His point — beneath the ritual sneer at the author of the Declaration of Independence and the foremost men who created America — is that in the current racial politics, a rap musical can alter the way that Americans of all races think about identity.
Primus oversimplifies themes in "Hamilton," citing polarizing images in contemporary America from the viewpoint of the white liberal. But he's right to suggest that it was just as hard to imagine a reality TV star with no government experience becoming the presumptive Republican presidential nominee as it was to expect a hip-hop opera about such a man as Hamilton to be a smash hit on Broadway. The two "phenomena" arise in our midst at the same time for many reasons, not least how we get information about the world around us. We want to be entertained above all, and Donald Trump and Alexander Hamilton (in the imagination of Miranda) are great entertainers.
The historian's intellectual analysis draws an academic thesis from pop culture, illustrating how politics and entertainment interact. In Trump's America, voters worry about runaway illegal immigration and radical Islamic terrorism. They can still be entertained by engaging theater, and they can even enjoy the hopeful portrayal of an idealistic multiracial future as presented in "Hamilton." But their fears are real, and the creative musical is fanciful. How we pay attention to the first will determine how we enjoy the second. That's the most crucial civics lesson of all.