Thinking about Hamilton and creative license

For the Fourth of July this year, I finally sat down and watched Hamilton on Disney Plus, the version that was filmed live with the original cast back in 2016. As someone who, even in normal times, doesn’t get to the theater as much as I would like to due in no small part to ticket prices, I generally appreciate these special, filmed performances that get released to movie theaters and sometimes streaming (see also: Newsies). But unlike a lot of the shows I watch on screen, I’ve actually seen the touring version of Hamilton live. It was a pretty thrilling experience, so I wasn’t sure how I’d feel about this filmed version.

Generally speaking, I liked it a lot. It was a lot of fun to see the original cast, many of whom I know from other projects, in their breakout roles, especially after having just seen some of them in the movie version of In the Heights. Like a lot of people, I do wish they had been able to capture more of the amazing choreography in the film, but I guess the trade-off was getting to see the actors’ faces up close in a way that you wouldn’t if you were actually seeing the show in the theater. Anyway, it was a lot of fun.

I also watched the tie-in special that ABC/Disney made to go with the release of the film, which is called “Hamilton: History Has Its Eyes on You.” The setup is a kind of group Zoom interview between Robin Roberts, members of the cast, and Harvard Professor Annette Gordon-Reed. I expected it mostly to be a fluff piece about how great Hamilton is and mostly it is but it also considers how Hamilton as a show feels a bit different in 2020 (when the special was filmed) than it might have when it was filmed back in 2016. And there are also questions about the show’s historical accuracy.

In my upcoming book project, I have a chapter on the ethical use of information that considers some of the differences between “ethical use for academic/scholarly research,” where citation is required and creative license is anathema, and “ethical use for creative research,” where creative license is assumed. I used both Hamilton and The Social Network as examples of popular creative works that take liberties with the histories they purport to tell. So I was very interested to see how Lin-Manuel Miranda and Dr. Gordon-Reed answered questions about creative license and historical accuracy in the special.

Needless to say, Lin-Manuel Miranda was a bit more gracious in his response than Aaron Sorkin was when he was asked about the rampant inaccuracies in The Social Network back when that movie came out. Miranda basically said that there was only so much he could fit into a two and half hour show and that he hoped that the story he was telling would inspire those who watch it to do their own research into the actual historical events he portrays. Dr. Gordon-Reed basically agreed that in a creative work, 100% historical accuracy is not required.

What was interesting to me was that Lin-Manuel Miranda also kind of acknowledges that he purposely changed some things out of convenience and/or because it made a better story. He points to Angelica Schuyler’s marital status as a specific example. In real life, she was already married when she met Alexander Hamilton.(1) Portraying her as unmarried made a better story for the play.

Which I think is fine.

This question about creative license fascinates me, though, in ways that are a little hard to talk about without sounding like a scold who doesn’t understand what art is or what it’s for. In no way do I believe that artists who base their art on true stories are doing anything wrong if they’re not endeavoring to be 100% accurate, 100% of the time. Like, dude. Not even documentaries do that.

But it really interests me how the “based on a true story” label has really become nothing more than a marketing tool. I read somewhere once that in commercials for hair coloring products, the celebrities in the ads only had to have used the product on one strand of their hair for it not to be considered “false advertising.” I have no idea if this was true or if it’s something that’s still done today, but there seems to be a similar principle at work with creative works that claim to be based on a true story.

Which is to say, for all its inaccuracies and elisions, Hamilton is probably much more accurate than most similar creative biographical works. Either that or it’s easier to forgive Lin-Manuel Miranda for the liberties he takes because he seems like such a cool, thoughtful guy. Either way, when it comes down to it, Hamilton is far from the worst example of a creative work that’s based on a true story that gets things wrong, deliberately or otherwise.

But it’s probably the most popular one, at least in recent memory. Hamilton and its music has penetrated the popular consciousness to the point where even someone like me who generally has very little awareness of (or interest in) What’s Popular on Broadway These Days knew about it way back in 2016. So there are a lot of people out there who have seen the show, watched the film, or at least heard the soundtrack and come away believing that the story Hamilton tells is true, or at least unaware of the specifics of its inaccuracies. Even among those who are generally aware that “based on a true story” doesn’t actually mean anything (which I’m willing to bet is most people), the play is bound to have an outsize influence on what they think they know or understand about that time in history and the people the play portrays.

Miranda’s hope that those who enjoy the play will do their own research into the real history behind it is nice but how many people are actually going to do that? It also places a lot of responsibility on the audience to do the work of discovering the true story on their own.

Like I said, it’s hard to talk about this without sounding like a scold. To be clear, I’m not exploring this because I think Miranda (or any other creator of a popular work that’s “based on a true story”) has done anything wrong or that Hamilton is somehow a lesser work because of any of this. I’m just really interested in these questions about how artists think about and use creative license and what the effects are for the audience. Because as an audience member, I know that The Social Network is basically BS as a work of quasi-nonfiction (and has been acknowledged as such by Sorkin) but I also recognize that a lot of what I believe about the early days of Facebook has been colored by what I saw in that movie and I’m sure the same is true for many others who have seen it as well.

These are questions I wish we knew more about, especially because the approach of creative researchers when it comes to stuff like this is so very different from the approach we teach students to take in their academic and scholarly research. Thinking about where those differences come from and why they exist is likely a much more meaningful lesson than trying to teach students the mechanics of citation, a method for acknowledging sources that they’re unlikely to ever use again once they graduate.

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(1) Miranda doesn’t mention this, but Angelica Schuyler also did, in fact, have a brother, which basically invalidates the entire premise of my favorite song of the entire show, “Satisfied.”

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