Do you like musicals, friends? I do. I don't get to see them often, and the last one I went to see was Allegiance. I'm not good at reviewing theater, but I do like it. Have you heard Hamilton, the Broadway musical about Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton, one of the Founding Fathers of the United States of America? I heard the original cast recording when it first dropped on NPR, and it made me weep, but last night, I sat down to listen to it more closely on Spotify, accompanied by lyrics and commentary from Genius, and I wept harder. I do not recommend the experience of doing it while grading papers.
And after it was done and I was considering the genres it had been written in, its themes of history-making, its subtle digs at today's climate of anti-immigration and economy, I thought to myself, this musical has a most steampunk sensibility!
It doesn't fit my recipe for steampunk, true... at best it has a very retrofuturistic element, because there is a constant pressure on the part of the characters to build something for their future, something that will be their legacy. It's a modern interpretation of how people in the past would have looked to the future. There's no technofantasy, and it's less alternate history than it is setting the historical record straight and putting forward a reparative narrative.
But that reparative narrative unto itself is also a kind of alternate history--presenting history a different way from how it's normally narrated to us. Uncovering little things that may not matter in the long run gives us insight into how particular events have unfolded. As a result, this people who are the subject of the musical not only become part of the background of one's historical culture, but become fully fleshed out and human.
What I mean by a steampunk sensibility is that of (mis)representing history with full awareness of the present. We like to think about history as this cordoned-off, self-contained series of events that happened without our involvement--how could we be involved, when it happened before we were even aware of it? And a lot of steampunk stories are written in the same way: self-contained, distant, having little to no link to the present... completely invented history. However, the present and the past have no definitive borders in relation to each other: the way we view the past is always coloured by how the present shapes us, and the way we view the present is always coloured by what has happened in the past.
When I consider what is good steampunk, I find that good steampunk always has this leaking of the present into the alternate history, of the truth into the fictional that shapes the fictional into something that speaks to a deeper level. That's why steampunk projects that don't reference history and which purport to be something faraway don't interest me very much; there's no truth binding it, there's no curiosity to spur about something that really happened, there's nothing to impart. I don't want just the trappings of history, I also want a dialog with it.
That is what's happening in Hamilton. By choosing hip hop and rap as the genre through which to tell the story of an immigrant who rises up ala the American Dream narrative, Lin-Manuel Miranda indexes histories of hip hop and of the Founding Fathers, links them to give history a fresh look. Hip hop is very much a modern genre; it's rarely associated with anything "historical" in the sense that we're used to in steampunk (which is, generally, anything more than a hundred years ago). Telling a historical story through an extremely modern genre--and then doing it well in a way that really respects the genre and plays up the genre's strengths--isn't just good for novelty value, but also forces us to consider how we approach the genre and the history. Consider: a genre often associated with Black people, taken up commercially to tell white people's stories and line white people's pockets. In this musical, hip hop has (and pays!) non-white people to tell a white man's story, and the story of a white male immigrant from a predominantly Black country at that.
Throughout the musical, there is an awareness on the historicized characters that people are watching, and they are making history, and time gets to tell "who lives, who does, who gets to tell your story." There are lines lifted directly from historical documents, and then there are lines which paraphrase them. There's a bit of moving events around for the sake of plot, and there are narrative choices made for added drama (for example, Maria Reynold's ignorance of her husband blackmailing Hamilton, when records show otherwise), and these are fairly obvious. There's also an attempt to fill in the gaps, as in the songs by Angelica and Eliza, from perspectives that probably won't show up on history textbooks. In Eliza's "Burn," she angrily "removes herself from the narrative," refusing the future a chance to witness her reactions and claiming her right to privacy from not just the public eye of her time, but also the public eye for posterity.
The casting choice of peopling the stage with people of color, rather than default to white actors, is another hugely steampunk'd choice: the choice of historical mis-representation that brings historical events closer to our present reality, by anachronistically foregrounding non-white people in a historical narrative that they are usually erased from. We could write whole papers about what this does! For this blog though, what it does is highlight that this is a text written by people of the present, for people of the present, trying to be true to the present itself. As such, verisimilitude or conforming to what we think of historical settings isn't exactly a concern, and good thing too! (Let's be real, what with all the numbers of mad scientists and adventurers running amuck, steampunk isn't exactly concerned with verisimilitude. That is why there is so much bad world-building in the genre. There, I said it.)
In sum, Hamilton, while not being steampunk, does what good steampunk stuff does: re-present history in a ripping good story, re-interpreting historical record to bring forward things we might otherwise miss in common narratives, in a frame that is self-aware of its recent-ness and modernity. I'm so glad it exists, and I hope more people look to it as inspiration for steampunk!