Top of the Class

0 0 630

Who would have ever thought that a Broadway musical about a man best known today for having been killed in a duel with Aaron Burr (and who was also one of the founders of nascent American corporate capitalism) should have become the hottest thing on Broadway since Cats?  But then again, who would have thought that a Broadway musical would get itself involved in what is arguably the bitterest American election since 1860?  That is exactly what Hamilton has done, and therein lies a semiotic tale.


The story here begins not with the creation and triumphal run of this Tony-record-smashing production, but with an event that took place after its creator had left the cast for other projects.  This event, of course, was the reading of a statement by a cast member to Vice President-elect Pence, who happened to be in attendance at a post-election performance.  That statement, which did not appear to have upset Pence (it basically implored the incoming Trump administration to play nice), did upset the President-elect, who took the matter to Twitter, where he appears to conduct the greatest portion of his communication with the American people.


The ironies—indeed, outright paradoxes—of this whole situation can hardly be overstated.  First, we have the paradox of the play itself:  a paean to diversity and inclusiveness whose ticket prices now average $411, and whose premium seats run $849.   The ironic symbolism of this—in the light of an election in which the Democratic candidate overwhelmingly carried America's centers of post-industrial prosperity, while the Republican candidate captured the Rust Belt—should not be lost on anyone.  Simply stated, while race relations most certainly played a key role in the election, so did socioeconomic inequality.  And while the billionaire standard bearer of the traditional party of the country club set saw this and exploited it in a campaign aimed at working-class Democrats who could hardly afford Hamilton's price of admission, the Democrats did not. 


Then there is the paradoxical fact that the Democratic candidate out-fundraised and outspent her Republican rival by a considerable margin.  Making use of social media (especially Twitter) instead, a capitalist tycoon struck a populist note by communicating directly with voters rather than through expensively staged, and highly mediated, advertisements.  Whether this populist strategy was truly authentic is open to debate; that it was successful is not.


In short, the traditional party of class privilege won (at least in part) by playing upon the often-neglected emotions of social class, while the traditional (at least since FDR) party of the common folk, got blindsided by class resentment.  And while one can certainly understand why the cast of America's most celebrated stage entertainment would want to take advantage of a chance to speak directly to a man whose election appears to contradict everything that their performance stands for, the upper-class aura of the venue for their message was not, perhaps, the most effective setting for it.

About the Author
Jack Solomon is Professor Emeritus of English at California State University, Northridge, where he taught literature, critical theory and history, and popular cultural semiotics, and directed the Office of Academic Assessment and Program Review. He is often interviewed by the California media for analysis of current events and trends. He is co-author, with the late Sonia Maasik, of Signs of Life in the U.S.A.: Readings on Popular Culture for Writers, and California Dreams and Realities: Readings for Critical Thinkers and Writers, and is also the author of The Signs of Our Time, an introductory text to popular cultural semiotics, and Discourse and Reference in the Nuclear Age, a critique of poststructural semiotics that proposes an alternative semiotic paradigm.