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Musical Money Matters

Alexander Hamilton found a fan base outside of the financial sector, and the “ten-dollar founding father” lives to see another printing. Meanwhile, Andrew Jackson gets the bump and the beloved heroine of the Underground Railroad, Harriet Tubman, gets her due. There were a number of actors involved, including the Women on 20s campaign, but this ten-month paper portrait saga owes its visibility and staying power to a player not normally cast in pecuniary politics: musical theatre.

Had Treasury Secretary Jack Lew announced his intention to remove his principal predecessor from the ten dollar note a year or even just six months earlier, we’d likely be celebrating Susan B. Anthony’s promotion from a rare coin to popular paper currency (and perhaps enduring a new campaign to get Hamilton’s portrait on some other denomination). I’d wager ten bucks that Lew figured he’d meet little resistance to a plan replacing a peripheral founding father with a prominent suffragette; who would expect an upstart hip-hop show about Alexander Hamilton to become a national cultural phenomenon? But the announcement came just as the musical was making its sensational Broadway transfer, a minor miscalculation that sparked a controversy yielding disappointed feminists and enraged racists, and yet another opportunity to cull the overgrown Facebook friend list.

When the news hit that Hamilton was saved and Jackson was a goner, there was a sentiment coming across my Facebook feed that if only Jackson had a hit musical, he’d have been saved, too. Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson was promptly invoked, and the accompanying commentary suggested that perhaps it just wasn’t popular enough to keep Old Hickory on the twenty. But it seems to me that the niche musical, though not as wildly successful as Hamilton, did exactly what it was supposed to do: it brought Andrew Jackson back into the public consciousness, critiquing his legacy in such a way to make a strong case for his removal from our currency.

The two shows are each clever and powerful in their own ways, but have different ends in mind. Americans love rags-to-riches stories, and while both men came up from nothing, the popularity enjoyed by their respective shows likely has much to do with the fact that Hamilton tells a straight-forward sympathetic story while Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson is largely hostile commentary and caricature. In its sexy, anachronistic slapstick, Bloody Bloody forces us to reflect on our not-so-pleasant history and consider how it closely resembles our present; Hamilton is inspiring and cool, offering a relatable glimpse into a distant era while motivating us to get off our duff and “not throw away our shot.” The earnest narrative of Hamilton hip-hop stands in stark contrast to the ironic satire of Andrew Jackson’s emo-rock-inspired score. So where Lin-Manuel Miranda manages to humanize a historical and often hagiographic figure, Friedman & Timbers give us Andrew Jackson, the petulant adolescent rock star. We see ambition in two very different guises, which might explain our preference for the flawed and complicated Hamilton with legitimate merits over the genocidal, power-hungry Jackson, cloaked in hubris and bitterness that nearly dismantled the system of government created by Hamilton’s generation.

The greater point, however, is this: art speaks to us in ways that policy papers and op-eds never will. We respond viscerally, emotionally, and suddenly. But likewise, art demands our sustained attention and provokes us to ponder the problems we often ignore in our everyday realities. From Mozart’s comic operas mocking the nobility, to Stravinsky’s riot-inducing ballets; from Shakespeare’s histories of beloved and hated monarchs, to recent hit plays like Robert Schenkkan’s All the Way, which chronicles President Lyndon Johnson’s battle for re-election amid the civil rights movement, the theatre has always been a home for politically-charged commentary. And when a show strikes a nerve, it can fuel a movement, even if it’s a somewhat trivial distraction of whose mug is on our money.

The true victory here, though, does not belong to Hamilton—it belongs to Harriet. Yes, it’s ironic that Jackson, who hated paper money and dissolved the central bank, has his face on the bill most likely to meet us at the ATM. But irony be damned: we’re getting one hell of a badass woman on our twenty in what Damon Young of VSB called “the blackest thing that will ever happen.” And thanks to a little added pressure (#NotWillingToWait), Secretary Lew has accelerated the timeline for redesign of the twenty alongside the ten and five to coincide with the centennial of women’s suffrage in 2020. Critics who might call this change political correctness run amok fail to see the multiple-level, national civic engagement with artists creating, citizens debating, and statesmen responding. Regardless, this is the perfect moment for an inspired woman composer to create a new musical called Harriet.

Author:

Andrew Bolden was a New America fellow, where he wrote the libretto and composed the score for a new musical about NSA surveillance, anchored by the Edward Snowden narrative.