Last weekend, the Door Christian Fellowship Ministries in McAllen, Texas, mounted an unauthorized, unlicensed and “Christianized” production of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Broadway musical Hamilton. The production took the opportunity to convert the narrative arc into a redemptive story in which Hamilton and his wife Eliza are saved. At the show’s conclusion, Pastor Victor Lopez then tacked on a short sermon reportedly comparing the “struggle… with homosexuality” to alcohol, drugs, and broken marriages—an especially inappropriate ornament given Broadway’s reputation for queer positivity and Miranda’s “Love is love” Tony-award acceptance speech in 2016.
The morals and values of Broadway’s Hamilton and the Door McAllen Church’s Hamilton are clearly unalike. And the legal issue with Door McAllen Church’s unlicensed production of Hamilton seems cut and dried (the Hamilton creative and legal teams have since denounced the production following their cease and desist letter). But the outrage surrounding this production’s evangelical framing ought to take into account that Lin-Manuel Miranda’s pro-immigrant version of Alexander Hamilton, so beloved by liberals, was also forced.
Both are fantasies, both are adaptations of history, and both get the story wrong. It’s the wrongness of both stories that I think makes them worth talking about. In fact, the headlines bury the lede: musical theater connects the secular Left and the Christian Right. How?
In my book Lying in the Middle: Musical Theater and Belief at the Heart of America, I investigate how religious communities like Door McAllen Church use musicals to practice a form of world-building where they and their beliefs can belong. I learned that this level of adaptation is not at all uncommon among religious groups in America, and for good reason. Musicals, like many religions, are invested in the not-yet, in the could-be. With their extravagant theatrics and larger-than-life mythologies, neither is engaged in affirming the world around us the way secular liberals are in the habit of doing.
Rather, they teach us how to imagine (what they consider to be) a better, more just version of our world—though in the case of the Christian Right that version of the world tends to be “more just” only for those who believe and look like they do. Truth isn’t a currency in these economies. This act of lying is what’s important. It opens up space for possibility. Musicals and religion both do it with ease. There’s something special about this ability to, as D.A. Miller put it, “send the whole world packing.”
I think the relationship musicals share with evangelical religion also has something to do with their unboundedness. And when it comes to unbounded ideas, one metaphor I use in the classroom goes like this: the world of ideas is full of peaches and coconuts.
Peaches invite you in. They’re easy to love and even easier to let dribble down your grinning chin. Coconuts put up a fight. They dare you to like them. If you want what’s inside, you have to bring some tools and you have to work at it. It’s the shell.
The object lesson is about value, and value in this equation comes down to accessibility. I think of Hamilton as having thin skin. Hamilton doesn’t make loving it or understanding its ideological message a challenge, even if there are layers of meaning sometimes hidden beneath its surface. The show is accessible in a way that makes it relatable to many. And that’s part of the grind here. Works that are thin-skinned and accessible lend themselves to adaptation and reinvention in ways that cannot always be predicted.
Walter Benjamin folded this paradox of accessibility into his famous 1935 essay “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.” Mass producing a work of art like Hamilton puts that art into more hands; on the other hand, all those grubby little fingers smudge and smear and wear and tear.
Benjamin’s fellow thinkers out of Frankfurt had reason to distrust what the many grimy hands of democracy represent. After all, these Jewish intellectuals narrowly escaped with their lives from the terrors of accessibility. Give people a chance and they’ll elect a dictator. Make music that everyone can understand and you get Muzak. Their point was that art may not survive democracy. Borders are necessary. Our best art and our best ideas ought to be kept out of reach if they’re to do any real work in the world.
As it goes with art, so it is with religion. Give your beliefs a tough shell or skin and the uninvested (some say undeserving) will pass it by. Thick skin protects what’s inside by sometimes repulsing even those willing to give it a try. Thin-skinned ideas on the other hand are there for the taking. Adapting a monster Broadway hit to make an ideological point about Christianity is a thin-skinned power move and so is creating a monster Broadway hit to make an ideological point about immigration.
Both productions are heavy-handed, ahistorical, and ideologically driven works. That one makes a pro-social message about dignity and human worth and the other takes the opportunity to denigrate and erase the identities of others shows just how powerful and consequential having thin skin can be.
Skin is a barrier, a boundary. It contains what it hides. It defines what lies beneath the surface. But skin is also what lets in and out what’s needed for survival. It’s porous in ways that help it coexist in its environment, and closed-off in ways that enable it to survive as something set apart from that environment. Skin is a relationship between what something is and what something cannot become.
And that’s the lesson here. The Door McAllen Church production brings an intriguing situation to the surface. It’s not nothing that, in an age of bitter critique and entrenchment, we find an example where warring parties actually admit to finding meaning in the same fundamental story.
Musicals like Hamilton thin out our relationship with the world as it is in order to make us rethink the world as it might become. Churches like The Door McAllen seem to be doing the same. Ideas with thin skin make it possible for unalike people to gather together, but that comes at a cost. The reckoning this production brings points to the discomfort that comes when we realize the strange company our musicals help us keep.