History In Color

Before Hamilton, United States history was one of my least favorite subjects in school. I thought learning about America just consisted of memorizing the names of numerous old, white men and wondering how many more could have the name James or John. The American history they taught me in school never really applied to me for the most part. The only times it did apply to me was during the Civil War or rights units and from February 1st- 28th (and February 29th on the years they decided to allow Black history to be relevant in the American narrative for one more day). On most days, United States history was like looking at a painting made with white paint on a white canvas. However, in eighth grade, this all changed. The year was 2016, and my U.S. history teacher introduced the whole class to a new, up-and-coming musical called Hamilton. Being the theatre kid I was in middle school, I started listening to the soundtrack, and I fell in love. I listened to the soundtrack all the time, and for the first time, I saw American history in color. It was like the monochromatic painting of history I had been looking at before was now a large wall covered in colorful paints. 

The musical Hamilton, by Lin Manuel Miranda, sparked my interest in American history because it did for me what my textbooks in class never did. It included me! The producers on Hamilton erased the performance of whiteness that most people associate with American identity by using a cast and ensemble entirely made of people of color to tell the story of the founding of America. Lin Manuel Miranda also used Hamilton to make American history inclusive of people from all backgrounds through his selection of characters, the way he embraced the black culture, and the way he celebrated immigrants in the production. 

One of the most notable aspects in the casting of Hamilton was its composition of an almost entirely non-white leading cast and ensemble. This unique choice of casting is a big part of why Hamilton became such a great success. However, the call for a diverse cast was also the cause of the production’s major controversy. Several people have accused the producers of Hamilton, that sent out an ad calling for non-white performers to try out for the musical’s lead roles, of being discriminatory towards white people. These critics failed to recognize the essential part that a minority cast plays in the narrative of America Hamilton attempts to create. The musical, Hamilton, fills its ensemble and leads with people of various backgrounds to rewrite American history in a way that allows all people to find belonging in United States identity. 

When people think of the formation of America, there is usually an assumption of complete and inherent whiteness. But Hamilton shatters this notion and presents a beautiful parade of Black culture and immigrant celebration in its rewrite of America’s creation. 

Black inspiration in Hamilton is evident when listening to the musical’s soundtrack. You can hear the incorporation of black culture within Lin Manuel Manuel Miranda’s use of hip-hop, rap, R&B, and jazz in many of the songs. The producers of this show also display Blackness in the musical’s characters. Black actors and actresses play most of the lead roles in the performance of Hamilton that Disney Plus features. These actors are allowed to embrace their appearance and utilize Black style in the development of their character. A perfect demonstration of this is Daveed Diggs as Thomas Jefferson. In the musical, Daveed Diggs rocks his lively afro and exercises his swagger to steal the hearts of the audience. His suave movements and use of the pimp walk allow him to portray Thomas Jefferson without having to perform whiteness.  

Lin Manuel Miranda also stresses the value of immigrants in the creation of America. Throughout history, many have attempted to separate immigrants from the definition of American, but Hamilton teaches us that there is no America without immigrants. From the first song in the musical, Miranda emphasizes that Alexander Hamilton, one of the most important founding fathers of America, was an immigrant. Another immigrant in the musical is Marquis de Lafayette, played by Daveed Diggs, another crowd favorite. The producers portray Lafayette and Hamilton as incredibly hard-working, intelligent, and determined individuals. Together these two characters sing one of the musical’s most iconic lines: “immigrants, we get the job done.”

By emphasizing the immigrants that played a role in the revolution and founding of the United States, Lin Manuel Miranda writes American immigrants back into the narrative of this nation and shows them their identity as an essential part of our country. Lin Manuel Miranda also highlighted different important aspects and identities in American history through the selection of largely dismissed members of history that helped in the creation of The United States as characters in the musical. 

An exemplary member of Hamilton’s character selection that highlights essential aspects of America’s identity is the part of John Laurens. John Laurens, played by Anthony Ramos, is undoubtedly one of my favorite characters in Hamilton. His multifaceted role on stage taught me a new side of history that I never learned in school but is integral to American culture and identity. John Laurens’ first solo is in the song “My Shot.” In the solo, Laurens expresses his belief that America can not claim freedom until the enslaved Black population receives the same rights as white men. Throughout the musical, John Laurens is passionate about his goal to abolish slavery in the United States, but his dreams are cut short by his sudden death at the end of act one.

John Laurens was one of the few early allies in the fight for freedom and rights for Black Americans, and his exclusion from history allows the country to overlook the long and continuous struggle of Black people in the United States. By including John Laurens in Hamilton, Lin Manuel Miranda teaches viewers that Black people were always present and relevant in American history. John Laurence proves that there was a struggle for Black Americans’ rights even before the fight for American independence and long preceding the era of the civil war or the civil rights movement. 

Another aspect of John Laurence that makes him a crucial character in America’s narrative is his ambiguous sexuality. Based on the letters between Hamilton and Laurens, historians have speculated the two may have shared a romantic relationship. Knowing this, Lin Manuel Miranda did not shy away from displaying a very intimate relationship between the two characters in his musical. In the song “My Shot,” Hamilton says, “Laurens, I like you a lot…” and throughout the production, you can see the two are closer and more physical with each other than any of the other men on stage. The display of this relationship in Hamilton sends a powerful message to the viewers. Introducing the possibility that Hamilton, Laurens, and other historical figures that aided in the creation of America, may have been queer provides representation for the LGBTQ community in the founding of our nation. John  Laurens represents a group of people that modern history has almost erased from the story of American. He was an ally to the Black American’s struggle for equality and a man who crossed the lines of heteronormative behavior. Hamilton “put [Laurens] back in the narrative,” and in doing so, represents the diverse people and struggles that made this country. 

Before Hamilton, United States history only taught the creation of a nation by white people and for white people, excluding minorities from the American narrative and identity. This teaching of history is the reason my sisters were thoroughly confused when they found out that I was obsessed with a musical about American history and yelled at me to stop when they heard me spitting bars about the founding fathers. They never had an inclusive and empowering experience learning about our country. But when my sisters watched the Hamilton for the first time on Disney Plus, I got to see their jaws drop as they danced with Thomas Jefferson and sang about George Washington. They literally could not stop raving about how much they loved it! Lin Manuel Miranda’s inclusion of minorities, celebration of immigrants, and use of black culture are the reasons why Hamilton was able to rewrite the way people think about American history. The musical was particularly impactful the year after it premiered on Broadway, during the 2016 election when some politicians and citizens were alienating and antagonizing United States Immigrants. Hamilton taught our nation that every member of America is an indispensable and crucial part of our counties story and identity.  

Carnaval del Progreso: Almost There, But Not Quite

After watching the PBS documentary and unexpectedly coming across a bootleg that featured the original Broadway cast (YouTube always comes in clutch when you least expect, I must say), I became more aware of what Lin-Manuel Miranda’s In the Heights intended to do and what it meant for the performers and members of the creative team who were involved. The musical intended to not only showcase the vast diversity of Latinx people and their culture but to provide opportunities for Latinx performers to portray characters that shed a positive light on the many heritages and traditions Latinx people celebrate. And after reading the show’s libretto and taking a glance or two at the YouTube-recommended bootleg, I believe I accomplished these goals. In the Heights does a satisfactory job of highlighting a concept known as multiculturalism. The production most certainly allows spectators to gather awareness of the presence of Latinx identity and the communal cultural heritage that exists in the real-life neighborhood of Washington Heights. However, the story dramatization forces parts of the plot and character representation to become more superficial rather than profound.

Miranda and Quiara Alegría Hudes’s Into the Heights was a flagship for Hispanic representation on the Broadway stage when it debuted in 2008. Miranda and Hudes’s production was one of the first of its kind to showcase the robust and diverse community of Washington Heights. The show portrays how a collective set of similar beliefs binds together the Latino immigrant community despite community members hailing from different regions of Latin America. The choice to fuse traditional Broadway storytelling with Latin-inspired dance, unapologetic Spanish-speaking characters, and emphasis on the immigrant story advance an intuitive plot that explores what it means to find belonging amongst a close-knit community where cultural differences are welcome. Not only does the musical do this, but it also examines how this sense of belonging functions in an overarching, modern American landscape. Into the Heights employs character relationships, production and design elements, and ensemble performance to demonstrate how multiculturalism, the coexistence of different races, ethnicities, and nationalities, fosters a unique and diverse set of individuals who all find universal belonging in the production’s setting, Washington Heights.

The musical number “Carnaval del Barrio” was one of the most enjoyable numbers to watch. The song emphasizes and celebrates the importance of fostering a cohesive and diverse community amongst its Hispanic characters. The number especially brings to light the importance of helping bring up members of the community during moments of doubt and adversity. During this song, Daniela, the local hair salon owner who comically doubles as the unofficial town crier, rallies members of the Washington Heights community during the hottest Fourth of July, which just so happens to coincide with a citywide blackout. Daniela commands her community to lift its spirits despite the circumstances and join her in song and dance. She wrangles the idling ensemble members into an impromptu neighborhood celebration while singing in not just English, but in Spanish as well. As Daniela seamlessly flows between the two languages, she demonstrates the unique, multicultural characteristic that defines the community of Washington Heights. Her bilingual fluency functions as a bridge that joins the neighborhood’s collective Latino heritage with the American landscape they currently occupy. Daniel’s Spanish functions as a tool that reminds everyone of their heritage and where their families have been before, while English operates as a reminder as to why the characters find themselves in Washington Heights in the first place. Daniela’s ability to speak Spanish does not hinder or prevent the fluency of which she speaks English or vice versa.  The performance of the two languages complements each other, offering insight into a community that is just as proud of its ethnic roots as it is to be celebrating Independence Day in the country they call home. Daniela’s words reinforce the multiculturalist message that In the Heights aims to recreate accurately. Daniela successfully demonstrates that Latinx culture and American culture can coexist and create a distinct experience that adapts the cultural values and practices of each character’s heritage into a new setting.

An image from Lin-Manuel Miranda’s 2008 production In the Heights featuring Miranda (center left) as Usnavi and Andrea Burns (center right) as Daniela.

As the number progresses, the ensemble members slowly begin to join Daniela in her Latin celebration. They start off dancing relatively slow and constrained, restricting their movements to simple two-/three-step Latin choreography. Although the ensemble performance remains scaled down during this point of the production number, the Latin influence in their footwork and hip movements is apparent. Together the ensemble, although not positioned in a distinct formation, sway and move their feet in time with the music as if they are a complete unit. While each ensemble character is distinctly separate from the other and performs differently from one another, the timing of their movements altogether unifies them. Each character’s individuality serves as a representation of the wide range of Spanish-speaking countries and territories they represent. Although the ensemble’s dance steps represent various styles and steps of Latin dance, the ensemble appears united as the members all move to the same beat and feed off of each other’s enthusiasm. The ensemble movement effectively functions as a mechanism that fosters bonds amongst the individuals that makeup Washington Heights, once again emphasizing the variety of cultural and ethnic identities amongst Latinx people that can coexist within a singular community. Each body that operates functions as a sect of the multiculturalism that makes up the greater community.

From this point on, the “Carnaval del Barrio” choreography continues to grow with more energy and enthusiasm. Progressing from simple steps and hip sways, the ensemble members burst into highly involved Latin choreography that consists of energetic spinning, punctuated clapping, and enthusiastic flag-waving. During this moment, the three flags that the ensemble members dance with represent the countries and territories of Puerto Rico, Cuba, and the Dominican Republic. These flags are waved proudly above the ensemble’s heads and shaken with vigor, signaling the multi-national pride that exists as Washington Heights proudly celebrates. While each of these flags represents a different country, the synchronous dancing once again unites each individual together. The dancers’ uniformity sends a message that differences in national origin do not prevent community formation. Instead, In the Heights contests that community prospers from collective celebration and recognition of cultural differences.

There is no doubt that “Carnaval del Barrio” is a celebratory explosion of Latinx pride and dance. Unfortunately, I believe the recognition of distinct Latinx culture begins and ends here. Outside of the national flags that hang from the fire escapes and the occasional Spanish interjection, everything else about the characters’ situation seems fairly normal. And let me be clear, normal is not used here with a negative undertone. Normalcy can be good. Normalcy, in this case, can help an audience member relate to the characters within the story, a concept referred to as universality. Universality recognizes that as humans, we are just that, human. We are all the same regardless of our skin color, the traditions we engage in, where our family is from, or the religion we choose the practice. However, it is possible to simultaneously acknowledge that we are all humans that deserve to be treated as such and recognize that society affords different groups of people distinct life experiences. Into the Heights does a great job at conveying the former. But the latter? Not as much.

The Into the Heights finale left me leaning more heavily into the normalcy narrative. I perceived the characters from Washington Heights, everyone from Usnavi to Vanessa to Nina to Sonny, and the real-life group of people they represent as people who deserve to be treated with decency. And if this was the sole narrative Miranda and Hudes wanted to achieve with their work, then they definitely have achieved that goal. However, as someone who was under the impression that In the Heights would educate them on the diversity that exists in Latinx immigrant culture, I was unfortunately underwhelmed. While I did learn about Washington Heights and the diverse community that calls this neighborhood home, I am still left with the bigger question of what distinguishes this group of individuals from each other. While Puerto Rico, Mexico, Cuba, and the Dominican Republic are all represented either visually or through character exposition, the differences in culture in each of these countries are never explicitly explored. Although all of these countries are lingually united, I can’t imagine that a Cuban would full-heartedly agree that Mexican culture is the same as Cuban culture. Yes, Miranda’s characters are Latinx, but Latinx people are not a monolith. And going forward, future theatrical work should actively work against this idea.

Criticism and all, Miranda still manages to create a body of work that provides representation to those who have historically been underrepresented on the Broadway stage. In the Heights successfully subverts negative Latinx stereotypes and offers Latinx performers an opportunity to engage with their cultural heritage through a publicly enjoyed art medium. In the grand scheme of Broadway and entertainment at large, Miranda succeeds in introducing Latinx multiculturalism to a broader audience. Granted, Broadway typically caters to a majority white audience that may or may not perpetuate the same process the musical warns about (ahem, I’m looking at you, Gentrification), but I digress. In the Heights certainly has not been the last Latinx-inspired story to hit Broadway. On Your Feet!, the jukebox musical that retells the life of the legendary Cuban singer-songwriter duo, Gloria and Emilio Estefan, graced the Great White Way in 2015. And I am sure once Broadway starts back up after the pandemic, positive portrayals of Latinx communities will only become more frequent and representative over time. It may not be perfect, but In the Heights is an important stepping stone towards the Latinx representation we should all be championing for.

Our Founding Fathers Were Bad Dads

My life is full of lies. I have spent the past year stressing over elections for politicians that lied straight to my face; my mom keeps telling me I’m special; and my ex says she still loves me. All I ask for is a smidgen of truth or just a temporary escape from the lies of reality, and surprisingly, I often find this safe haven in musicals. Now, I’m not about to argue that Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark is a canonical, historical event nor am I going to claim that Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson should replace our history textbooks (although our education system would be hell of a lot more fun). Musicals can be some of the rawest forms of commercial performance and expression. There is no lying during show-stopping belts or spectacular ensemble choreography, and there’s even a semblance of truth in the acting. Every movement, every note, every expression has truth in it somewhere, and that comfortable feeling of sincerity is one we chase every day.  

After seeing it back in 2018, Hamilton was my safe space. There was a song for every moment in my life that I could retreat to instead of facing reality. For a show centered around the birth of American politics, it is remarkably apolitical, and that’s what makes it so universally appealing. The production number “The Room Where It Happens” isn’t about the formation of the National Bank; it’s about wanting to fit in and being a part of something bigger than oneself. “Burn” provides solace for the heartbroken, and “You’ll Be Back” deploys an 18th century tyrannical monarch to help them cope with this heartache. But, just like every political campaign, just like my supposedly innate uniqueness, and just like my ex’s empty words of affirmation, Hamilton is too good to be true, and for the sake of performative diversity, Lin-Manuel Miranda throws away his shot to make a substantive, meaningful statement on sexism, cyclical political centrism, and the racism that this diversity is meant to battle.

The public opinion of Hamilton has shifted negatively in recent years without a tangible impetus for this downward turn. The music has aged well, the creative players haven’t been involved in any egregious scandals, and the Disney+ release has made the show more accessible than ever. Frankly, Hamilton didn’t change; the world around it did. Similar to Into the Heights marking the beginning of Barack Obama’s presidency, Hamilton’s late 2015 release bookended the other side of it, but its meteoric rise also coincided with that of our current president, who launched his original campaign a month before Hamilton’s Broadway debut. Donald Trump’s populist promises and uncompromising attitude towards lawmaking and the Democratic Party shot him past the more centrist candidates running for Republican nomination, and Hillary Clinton’s similarly bipartisan message did little to slow Trump’s momentum. The situation is more complicated than a one sentence explanation, but the root cause of it is not. The decline of centrism allowed Trump to enter the forefront of national media and enabled his eventual victory.

People are going to bat for this guy?

Hamilton is a celebration of American exceptionalism, unity, and patriotism, all monumental tenets of centrism. Of course, there are moments of discord between the Founding Fathers. Thomas Jefferson and James Madison giddily dance around to celebrate the discovery of the damning Reynolds Pamphlet, and it seems like they can’t stop shooting each other every 30 minutes. But, in the end, they all live happily ever after. Sure, Hamilton unnecessarily dies, but Jefferson and Madison finally recognize his genius, George Washington is honored for being the ultimate symbol of American unity, and all the slaves are freed! (Oh wait…no. Eliza Hamilton just speaks out against slavery.) These idealistic outcomes and revisionist perspectives on political figures are what American politics have revolved around since the country’s inception. Before Trump’s recent defeat, the transition of power between administrations has been largely cordial, and this respect lends itself to forgiveness. Our history books paint Thomas Jefferson as a master negotiator and one of the great American writers of the Revolution, not a rapist and serial slave owner. More recently, George W. Bush, responsible for the backwards Patriot Act and the continuation of the endless war against terrorism (*cough* oil *cough*), is now lauded as a respectful man that brought us out of the dark shadow 9/11 cast upon this country by liberals and conservatives alike. The sins these politicians committed and the regressive policies they passed are forgiven to maintain the image of excellency that we are told our representatives share in common because if our leaders are bad people, what does that make us?

Hamilton projects American exceptionalism for the world to see because that is what its audiences crave; that is the truth they want to believe. No proud American wants to recognize the atrocities of slavery in their totality. So, we’re given smaller, palatable truths to swallow. Sally Hemings was Thomas Jefferson’s mistress, not property. George Washington freed his slaves when he died, excusing his ownership of these men and women during his lifetime, and Hamilton portrays these men in exactly this way. Jefferson and Washington are illustrated as heroes of the Revolution and sympathetic to the struggles of slaves, despite the latter not being further from the truth. Lin-Manuel Miranda had a rare opportunity to tell American audiences the truth. In an industry and world dominated by white men, he had the privilege to shine a spotlight on the reality of America hidden in the shadows for too long, but Americans don’t like that truth. Instead, Miranda compromised, like any “great” politician would do.

Lin may compromise his morals, but he sure doesn’t compromise a good ol’ lip bite selfie!

Miranda takes a Jordan-like approach to his products. In 1990, one of the first African-American senate candidates in North Carolina Harvey Gantt challenged incumbent senator (and unabashed racist) Jesse Helms. Basketball legend Michael Jordan refused to endorse Gantt’s Democratic campaign, justifying his lack of activism with “Republicans buy sneakers too.” Gant lost the election by a narrow 5 point margin. At the end of the day, Miranda’s shows are for-profit products. They are opportunities for him to showcase his talent in front of the brightest lights on the biggest stage. Maybe he wrote this show with the express purpose to make a statement on bigotry and the state of America, but any meaningful attempt at that falls flat. Miranda writes a show that appeals to the centrist ideals of America without alienating any of his potential customers but does throw progressivism a bone in his casting. All of the protagonists are minorities! Again, in such a Caucasian-dominated industry, this is a huge step forward for diversity in Broadway and talented minorities are finally recognized, but simply making the cast diverse is not enough on its own. The diverse cast propped on a pedestal leads to complacent writing that does not acknowledge the full extent of America’s past and makes the audience too comfortable with the false identity of these characters.

Going back to Thomas Jefferson, Daveed Diggs compounds the issue of Miranda’s lack of activist writing. His natural stage presence and charm makes it nearly impossible to dislike Thomas Jefferson. The swagger that he exudes in the Cabinet Battles and his introductory number “What’d I Miss” fills the theatre, and this charisma is what audience members remember. Until my viewing of Hamilton, my only experience with the portrayal of Thomas Jefferson were educational documentaries with dramatic reenactments of historical events and pictures of his uncomfortably greasy hair. Do you expect that relic of American history to compete with Daveed freaking Diggs? Now when the name “Thomas Jefferson” is mentioned the first image that comes to mind is Daveed Diggs with his lavishly purple coat and stylish cane. The musical not only completely disregards Jefferson’s gross mistreatment of his slaves, but it subtly relinquishes the image of Thomas Jefferson as a white, privileged man.

Contrary to Hamilton‘s portrayal, the actual Thomas Jefferson had negative zero swag.

This performative casting diversity continues to be applauded for the future of Broadway that it represents and for getting Leslie Odom Jr., Daveed Diggs, and Chris Jackson all on the same stage, but it distracts from more than just racism and centrism. Male characters dominate Hamilton. That isn’t unique to this show specifically, but the women’s lack of effect on the plot throughout the show is another missed opportunity by Miranda to make a powerful statement on sexism in America. Eliza feels like a pawn waiting to be moved. Alexander Hamilton walks into the ball, and she and her sister immediately swoon over him. She spends the rest of the show pleading for her husband to relax or at the very least survive, neither of which he can do, and in the second act, she is a conduit for the heartbreak that comes with Hamilton cheating on her and her son passing away. Only when Hamilton dies does Eliza finally get the faculty and power to effect change. She and her choices are reactionary to the world around her without the people around her paying much mind to her decisions. It’s rather disappointing because Phillipa Soo’s incredible vocals and strong acting could make a true female lead shine, but Miranda diminishes her to a source of internal conflict for Hamilton and of the resulting soliloquies when he neglects to heed her advice.

American exceptionalism is an ideal that we accept as the truth but do not necessarily believe to be true. From the moment we step in an American public school, everything from the Pledge of Allegiance to President’s Day are empty promises of national greatness, but there’s no reason to believe otherwise without evidence to the contrary. People with privilege and power are the individuals writing our textbooks and producing our shows telling us America is great, and the reality is that most of these individuals are rich, white men. But, sometimes a minority creator defies expectations and is given a platform for their voice to be heard. Lin-Manuel Miranda had the opportunity to tell the American people the whole truth and nothing but the truth. In the midst of rampant unemployment, people drowning in debt, and the perpetual presence of systemic racism, Miranda fed us what centrists and patriots have told us for years. America was great, is great, and always will be great, and we truly believe it when we watch Hamilton. Only when we step out of the theatre and face the reality we desperately tried to escape do we realize the truth of our nation. America was not great, is not great, and will never be great unless we stop compromising for the bigots of the past and present and recognize the flaws of our nation.

Where There is Community, There is Unity

By Alyssa O’Connell

Lin Manuel Miranda is probably a name you’ve heard by now. With the overwhelming success of his latest musical Hamilton, Miranda’s reports of fame are not an exaggeration (but are due to “the fact that [his] syntax is highly complicated.”) However, this isn’t the first time Miranda has engaged audiences through sharp sentences and move-bustin’ beats. Years prior, in the Richard Rodgers Theatre, a young immigrant took center stage to share a story of growing up in Washington Heights, lovingly referred to as The Heights. The main character, Usnavi, bounces beats in his bodega, a playful rendition of Miranda’s own upbringing as an immigrant. While In the Heights is an American musical, in the sense that it is set in an American neighborhood on the streets of New York and performed in a Broadway theatre also on the streets of New York, it is far from your typical American musical. As a Latinx musical crafted by Latinx writers, In the Heights celebrates an honest representation of immigrant culture through an emphasis on community within the plot, the characters, and the staging choices that juxtapose performances that electrified the American musical stage for years prior.

Skimming the intricate set, a cluster or two of bright colors are meant to catch the audience’s eyes. “I hang my flag up on display / it reminds me that I came from miles away” the ensemble dictates. In the musical’s setting, a barrio in Washington Heights, the individuals use flags to celebrate where they came from and the cultures that shaped them; however, the ensemble doesn’t dwell on which flags are on display. It isn’t about where exactly they are from but what they brought with them; the cultures of their home countries don’t divide these people but instead forge them into a community of immigrants with a shared experience. Without any other context, it might be assumed that the immigrants share the same flag but, in typically fast-talking Usnavi fashion, he casually drops a few countries you might find represented in the barrio “D.R., P.R., we are not stoppin’.” If you so much as adjust yourself in your seat, you might miss it. That’s because to build community, these people lean on what they have in common instead of fixating on their differences. In terms of physical location, they all came from far away to start lives different than the one they had; they all left places they knew and comforting communities of familiar cultures to pursue a different and, hopefully, more fruitful future. As Usnavi puts it “We came to work and to live and we got a lot in common.” The community created in the Heights wasn’t a coincidence but it was actively sought-after in hopes of easing anxiety while navigating an unfamiliar world. While it may not change the world outside the barrio, the fostered community brings comfort and understanding, as the people all attempt to support each other in their current experience as an immigrant. While the community is referred to based on physical location, it is compromised of so much more than a shared space: it’s the shared foundation of ideas, beliefs, experience, and culture from which life is built on. There may be many flags up on display, but the general community isn’t meant to invalidate the individuals and the personal narratives they bring to the table but instead strengthen it. It is in the variation that this idea of community is made even stronger, besides, without any differentiation, life in the Heights would be so boring, but more on that later. With shared experiences and cultural appreciation, this community doesn’t have to derive from the same country of origin but instead finds commonality in their social, mental, and emotional spaces, as well as their current physical space. 

Within the hustle and bustle of big dance numbers and sessions of “hot goss,” the characters and relationships highlighted within this community challenge the patriarchal and heteronormative relationships of its musical predecessors. First, with her wisdom and loving-kindness, Abula is the heart and start of the community. Not only is she nothing short of an angel throughout the entire play (too soon?) her presence as the matriarch of the neighborhood receives a jaw-dropping glare from the patriarchal American society outside the barrio walls. She a commanding figure within the play, giving power and guidance to the other characters and curating quite a bit of the musical. In this way, she combats the norms of a male-led society in a way that is subtle and motivated by love instead of a grasp for power. In addition to Abula’s challenging of gender norms, as Usnavi and Benny work a 9 to 5 in the barrio, the ladies are off receiving an education and hopping on elevated trains. Nina and Vanessa both challenge typical feminine roles as the carriers of culture by carrying themselves out of the barrio. While these roles in and of themselves challenge what is typically presented on stage, especially for BIPOC women, they also help cultivate a community that is more accepting of difference as a whole. Outside, but connected to the role of gender, sexuality was intended to have space on the stage. Though it never made it to the final cut of the show, Sonny and Graffiti Pete were supposed to have an intimate moment on stage. Shining a spotlight on a range of identities and the acceptance of those identities furthered the importance and strength of the community as not only an object of comfort and understanding but as a place where everyone can come as they are and feel like they belong. 

In direct contrast with this, it seems, is the overarching desire within the story to break out of the barrio and break away from the community it has fostered. However, the characters and audience soon realize, you can take a person out of the barrio, but you can never take the barrio out of them. Nina struggles to find herself within her community at school but revitalizes herself through being back in the barrio, specifically through her love interest Benny. Usnavi also desires to escape the life he’s always known in search of something greater. While Nina ultimately chooses to go back to school with her friends and family’s support, Usnavi realizes the home he has is in the barrio. While the community in the Heights supports the individuals within its walls, it also comforts those that are far away. For Usnavi, he relies on this support in a physical sense while Nina’s financial support and emotional support are harnessed from a distance. There is something safe about being in a group of people that have a shared experience but at some point, an individual also must find themselves throughout the musical, even if that means leaving some part of home behind and making their new definition of what home is. The community that is projected onstage not only looks different but feels different from other portrayals of community on the musical stage and that is due to the comfort and belonging it brings to the characters through their struggles with identity.  

Taking a step back and zooming out to the full picture, the characters come together to create a picture of life that allows for an expression of individuality while reinforcing the idea that these people have come together to create something bigger than themselves, a cultural community. The easiest way to see the community is through dance, in which the full ensemble fills the stage and becomes one in the motion of the music (for the most part). Remember that part about variation? Well, that same differentiation in which flags are displayed also takes shape in the bodies on stage. While the individuals may walk differently, pose differently, or activate their hips differently (I mean, come on, we were all looking at the hip action), they all move with the same intentions, with their cultures hitting out their hips and pulling at their feet, fighting the American mold. Much like West Side Story, the dance within the show is meant to be a distinct variation from a typical musical theatre approach to dance and instead focus more heavily on the movement that is common within the cultures of the characters. In addition to the dancing, the casting also lends itself to a visual of a diverse yet connected community on stage. Very intentionally, the cast is comprised of actors that relate to the story being told, either as immigrants themselves or close descendants. While the hair, skin, eyes, and other physical features of the characters may differ from person to person, the community of similarity is still cultivated, especially when compared to the facial features and bodies of those outside the barrio. In this way, the characters in the barrio stand out from the backdrop of New York just as the actors that embody them do. On the stage, the visualization of difference coming together to form a connection represents the community within the show in its most fundamental sense. 

In the Heights is not only set in Washington Heights, a neighborhood in New York, the stage it was being performed on (also in New York) meant it was situated within the American musical context. With its emphasis on cultural community and its take on gender norms and the musical elements of casting and dance, In the Heights gained immense success as a musical that sought to celebrate a story of immigration and culture performed by people who shared that experience. However, just because Lin Manuel Miranda wanted to create a piece that accurately presented what it was like to be an immigrant in New York, he never intended to create a piece that was only for the community he was representing; it was the opposite. In a conversation with the Swathmore Departments of Theatre and Spanish, Miranda said “We knew our goal in this show … There are certainly plays that seek to provoke and there are certainly plays that seek to alienate. This is a show that I wanted everyone to feel as welcome as possible in this neighborhood, the same way I felt welcomed in Anatevka, when I saw Fiddler on the Roof, even though that’s totally outside my experience.” The community cultivated onstage even goes further to extend a hand toward the audience and welcome them into the world of Washington Heights. The end goal was to create a story that was as real and raw as it was relatable. Even if the cultural context was something spectators couldn’t relate to, they could relate to the characters, because they weren’t exaggerated stereotypes of Latinx characters crafted through a white lens. Instead, they were real three-dimensional people. If we go back far enough, most of us can probably relate to the themes of immigration in this story. Though Abula is not really his Abula, I relate to the way Usnavi was raised in the culture and speaks with this grandma figure. From the time I could talk I’ve been uttering grammatically incorrect and ill-pronounced phrases in Italian at my Nonno and Nonna around the dining room table piled high with focaccia, sugo di pomodoro, and boxes of scopa cards. While outside the walls of my Nonna’s house, my life is not as immersed in culture as the lives in this play, I can relate to the bilingualism and connection to culture. Beyond that, I can make a first-level connection to Nina. As a college student at a prestigious university, I understand feeling like a fraud and another connection to the story is forged.

When we try to tell stories that aren’t our own or try to put ourselves in communities we don’t understand, it’s not inherently evil but a disconnect between what you want to portray and what makes it to the stage arises. That is why In the Heights can create a community that celebrates Latinx culture for what it is, because it is written through a Latinx lens, not a white one, and therefore attempts to tell an honest story instead of a story that the audiences expect from these characters. 

Soup or Salad? West Side Story and American Multiculturalism

“America is a melting pot”. 

We’ve heard this all our lives; America is a country that melts together immigrants of diverse racial, ethnic, and religious backgrounds into one emergent American culture. But this vibrant nation isn’t a monotonous, homogenous soup. No, America should actually be a multicultural salad. A beautiful conglomerate of different cultures and peoples that remain distinct and separate to each other. A harmonious medley of individual ethnic communities that live peacefully among each other. But this salad metaphor isn’t completely accurate either. So then, what is America? 

In Jerome Robbins’ musical West Side Story, the Sharks are a group of brown-skinned, Puerto Rican immigrants who are forced to confront the ugly realities of their inferior rank in American society. The musical features a constant racial tension that taints the relationship between the Sharks and the Jets, a gang of white teenagers who are mostly second generation European immigrants. Although both groups strive towards achieving a common American Dream, the Puerto Rican ethnic identity of the Sharks precludes them from claiming equal space in the American public sphere. The Sharks’ interactions with the Jets, Lieutenant Schrank, and other Puerto Ricans reveal that an idealistic multicultural society is far from reality. Watching West Side Story in 2020 invites us to consider if the experiences of immigrant people of color have truly changed since the 1950s. 

The song “America” is a reflection of the conflicting realities of immigrant inclusion and exclusion in this country. This musical number features an ensemble performance from the Sharks that unapologetically defines their vibrant Puerto Rican ethnic identity. Notably, this distinct immigrant identity is established as the Sharks highlight the glories and downfalls of the American Dream. 

Firstly, “America” makes a statement on the unique flair, drama, and energy that exudes from Puerto Rican immigrants.The song takes place on a barren rooftop of New York City. Looming metal beams make criss-crossing structures over a backdrop of dimmed city lights and nearby brick buildings. The costuming of the Sharks shines in stark contrast to this dark and muted set design. Shimmering shades of lavender, bright red roses, and pink ruffles adorn the hips of the Puerto Rican women. Their hair is permed to perfection, eyeliner accentuates their expressive eyes, and golden hoops dangle from their ears. The men have their hair slicked back and they are dressed in prim dress shirts and pants of burgundy, purple, and grey tones.  Before “America” starts, Bernado, the leader of the Sharks, is holding his girlfriend Anita in his arms. He kisses her head playfully in the midst of other affectionate couples. The atmosphere is flirty and fun and soon after the guys and gals split up to begin a dance battle of sorts. 

When the Sharks begin dancing, their bodies fill the screen. Their movements take space. Anita’s movements are especially bewitching. When she moves her arms, they reach far above her head. When she bends her back, her head reaches for the ground. She is sassy with her expressions, turning at angles to face the camera, chin down and eyes looking up. The women’s dance movements are accompanied by claps, whistles, and cheers from the men. Even though both groups are on opposing sides, there is still exchange happening. Each side takes turns to let the other express themselves. The men tap across the rooftop diagonally, meeting the women in a corner of the stage. Then, the men dance backwards, eyes facing the women, and hands leading them to the front. In this way, the expression of their Puerto Rican ethnic identity is defined as welcoming, energetic, and rooted in love. Despite the arguments, the men and women still laugh, smile and flirt with each other. They invite each other to dance, enjoying each other’s company. Thus, “America” allows the Sharks to affirm their Puerto Rican identity through music and dance. 

“America” additionally makes a statement on the fraught nature of assimilation and integration for immigrants. While the women envision a rose-tinted American Dream, the men sulk on the harsh realities of racism and poverty instead. The song’s lyrics play off this tension and they follow a feisty back and forth between the men and women. Colliding lyrics include “Free to be anything you choose/Free to wait tables and shine shoes” and “Life is all right in America/If you’re all-white in America.” Thus, the women’s naive optimism regarding the American Dream is sharply cut short by the men’s cynical realism.

Ultimately, “America” shows how inclusion and acceptance is conditional. Equality is contingent on the color of your skin, the language that you speak, the accent of your voice, and the land from which your ancestors came. These ideas go against the concept of meritocracy that America prides itself in. If you just work hard enough, all your dreams will come true. If you still don’t achieve them, you probably didn’t deserve it in the first place. Despite their perseverance, the Sharks can never raise their heads with pride and dignity in West Side Story. Their place among the lower rungs of the racial hierarchy are a significant deterrent to their acceptance as equals. 

West Side Story also depicts the overwhelming presence of law enforcement in the lives of immigrants. Police largely dictate the movement of the Sharks, deciding the spaces they can and cannot occupy. Their freedom is much more limited than the Jets’ because of racial and cultural bias from the police. Characters like Officer Krupke and Lt. Schrank have unbridled authority to determine who is a threat and who is not. Unsurprisingly, the Sharks are more frequently targeted. In particular, the character of Lt. Schrank regularly spews racial hatred towards the Sharks.This behavior is an extension of the racist American judicial system at large. The fact that this “racist cop” phenomenon has continued to seep its way into contemporary American life is what I find most disturbing. 

Lt. Schrank is a megalomaniac of a cop. He revels in his power to suppress and provoke the Puerto Ricans. He looks at the Sharks with disgust as he claims, “As if this neighborhood wasn’t crummy enough”. He seeks to incite hatred when he advises the Jets to leave before the Sharks “turn this whole town into a stinkin’ pig sty.” Thus, Lt. Schrank is an additional deterrent to immigrant integration. If the Sharks’ existence is governed at the hands of such corrupt agents of the state, their failure to be accepted as equal citizens comes as no surprise. 

One of the most poignant scenes of the film is when Lt. Schrank encroaches on a meeting between the Sharks and the Jets at Doc’s local drugstore. Lt. Schrank screams “Clear out!” to Bernado’s face. He mocks Bernado, claiming “It’s a free country and I ain’t got the right. But I got a badge. What do you got?” Bernado’s expression quickly changes to resolute defeat. He musters whatever dignity he has left and snaps abruptly, indicating to his members to leave with him. One by one, each Shark walks with stoic acceptance to the door. Ironically, they exit the scene while whistling to the tune of “My Country ’tis of Thee”. Bernado’s shoots one last glance towards Lt. Schrank before he shuts the door. This scene highlights, again, the futility of the Sharks’ efforts to gain an equal footing in society.

Doc’s local drugstore is also the setting for another gross abuse of power. Near the end of West Side Story, Anita goes to meet the Jets so she can relay a message from Maria to Tony. Anita’s character is quite different to the innocent, virginal female character like Maria’s, which is often idealized in media. Anita is a Puerto Rican woman who openly expresses her sexuality and enjoys her social freedoms. When Anita finds herself alone among the gang of Jets, her freedom is immediately threatened. These white males mock and intimidate her. They charge at her, lift up her skirt, and touch her without consent. As a woman of color, Anita already bears the brunt of patriarchal abuse. But her immigrant, Latina “exoticism” further objectifies her, making her even more vulnerable to abhorrent sexual violence. Anita escapes the Jets after being stripped of her dignity, her voice, and her respect as an autonomous woman. 

Perhaps the most critical aspect of West Side Story is its utmost relevance to today’s world. This musical reveals current themes of the immigrant experience which center around denial, permission, and expulsion. The bitter truth is that a story from 60 years ago continues to expose the conditional realities of belonging and exclusion for people of color in America. Why is it that the Sharks need to erase every distinguishable part of their ethnic identity in order to be seen as American? In a modern, globalized world, multiculturalism is a natural byproduct. Yet, systemic exclusion seems to be a part of the fabric of this nation. It is important to untangle these repressive knots of society in order to truly ‘let freedom ring’.

Takeaways from : Appreciation, Respect, and Ambition

Xinyi Wang

Hamilton has lightened up Broadway since 2015 with its wonderful mixing of serious history and creative artistic elements. It reflects on the legendary life of Alexander Hamilton — the thriving and devastating story of this tragic giant — yet dissects and then reconstructs it into a story of an immigrant starting from the bottom to fight for the American dream. This is the portrait of America, a country of immigrants. On the stage of Hamilton, this portrait is elaborately adorned with many designs, including elements of repeating lyrics, substantive hip-hop performances, and performers with a diverse background. These designs made Hamilton a great musical, and more importantly, they emphasize the contributions made by immigrants, imprint the growingly diverse society senses of pride and belongingness, as well as awaken everyone’s ambition to build this nation a better one.

            That one sentence deeply rooted in every audience’s mind shapes who Alexander Hamilton is. Compared to other founding fathers, Alexander Hamilton is always the more controversial one: he is the youngest, yet he is the poorest; his contributions to the Revolution War and the establishment of the financial system are undeniable, yet his conceit and aggressiveness in politics are widely criticized. However, despite his widely known identity as a representative politician or simply a historic figure, Hamilton focuses on the hindered identity: an immigrant from Charlestown Nevis who realized his value in the land of America. The very first lyrics “How does a bastard, orphan, son of a whore and a Scotsman, dropped in the middle of a forgotten spot in the Caribbean by Providence impoverished in squalor grow up to be a hero and a scholar?” well emphasized the immigrant identity of Hamilton. Throughout his lifetime, his opponent Burr would repeat his lyrics whenever Hamilton made any achievements, reminding others of his inferior identity. Burr is not the only one who kept repeating information about immigrants; Hamilton would repeat for himself as well. At every significant moment in his life — getting married, scandals being exposed, until dying from the battle — Hamilton reflected on his experience immigrating from Nevis to New York and achieving his career. Another character as an immigrant affiliate to illustrate contributions made by immigrants from all over the places: the one “who’s unafraid to step in”, who is “constantly confusing, confounding the British henchman”, Marquis de Lafayette! Lafayette worked closely with Hamilton in the Revolution War, fighting for the independence of the nation without any fear or hesitation. They were proud to show everyone once and once more: “Immigrants, we get the work done!” 

            The repeating lyrics in the middle of fast beats emphasized the fact that Alexander Hamilton and other gentlemen like him who contributed to the country are all immigrants. They are proud of their identities, while they love their country as deeply as natives do. This elaborately designed element caught every audient’s heart well because it reflects on American society in reality. Ever since the 17th century, immigrants from all over the world migrated into America, and immigration kept changing the composition of the population until today. As immigrants with diverse cultural and religious backgrounds interacted on the same piece of land during the past years, the diversity in culture has become an impression of American society, effectively affecting the development. Though immigrants came from multiple homelands, spoke multiple languages, and believed in various religions, they held the same dream when they step on the land of America, which is to fight for a brighter future. This ambition in common is summarized by the symbol “American dream” and is again well claimed by Hamilton’s repetitive arias: “I’m just like my country, I’m young, scrappy and hungry.” Through all of these repeating arias, <Hamilton> appreciates the significance of contributions made by all the immigrants and eulogizes the “American dream” and the striving spirit of everyone in this diverse society.

            Besides the “sung-through” with many repeating lyrics, the hip-hop performances are another revolutionary creation made by Hamilton that further reflects on the immigration cultures. Distinguished from traditional musicals, Hamilton mixed jazz, hip hop, and rock music together, and combined popular music in the 21st century and serious political history in the 18th century together, giving audiences a brand-new vision of classics. The hip-hop performances cater to the appreciation of immigration culture from three perspectives. Firstly, the upbringing of hip-hop matches the life experience of Alexander Hamilton. Born in the slum block Bronx, New York City, and thriving with the black culture, hip hop has been the representative of a popular culture rooted from the bottom of the society. Its specialty in social identity, ethnicity, and a spirit of rebellion fit Alexander Hamilton’s spirit and the revolutionary social atmosphere across the nation at that time well. Similar to the black communities who are proud of their pop culture, Hamilton takes his immigrant identity for granted as well. Secondly, the spiritual core of hip hop reflects on the spirits of minority immigrants, struggling from the bottom-most social status to realize their American dream. Hamilton’s transition from powerless immigrants to founding fathers of the United States is an illustration of his struggling as well. In addition to the spirit of working hard, hip hop’s tradition of “underground” illustrates its supporters’ pursue of freedom and independence; though developing underground against the major trend in society, hip hop lovers never cease to express their eagerness of singing freely and confidently in front of more people in their songs. It is the pursuit of freedom that enkindles the enthusiasm to overthrow the British colonialism in America in the 18th century. Finally, considering the form of expression in hip hop, the strong sense of rhythm and beats, <Hamilton> sceneries the cabinet debates among senior ministers into battles between rappers. As president Washington becomes the host of the battle, Hamilton and Jefferson express their political views regarding national debt and international relationships through hip hop. This form of music makes serious history more acceptable and more interesting for audiences today, taking a step forward to forge a sense of nationalism.

            While the repeating lyrics aim at the appreciation of the immigrant community, and the inspirational adaptation of hip hop is to respect the cultural diversity from various communities in the society, <Hamilton> is also excellent in building every character instead of depicting an ethnic group as a whole. This musical is passing on the idea of equality to audiences not only conceptually, but touchingly through every vivid and lively character on the stage. In “My Shot”, Laurens calls out “But we’ll never be truly free until those in bondage have the same rights as you and me” to defend black citizens’ equal rights. In the first cabinet debate, Hamilton suggested irrationality when Jefferson said “We plant seeds in the south. We create.” Because “We know who is doing the planting.” Hamilton and his companions criticized the exploitation of black labors in the south by white elites like Jefferson and appreciated the indispensable contributions made by the black people. Besides, there are several times that Washington faced audiences alone, introspecting his “flaws”. The president is not the only one who confesses to the audiences; in the finale, Eliza sings about how she is “still not through”— after she “raise funds in D.C. for the Washington monument”, “speak against slavery”, “established the first private orphanage in New York City” — she kept asking: “Have I done enough? Will they tell my story?” Eliza is the epitome of millions of women, who were ambitious in promoting the development of society in their ways yet being neglected in the mainstream historic narration. Just as the finale “Who lives, who dies, who tells you a story” indicates, everyone fighting for the nation should be remembered, regardless of his or her ethnicity or gender.

            In addition to shaping figures on the stage through their performances, Hamilton also support the idea of equality through its casts. As a Broadway musical based on the story of the white founding father of the United States, “Hamilton” has been subversively using a large number of minorities and female actors such as African Americans, Latinos, Latinos, etc. as leading actors and group actors since its premiere. The main character Hamilton has appeared in multiple productions on Broadway, National Tour, and West End with actors of different ethnicities; in the Broadway premiere version, President Washington, Jefferson, Madison, and the Skyler sisters are all cast by actors of different skin colors. Within the increasingly diverse cultural background, <Hamilton> innovates by adopting theories like “conceptual casting”, “cross-cultural casting”, choosing the actors who best fit the artistic performance of the musical instead of who meet the requirements like skin color and such. 

            As the producer and playwright of Hamilton, Lin-Manuel Miranda, once said, this is a past story told by contemporary America. Through revolutionary elements on the musical stage including repeating lyrics, innovations in hip hop performances, and dynamic characters, Hamilton constructs an emotional bund between the past and contemporary American society, inspiring everyone to realize their “American Dream”, to love the nation and everyone else regardless of their ethnicity and gender. 

The Heights of Controversy: Lin-Manuel Miranda Made A Mistake

Lovingly Written by Maggie Mershon

When Lin-Manuel Miranda developed In the Heights, he intended for it to be a story of his Latin heritage for other people of Latin heritage. At the root of the show, this sentiment remains. Miranda weaves the story of Usnavi, Benny, Nina, and Vanessa, The Rosarios, Abuela Claudia as they go from day to day in their community in Washington Heights. As was his intent, Miranda created characters for Latino people that weren’t seen on the Broadway stage. These were not gang members or criminals, but people with dreams, striving for a better life.

However, as the show continued to move up the ladder of financial success and those risking capital became integral to your production. An artist can, in some cases, become beholden to the whims of those who pay hundreds of dollars to see these shows, and perhaps lose focus of his intended audience in favor of their paying audience. In other words, It’s a majority white, incredibly privileged audience who expects to be involved in the story that’s on stage. So how does that affect the way the story is told? Does it change the meaning of the musical when the people who are watching are expected to be “in on” what’s going on? Does it force the show to shed its intended identity? I believe that in the context of performance to a majority white audience, In the Heights compromises its original intention-to exhibit a genuine picture of Latin culture-and instead through its story, lyrics, and casting actively caters to this audience and tokenizes what should be empowered.

If you don’t know Miranda from Heights or Hamilton, perhaps you recognize him from Internet lip-biting infamy

Source: @Lin_Manuel via Twitter

In this class, we’ve been talking a lot about Hamilton, another show written by and starring Miranda. Specifically, we’ve talked about the piece delivers a centrist narrative that appeals to both sides of the aisle and is unable to communicate an impactful message of systematic change. I believe that this commentary also applies to In the Heights, where even then, Miranda is fully aware of who his audience is. In the opening number, we hear him sing, “You may be thinkin’ / I’m up shit’s creek / I’ve never been north of 96th street,” a direct reference to the demographic difference across the geography of Manhattan.

In this story we follow several diverse members of a neighborhood in Washington Heights, as they simply go about their lives. They work incredibly hard to sustain themselves: Usnavi demonstrates this in his opening rap, rattling off the orders of his bodega’s regulars; Mr. Rosario sells his business to provide for his daughter; and  Vanessa works from the crack of dawn every day to try and get out of her toxic home life. There is a sense that because these characters all work extremely hard and look out for one another, they will achieve what they are aiming for, as The Engineer in Miss Saigon refers to it, The American Dream. The audience wants to see them achieve this dream: financial success, a family, and a home where they are happy and loved. The musical does not disappoint in this regard. When Abuela Claudia gives Usnavi her lottery winnings, she gives him a chance to do whatever he wants-he has earned this money through his hard work and caring for the people around him. In the beginning of the musical he talks about how desperate he is to get back home to Puerto Rico. Once he has that money? Usnavi ruminates on his live in New York and is no longer driven to return to the Dominican Republic. He concludes he is already at home, Washington Heights is his home and his dream.

This is a beautiful sentiment. The idea that the community in which Usnavi grew up is the one in which he feels happy and secure is great, but the gentrification that the characters are fighting does not disappear in the reality of these characters. The musical may end before we see our protagonists pushed out, but it is coming sure enough. And as this home Usnavi takes up becomes destined to some destitute fate, Usnavi takes up its burden, promising to keep the legacies of the people who live there, to serve them and to uplift their beautiful stories. He’s even decided to go on a second date with Vanessa, whose coworkers helped pay to get her out of her current living situation. With the money he has earned from being a good guy, Usnavi is able to uplift his community and sustain his home.

Who wouldn’t give these faces winning lottery tickets?

Source: Carlito Pucl, ‘In the Heights’ – 2008 Tony Awards Performance – 96000, YouTube

Honestly, I would be shocked if such a heartwarming ending didn’t bring a tear to your eye or swell your heart. This ending provides the audience with an inspiration sendoff that, “Wow, anyone really can follow their dreams.” But that is not the case. It’s an exceptional act of kindness for Vanessa’s coworkers to give her enough money for a down payment, but what happens when she can’t pay next months rent? It’s touching that Mr. Rosario would sell his business to support his daughter but how will he continue to afford life in the community he has called home for so long? And concerning Usnavi-lottery tickets don’t come around every day. Without this enormous completely random gift, how would he continue to support his failing business as he watches the community around him crumble? Furthermore, should it be his responsibility to take care of the community with this money now that he has it? Of course, when watching people on stage and considering morality, we all know what we should do, and what Abuela, Usnavi’s mentor, would have done. But Usnavi as an individual, supporting the community off of one lottery ticket and warding off gentrification is unrealistic and an irresponsible way to portray hope. These stories of people lifting each other up in their community are beautiful and touching but they only treat symptoms and absolve the audience from their guilt and power to stop the root of the disease.

Built into the design of the show are assumptions about the culture that Miranda has acknowledged are not necessarily perfect. In an interview he gave at Swarthmore College, he noted that Abuela Claudia’s journey was, “the farthest outside my experience, I did a lot of research on Cuba and that initial wave of migration in the 40s, and then your job is to forget about it… your job is to write this woman’s story, so you choose, “Okay, when did she get here? What was her experience?” (Zapata, Rosado, Martinez, & Miranda, 2011) Miranda as well as any one understands that there are inconsistencies within his story, which, when presented for an audience that comes from that same background, and understands these things as well as he does, works in his favor. In the case of the specific demographic of Heights’s Broadway audiences, it doesn’t necessarily support the multicultural message intended.

Multiculturalism is an essential component to the spirit of In the Heights. In the opening number, the ensemble sings, “I hang my flag up on display / it reminds me that I came from miles away.” Each member of the ensemble has a story and a culture that they individually bring to their community in Washington Heights. For example, Miranda, a Puerto Rican man, plays Usnavi, a second generation Dominican. Miranda thought it was important to accurately represent the culture of Washington Heights, Usnavi be Dominican. However, when it came down to casting him, Miranda made the decision to compact the two cultures and, instead of finding a Dominican actor to fill the role, played it himself. Miranda received criticism for the inaccuracy of his Dominican accent for other Latino members of the theatre community but was widely accepted by audiences who saw the Broadway show, a majority of whom were white. This oversight directly opposes pursuits of multiculturalism, ignoring a character trait of its main character and gently assimilating Latino culture into one generic whole. Though in word Miranda succeeded in creating this multicultural community, it feels as though an active choice was made that this small design element wasn’t important enough or would not catch the attention of its audience if not corrected.

A DC production of In the Heights throws their flags up on display!

Source: Olney Theatre Center

I sincerely hope that this piece doesn’t come across as hateful, as there is a lot of wonderful work done by In the Heights. When it opened, the producers actively tried to make some seats available to audiences of lower-income backgrounds, targeting communities represented in the show. There are students around the globe who can now study theatre through characters that were written to look and act like them. That is an incredible achievement. But all the whole house can’t be filled by people not paying full price because profits will go down. And in terms of the Broadway show, what good can the piece do if it’s not accessible to the audience it seeks to empower? Even more, if there’s no call to action, no holding the white audience it is presented for responsible, then does it simply become a tokenization of culture? A story of immigrants pulling themselves up by their bootstraps that a white audience can feel good about, totally removed from, and forget at the end of the day?

When he wrote In the Heights, Miranda worked closely with Director Tommy Kail, who sometimes couldn’t understand the Spanish he was incorporating, and Miranda would pull it back. In his words, “we knew our goal in this show … This is a show that I wanted everyone to feel as welcome as possible in this neighborhood, the same way I felt welcomed in Anatevka, when I saw Fiddler on the Roof, even though that’s totally outside my experience” (Zapata & Miranda, 2011). Except Fiddler on the Roof didn’t play to contemporary crowds of anti-semetic Russians. The compromise and concessions that Miranda made to create a story that would fit on the Broadway stage didn’t make it any less of a literary success. It just may have had the impact it wanted if had it actually played in the heights.

Find Below a Work I Cited:

Miranda, L. (2011). In the Heights: A Conversation with Lin-Manuel Miranda [Interview by R. Zapata, A. Rosado, & L. Martinez]. Retrieved November 16, 2020, from https://www.swarthmore.edu/news-events/heights-a-conversation-lin-manuel-miranda

You (Don’t) Belong with Me: Senseless Racism in the Face of Eastern European Jewish Culture

By: Kacy Jones (the token goy on the Hillel Jewish Life Committee)

The simplistic plot of Fiddler on the Roof in five words would go something like: tradition, family, love…pogroms…exile? Historically, not an unexpected twist, but a truly heartbreaking one as the show places viewers alongside Tevye and we follow life as he does – loving with him, learning with him, and, eventually, leaving with him. We experience firsthand the acceptance the community finds in new expressions of cultural values and people foreign to their belief system. Though the Jewish men and women of Anatevka should not be expected to be kind to their oppressors, they make a point to not rock the boat between cultural divides out of kindness and fear of harm. However, this outpouring of love and goodness from the Jews is not reciprocal and the respect they give is met with purely racially motivated violence and death – physical death from outside antisemitism and the looming Holocaust, as well as death of their lifestyle. It’s perhaps surprising that the quintessential musical celebrating the beliefs and open-mindedness of Eastern European Jewish culture ends with the characters being stripped of their identity as they’re forced to move to countries that will refuse to acknowledge their religion and ways of life, but when you’re the minority, you don’t get to choose when and how you belong.

            For the Jews in Anatevka, there is no right way to belong. Sure, Fiddler on the Roof, specifically the 1971 movie musical by Jerry Bock, Sheldon Harnick, and Joseph Stein and directed by Norman (Not-Actually-A)Jewison, starts with a song called “Prologue/‘Tradition’,” but the musical makes clear that these are traditions that can be altered if anyone wants to do things differently. It’s also a bit of a joke, as Tevye posits that the papa has “the final word at home,” but he invents wild schemes so that his wife Golde will accept his opinions and he always lets his daughters do what they wish. This is not to say that tradition does not have a place in Eastern European Judaism or in Fiddler. It does, as shown by many of the main characters and the Jewish ensemble. The main characters also change certain customs, but tradition is not the enemy of change and neither is depicted as being more valid than the other. Golde married Tevye via a matchmaker and yet they still have a loving marriage and wonderful partnership full of respect. In the song “Do You Love Me?” we learn that Golde is very happy with the life she has created, in the same way her daughter Tzeitel is, despite the fact that Tzeitel found love with Motel rather than marrying Lazar Wolf. Tevye’s anger at Tzeitel does not come from a place of sticking to tradition only, but from a place of care and concern for his daughter. He wants her to live comfortably in a way he could not provide for Golde, but once Motel says Tzeitel will not starve, Tevye relents. Similarly, the initial concerns Tevye has for Hodel’s marriage also come from a place of fatherly love rather than nonexistent overbearing religious and cultural values. Hodel plans to get married with or without her father’s consent, which breaks convention, and then she moves away from their insular community, which could be dangerous, but her father simply asks her to stay Jewish, and therefore still herself and safe, and asks God to keep her warm. Hodel also doesn’t go to Siberia in order to leave her culture. She expresses sadness about all of the things she must leave behind, but she goes for love. This is not depicted as heroic or more important than what Tzeitel or even Golde have done. It is simply a choice, one Hodel is free to make, as is everyone in the town while still belonging to Jewish culture and to each other.

            This bond between custom and innovation is encapsulated in Tzeitel and Motel’s wedding scene where each member of the ensemble creates their own way of celebrating their culture, while not invalidating anyone else’s. Lazar Wolf’s anger at not being able to marry the 19 year old of his choosing aside, the rest of the community is happy to support the couple and the family at the wedding. And when Perchik, a man from outside the specific Anatevkan community, encourages men and women to touch and dance, most everyone does. However, again, this is revolutionary in that people who believe unmarried men and women should not touch are dancing together, but it is not portrayed as growth or better than the old way. It is simply a choice one could make and one everyone makes differently. The Rabbi is pulled onto the floor and unknowingly dances with Hodel, but as soon as he realizes, he backs away. Tevye prompts him joyfully to dance and the Rabbi brings out a piece of fabric so that he can dance with the women without compromising his personal beliefs and everyone looks on in glee. Tevye also asks Golde to dance and, when she hesitates, he slaps his hands together and she takes them. Before this clap, Topol’s Tevye gives a very telling glance to God. In it, he seems to convey “I hope I made the right choice. I hope you will not smite me” and then you can see him make the decision that if God will smite him for encouraging men and women to dance, he may as well dance with his wife. So his clap is out of fear for possibly misjudging the balance between tradition and change, but also excitement at something new. These reactions to the dance represent what every Jewish person in Anatevka goes through over the course of the musical. They must find the ways in which they want to embody their values, but they also allow for the new and respect the choices others make.

            The Jewish people are incredibly loving and open minded, even to the Russians around them, and yet the wedding scene is broken up by a violent attack from the Constable and his non-Jewish companions. The Jews have done nothing wrong nor have they disturbed their gentile neighbors and yet it is their Star of David marked buildings that go up in flames. The camera lingers on the smirks of the men before they tear the wedding hall to shreds, but during the destruction we are only allowed to see the screams of the victims and the destruction of property. We do not need to see the face of the oppressor as they destroy because this is not a story about how individual men have targeted anger. The Russians are just a racist hive mind, unable to respect other ways of living. Instead, glass shatters and we get a close up of the Rabbi who minutes earlier found joy in change and acceptance, only now his face is appalled at the unexplainable hatred of his peers. Although the Jews were nothing but respectful to those in the village who “make a much bigger circle” and Tevye even formed a close bond with the Constable, it is not enough to save them from the racism of the Russians. When the Constable tells Tevye there is to be a pogrom, Tevye responds “You are a good man. If I may say so, it is a shame you are not a Jew.” The most good a man from outside the Jewish faith in Anatevka can do is let him know of future violence. The bond between the Jews and the Russians is not a symbiotic one. Rather, the Russians have all of the power and they decide under what circumstances the Jewish people can stay there unharmed.

            The Jews in Anatevka even try to assimilate to the best of their ability when in public with the Russians, but it does not change how they’re viewed in greater society. In “To Life,” the Jewish men dance traditionally with spinning and high arm movements before being stopped so that the Russians can show off their own cultural dances, backing the Jewish men to the wall. They only invite Tevye in to dance when he is accidentally pushed onto the dance floor and you can see the apprehension in his fellow men when the Russian extends his hand. Topol in his portrayal of Tevye takes the hand with a devilish raise of his eyebrow, a sign that he does not know what is going to happen but he certainly would not be allowed to refuse. The Jerome Robbins choreography that follows (adapted for the screen by Tom Abbott) is not a collaboration between cultures, but a brilliant depiction of coercion and assimilation at play. The Russians rush towards the Jews with kicks and sprints, which are part of their own traditional dances, but take on new aggressive meaning when being performed towards the minority group they hate. The Jewish men eventually go back into their own raised arm dance, while the gentiles snake between their legs. This does not last long, though, and soon the Jews are back to copying the Russian moves. This scene and the choreography explain the power imbalance between the two groups. One group belongs, while the other must pretend to be something they aren’t to fit in and avoid danger for as long as they can.

            Fiddler on the Roof is an important look at an oft-misunderstood culture, and spends much of its runtime focusing on both the beauty of the long historical traditions and the willingness of the Eastern European Jewish people to adapt and change when members of the community see fit. The musical takes care to show exactly how the Jewish people belong among each other, which is with respect for differing beliefs and customs, and also depicts how the Jewish community fit within Russia, which is to say it didn’t. Not because of the Jewish community itself, but because the majority group was unwilling to see the humanity of the community right under their noses. The ending of  Fiddler where everyone loses not only their personal cultures they’ve worked so hard to cultivate and define, but also lose each other and other living remnants of their way of life is a heartbreaking one. It is proof that belonging within your own community can only get you so far when you are in the minority and that no amount of goodness, love, and respect can save you from hatred from people who do not wish to understand you or see you as an equal.

Puerto Ricans Are The Odd Ones Out

Let’s play a game. 

It’s called “which singer does not belong.” I’m going to give you four names and you have to tell me which one does not belong. And yes, you have to choose one. 


Lady Gaga, Katy Perry, Jennifer Lopez, and Brittney Spears.

5 seconds left…

Okay, time’s up. What’s your answer?

Did you choose Jennifer Lopez? 

If you did choose JLO, ask yourself why. Was it because she is the oldest one out of the group? Maybe because she hasn’t made any hit songs lately? Maybe you’re a World of Dance fan? Despite these justifications, the reason may be deeper than any of those: she is the only American singer on the list who isn’t white. Although you may think that you were not considering ethnicity when choosing your answer, the world that you live in inherently sees race before anything else, and in America especially, there are racist stereotypes that feed into our first perceptions of others. And while we can all try our hardest to suppress these implicit biases, they are impossible to escape.

The classic film musical West Side Story is an iconic example of these stereotypes. Either knowingly or unknowingly, we tend to exclude immigrant groups out of the American identity because the term “American” has now become synonymous with “white.” This white American identity is incredibly ironic because America is a country of immigrants that derives its uniqueness and its greatness from its diversity. 

West Side Story, one of America’s beloved musical performances, directed in 1961 by Robert Wise and Jerome Robbins and packed with exuberant jazz and Hispanic style dances, lively music and singing, and climatic moments. It highlights the rift between two gangs: the Jets, composed of white members, and the Sharks, composed of Puerto Ricans. These two groups constantly battle over who owns “the turf,” which is contested land in the West Side of New York. The musical is a modern adaptation of “Romeo and Juliet”, and it uses the tensions between white Americans and Latinx Americans as a method of showing how arbitrary racial identity can be. The play grievously ends in the death of the two Jet members and one Shark member, including the play’s Romeo. When the movie musical was first released, it was appreciated by many Latinx community members, as it brought representation onto the stage. It was one of the first times that a movie had incorporated the experiences of the Latinx community, along with their cultures such as costumes, music, and dance, onto the big screen. While these aspects were adored by many, we as an audience must realize that the writers purposefully created racial tension between the two ethnic groups, as a way to show the disparity between American identity and cultural identity of Puerto Ricans and immigrant groups in general. They portray the Puerto Ricans’ lack of belonging within the musical through the dialogue and dancing, and in the real world through the casting. 

The main characters are Tony, Bernando, Riff, Anita, and Maria. Tony and Riff are the white Jets in the musical, whereas Bernanado, Anita, and Maria are Puerto Rican Sharks. Anita, played by Rita Moreno, was the only Puerto Rican actress. Bernando and Maria, played by George Chakaris and Natalie Wood respectively, were white American actors performing in brown face. Although Anita is the only character portrayed by a Puerto Rican, the Juliet of the adaptation, Maria, was played by a white actress. Although Latinx audiences may originally have been excited to see representation, the casting choices by the producers clearly indicate that their interest in portraying the Puerto Rican-American identity was more of a way to make money than actually caring about substantive and accurate representation. This implies that Puerto Ricans do not belong on the American Hollywood sets. Without discussing the elements of the musical, this is a perfect example of how Puerto Ricans are being excluded from the American identity. In a movie about the Puerto Rican-American identity, there is still a refusal to acknowledge what that identity looks like because they refuse to hire actors with that background and life experience, even if it could enhance the role. 

Throughout the musical, the racial tension between the white and Puerto Rican gang members was used to highlight the fact that Puerto Ricans do not belong within their community. For instance, when the two groups met at the drugstore to discuss the terms of the rumble, both sides began arguing over who started the fight. Riff, the leader of the Jets, states “who jumped Baby John this afternoon?” to which Bernando, leader of the Sharks, responds with “who jumped me the first day I moved here.” Then another Jet says “who asked you to move here…go back to Puerto Rico” These are very important lines that not only explain the origin of the tensions between them, but also reveals the internalized racism within the white boys. In the Jets’ eyes, the streets are rightfully their turf because they have internalized that only they (aka white people) belong in America and therefore, the Puerto Ricans don’t. While this portrayal of white privilege is a dangerous concept, it is an accurate representation of what occurs in the real world not only to Puerto Ricans, but to every non-white immigrant group. This argument is not something that has been lost over the last 60 years; rather, in some ways, we’ve seen these anti-immigrant sentiments rise in support, seen in videos of “Karens” claiming that “Mexicans should go back to their country because they bring drugs, black people should go to Africa because they are thugs, and Asian people should go back to China because they bring Coronavirus, or in President Trump’s words, ‘Chinese Flu’.” While such radical statements are not exactly stated in the musical, it is insinuated through the comments made by the Jets. In both the real world and the movie, ethnic groups are constantly considered the outsiders of America, just like in my “who does not belong” game. All the singers I listed are American, but the reason Jennifer Lopez unconsciously stuck out of the group is that she is the only one that is not white, and although race is always something that we see, it’s identification as a lack of belonging connects to our country’s inclination to see non-white people as outsiders.

  The Jet’s opinions on the Sharks are not insular. The constant bombardment of immigrants and people of color with these messages becomes internalized; the Puerto Ricans themselves feel like they do not belong either. In the musical number “America,” the Shark boys and girls are divided on the greatness of America. The women praise America and claim that their identity is American, while the men denounce America and claim their identity will always be with their home country, Puerto Rico. Although Anita and the girls support America, their dresses and dancing say otherwise. They wear traditional Hispanic dresses that have numerous ruffles on the bottom so that while they are dancing, they can flail it around and expose their legs. They also rhythmically tap their feet, shake their hips, spin in place, and perform high kicks. This confident and exuberant way of dancing was portrayed to parallel their pride in having an American identity, while still exuding the cultural traits of their Puerto Rican heritage. The boys on the other hand, in one specific part of the number, dance more elegantly in partners, somewhat like a ballroom and ballet type of dance, by going in releve and spinning in place. Then all of sudden, they fake slap each other across the face and scream “America.” They go back to dancing elegantly, and suddenly kick each other in the butts and scream “America” again. This contrasting and peculiar way of dancing shows how the boys think they do not belong in America because in America everything seems elegant, classy, and like a dream, but in reality America “kicks you in the ass,” especially when you’re an immigrant or a person of color, or both. This is exemplified by their reasons for why they don’t like America; the girls say there is “credit here” (elegant ballroom), but the boys respond with “they will charge twice for people who are not white” (followed by a slap in the face or a kick in the butt). At the end of the number, the two groups come together, partner up with one boy and girl, and they happily and lively dance the same upbeat Hispanic dance by clapping their hands, jumping around wildly, and skipping in place, to show that although the two groups have opposing views on America, they are all happy to share the same ethnic identity of being Puerto Rican. These two separate perspectives that they have on America is partially related to the American Dream and the violence that men of color face in America, while women of color, although they also face violence, are often also commodified, shown by how the love interest in the movie is the Puerto Rican girl. 

The movie ends in the death of Tony, a white jet who falls in love with a Puerto Rican girl named Maria. Even though Maria screams at both groups for letting their hatred for each other result in multiple deaths, the creators of the musical do not end it with both sides coming together, apologizing, and coming up with a resolution for the future. Instead, each group walks away to their respective side. This silent scene speaks the loudest in that it shows how the white people still do not see the Puerto Ricans as one of them. It portrays the real-world actions of how immigrants groups never belong in America. Despite the logic, the facts, the historical context of America, and the power of diversity in creating the America we live in today, the Jets and the Sharks represent the ongoing tension between an American identity, and a white one. It shows how Puerto Ricans have not been and currently are not, a part of the American community. In our world today, JLO is in fact the odd one out.

“In the Heights” is Not Revolutionary: How the Ordinary Story of Washington Heights Uncovers “Home”

At the end of the seventh grade I acquired the nickname “Mexico.” Actually, it wasn’t really a nickname at all, or at least not one that I approved of. I can’t remember the exact insult that led to the birth of this name, but I know one of my “friends” made some probably unoriginal jab at Mexicans, to which I replied, “uhh… I’m Mexican…” What followed was a series of comments like “no way,” “no you are not,” “are you serious?” Yes. I was serious. I am serious. And just like that——in one rare moment of me owning my ethnicity——a message was thrust upon me. A message that said “this part of your identity is laughable,” “being Hispanic is not something to be proud of,” and probably most damaging, “if you are White-passing, why expose yourself as Mexican?” As a result of that “nickname” and many other interactions and moments in my adolescence, I have never sought to unpack that part of my identity. I think I convinced myself that it just wasn’t worth it——that I wasn’t missing anything at all.

In the Heights proved me wrong. It was here——in a story seemingly very distant from my own——that I found pieces of my identity I didn’t know were missing. Through the spectacularly ordinary lens of three days in Washington Heights, the audience faces the challenge of learning more about themselves——each viewer either sees parts of their identity mirrored in the characters, or they see the absence of such.

Mama circa 1966

For me, that’s how my discovery started. I saw the absence of myself in a narrative that, ethnically, I should have fit into. But I don’t. Lin-Manuel’s lyrics in the opening number pushed me away because they tell my mama’s story, not mine. Mama, who is 100% Mexican, always told me that she felt “too White for the Black kids and too Black for the White kids” during her childhood. Even when she entered the Marine Corps at eighteen, her enlistment forms only had the options “Black” or “White.” I’ve heard this sentiment my entire life but I cannot relate to it. Personally, on the one hand I feel like a Hispanic imposter, while on the other hand, I feel like maybe I should take my White-passing skin and economic privilege and run with it as fast as I can. But where does that leave me? Honestly, sometimes it leaves me feeling utterly unknown. 

Grandpa, Mama, and Uncle Phil

That’s what I felt in the first number: unknown and frustrated. I was so close to dismissing the whole musical because——like usual——my untapped ethnicity and my Whiteness couldn’t find anything to latch on to. But instead of giving up, I started watching the Chasing Broadway Dreams episode on In the Heights. For the first time, I heard someone say the words I’ve felt my whole life, “I felt like a fake Latina.” It probably sounds crazy, but hearing Karen Olivo, who plays Vanessa, say these words unlocked a part of my being that I’ve ignored for so long. I felt like someone had finally given me permission to explore who I fully am.

That is what In the Heights is capable of: personal discovery and cultural celebration. Unlike most Broadway shows, In the Heights does not win the audience with grandeur and flashy spectacle. Even within Lin-Manuel’s own discography, In the Heights is incredibly different. Hamilton, for example, hinges on its ability to subvert the narrative of history and has often been called “revolutionary.” In the Heights is not that. In fact, it is the very opposite. At the core of the show, In the Heights is a story about a real neighborhood, real jobs, and real people——being told by actors who carry their identities with them as they step into these nuanced characters. The beauty of In the Heights is its ability to be at once engaging and incredibly ordinary. In that space of engaging and ordinary I saw the faces of people I’ve known my whole life.

Mama embracing the curls!!

I started finding myself even in the one-off, seemingly unimportant lines like “What happened to these curls?… You have to accept hair gel into your life!” In the sixth and seventh grade (it was a rough time, y’all) people loved to make fun of my big curly hair. So at the age of twelve, I started straightening it every day and I lost my curls. That moment in the salon between Nina, Daniela and Carla validated my own lived experience. When I recognized that I related to that line, I realized——on an intimately personal and visceral level——how important representation in theatre is. I am hyper aware that this small gesture toward my hair pales in comparison to the challenges faced by non-White-passing Latinx folks and other BIPOC. Nonetheless, In the Heights both validated me and called me to a higher cultural awareness toward representation.

Grandma Maria. No, I do not call her Abuela because I don’t speak Spanish, hence part of me feeling imposter syndrome

In the song “Everything I Know” I found myself close to tears (you can read more about my crying habits here: https://thewritingstage.com/2020/10/21/i-am-chris/) when Nina sings about how Abuela Claudia could barely write her name but always made sure she did her work. Every time I call my Grandma she asks me about school and says, “Good, you study hard because education is the one thing no one can ever take away from you” and it breaks my heart because she didn’t even finish high school. I’d really like to think that I’ve never taken my education for granted, but this moment demanded I stop and think about how I can better honor my family with my schooling. I even realized that I will be the first woman in my family to graduate from a four year university. My chest physically hurt when Kevin sang, “I always had a mind for investments. Nina Rosario, Bachelor of Arts. When that day comes, we’ll call it even.” In my head, I didn’t hear “Nina;” I heard my dad saying my name.

Many times throughout the recording I thought about how much my parents have given up for me. I think I arrived at the conclusion that part of my tendency to ignore my heritage is likely rooted in Mama’s efforts to make sure it was never something that held me back. I don’t resent that. Again, I will be the first one to admit that my parents provide incredibly well for me. But In the Heights illuminated the nuance of identity for me. In hearing Nina sing about searching for “home” at Stanford, I realized I didn’t even know I was searching for a more complete sense of “home” at Vanderbilt——at least not in this way. And yet, I found it. I found pieces of myself in In the Heights that I didn’t think mattered. I found home here.

Hamilton: Contradictions that Create a Community

In 2016, Lin Manuel Miranda’s unique form of musical storytelling made Hamilton the sight to be seen on Broadway. Everyone soon fell in love with the novel “hip-hop musical” that shared the old, yet often neglected story of one America’s founding fathers, Alexander Hamilton. Specifically, how the mere immigrant orphan from the Caribbean rose to power to become Washington’s right-hand man, as well as one of the most respected figures in America’s political founding. By contrasting a dated story with a more contemporary music genre and progressive, off-race casting, Miranda’s retelling of Hamilton’s life reaches a greater audience. This outreach to a larger audience is due to the community Miranda creates on stage. The community of Hamilton is of white men (played by actors of color) in an era where women have little to no rights (where female actors are given primary roles in the story) where honor and integrity are held in the highest regard (though everyone acts upon shady, power-hungry incentives). This constant juxtaposition between Hamilton’s community and the outside community is what makes Hamilton such an endearing protagonist, unifying the audience behind him.

The two acts of Hamilton are very distinct from one another in regard to the sense of community. Even though the same actors are in both acts, Hamilton’s changing community, as well as the audience itself, are unified against different threats. In act one, Hamilton’s community exists of his rag-tag group of friends that are united in their fight against the British monarchy. This creates a standard for anyone hoping to join Hamilton’s circle. Specifically, they must be supportive of the American revolution. This comes to play in the reprise of “The Story of Tonight.” Aaron Burr, Hamilton’s close friend in the first act, is in love with a married woman: “It’s alright Burr. I wish you’d brought this girl with you tonight, Burr / You’re very kind, but I’m afraid it’s unlawful, sir / What do you mean? / She’s married / I see / She’s married to a British officer / Oh shit.” Hamilton reacts less to the fact that she is married, and instead to the fact that she is married to a British officer. The relationship is not taboo to Hamilton until he learns that she is part of a different “community” on the side of the British. Act two is less direct in this approach. Hamilton is more isolated in act two for none of his friends (except Burr) are around him anymore. Ironically, the actors that play his friends Marquis de Lafayette and Hercules Mulligan (Daveed Diggs and Okieriete Onaodowan respectively) play his main political adversaries in act two. Not only is this to subvert your expectations as an audience member, but also to create a rival community to Hamilton that still remains familiar. In parallel to act one, Hamilton is at war with Jefferson, a man with previously established wealth and power who easily accumulates votes–a socioeconomic foil to Hamilton. Hamilton’s community is reestablished as the Federalists, with the understanding that the Democratic-Republicans are the main adversary. The Democratic-Republican’s community often discriminates against Hamilton. In “Cabinet Battle #2,” Jefferson publicly remarks, “He knows nothing of loyalty / Smells like new money, dresses like fake royalty / Desperate to rise above his station / Everything he does betrays the ideals of our nation.” Similarly, the juxtaposition between Burr’s patient nature and Hamilton’s aggressive political activism in songs like “Wait for It” and “Non-Stop” further define those who can fit into Hamilton’s community. That is to say, the words and actions of rival communities create assumptions for Hamilton’s community, which become associated with ideals like “new money,” progressiveness, and impulsivity.

Hamilton’s discrimination is not limited to socioeconomic factors. The line “Arrogant immigrant, orphan / Bastard, whoreson” and variations of it are often repeated throughout the show (this example was taken from “Your Obedient Servant”), mainly through Burr’s narration. Ironically, though all of the historical characters portrayed in the show are white, most of the Hamilton cast are actors of color. This juxtaposition between what we hear the characters saying and what the characters look like not only points to the idiocy of discriminating against race, but also puts the community of Hamilton into a more contemporary setting. The community within Washington’s cabinet often disregards Hamilton due to his Caribbean lineage, even though he is smarter than most all of them. The audience shares in Hamilton’s frustration, subconsciously pushing Miranda’s progressive ideals of race onto the audience. In this sense, the audience shares a community with Hamilton, one centered among racial equality. Further, back in act one, Hamilton surrounds himself with societal outcasts, namely Lafayette, Laurens, and Mulligan, because he feels he is an outcast himself. It is no coincidence that as Hamilton’s connection with Eliza Schuyler, a woman from a well-established family, grows stronger, and his relationship with his outcasted cronies diminishes, he gains power in the outside community, leaving his old one behind.

Another interesting dichotomy that creates community is the representation of women in Hamilton. Women in the 18th century did not carry much of a voice. However, in Hamilton, the women of the show take much more control over the story. This idea is best seen in the song “The Schuyler Sisters.” Perhaps the most famous line from this song is when Angelica tells Burr, “And when I meet Thomas Jefferson, I’m ‘a compel him to include women in the sequel!” Miranda purposefully breaks historical accuracy in order to better establish the women in Hamilton’s community. In opposition to the traditional ideals of complaisance and agreeableness, Angelica and Eliza (and Peggy!) are striking and passionate. This is also in part due to the acting choices by Angelica and Eliza’s actors: Renée Elise Goldsberry and Phillipa Soo respectively. The two actors play the Schuyler sisters in a more progressive and modern manner. They actually take agency within the story, further establishing a contemporary community within an old story, which invites the audience to share in this sense of community. The women are just as revolutionary as the men and they actively make choices that affect Hamilton’s community. For example, when Hamilton publishes The Reynold’s Pamphlet, the audience is encapsulated with Phillipa Soo’s intense and engaging rendition of “Burn,” forever changing the dynamic of the community we see onstage. Eliza’s decision to leave Hamilton tarnishes his legacy and conveys that she can be independent of him. Similarly, it is Eliza, not Hamilton, that carries on their family legacy in “Who Lives, Who Dies, Who Tells Your Story.” Phillipa Soo creates depth to Eliza that gains sympathy and further support from the audience to the community in Hamilton.

Finally, honor plays a large role in the building of community within Hamilton. Three duels take place over the course of show, all with the intention of defending and accusing the honor of those involved. The first duel is between Charles Lee, an American General whose cowardice was responsible for the death of hundreds of troops, and Hamilton’s good friend John Laurens. Hamilton challenges Lee to the duel after Lee audaciously blamed his failures on George Washington. Therefore, Hamilton is defending Washington’s (and subsequently, his own) honor. The second duel was between Hamilton’s son Philip and a blabbermouth named George Eacker. Hamilton supported the duel with his son in order to protect his honor. And finally, the last duel was with Hamilton himself, defending his own honor against Aaron Burr. In all of these cases, Hamilton was defending his honor and legacy. Hamilton’s obsession with his legacy creates a relationship, a community, among his inner circle that is an “open-book.” Everyone in Hamilton hopes to be well-remembered, but Hamilton’s legacy holds more validity, for he keeps himself honest throughout the show. The audience trusts the account of Hamilton’s life because they learn to trust Hamilton himself. Whether in regard to the duels or The Reynolds Pamphlet, Hamilton is honest, while the outside community is not. Burr usurps Philip Schuyler’s (Hamilton’s father-in-law) position in the senate and, along with Jefferson and Madison, tries to blackmail Hamilton. Again, Hamilton’s community is contrasted with those against him, which goes to unite the audience on his side, despite his flaws.

There’s no doubt as to why Hamilton was such a success on Broadway. Of course, Hamilton’s music and acting are prestigious, but more than that, Miranda creates a community on stage that the audience can easily relate to. Miranda expertly bridges the gap between an old story and a modern world by including contemporary social issues such as racial discrimination, women’s rights, and integrity. He accomplishes this via his writing and casting choices. Hamilton’s cast is made up of a majority of actors of color. Similarly, though not as historically accurate, he gives the women in Hamilton agency and depth. Beyond that, Hamilton continuously unites the audience behind an unlikely protagonist: an “Arrogant immigrant, orphan / Bastard, whoreson,” by creating a likable community onstage around Hamilton that is readily supported by the audience, and contrasting it with other communities, rivals, with less appealing characteristics.  

When Centuries Collide: Hamilton in the 21st Century.

By: Tobi Akisanya

Alexander Hamilton, the founding father credited with creating America’s first national bank and authoring a great majority of the Federalist papers. He was outspoken, stubborn, passionate, and charming, not only in his writings, but in every aspect of his life. All of this I learned from my high school history class. The only images of power I knew were the founding fathers who were white, rich men, that is, until 2009 rolled around. While on vacation in 2009 with his wife after the success of his first Broadway hit musical In the Heights, Lin Manuel Miranda came across the 2004 biography “Alexander Hamilton” by historian Ross Chernow. Instead of just reading the novel, Miranda decided to run with his gift. What was a concept album, became mixtape, became an Off-Broadway production, became the 11 Tony Award winning musical Hamilton. Hamilton gave Broadway what it did not know it needed. By combining modern rap with musical theater, Hamilton was able to preserve American’s foundational story while simultaneously highlighting the people who make it what is today, people of color. Hamilton took the story of American and finally made it reflect the multi-cultural mosaic that the United States represents today. The carefully crafted relationships and dynamics between characters, the use of the stage as a space for profound and figurative movement, and the emphasis on race, gender, identity, and the American Dream, made it almost impossible for audience members- including those who were not interested in live theater before- fall in love Hamilton.

When Hamilton first hit the Broadway stage, I will be the first to admit that I was not a fan. For years and years, I had admired Lin Manuel Miranda’s work on In the Heights because, frankly, I found it more entertaining and fun. It was not until this year, when Disney+ released a filmed version of the Hamilton on its streaming service, that I actually gave the show a chance. Boy, was this musical just as entertaining and fun as any musical that I had ever watched. Initially I was captivated by each actor’s ability to portray their given character. The relationships created and broken throughout this show brought me through a whirlwind of emotions. I cried, laughed, winced, and gasped.  Whether it be the character’s identity or the identity of the actor shining through the performance of their character, I though the show was very telling of the so-called “American Dream.”

 It is obvious that a huge motif throughout the show is staying historically accurate but also staying culturally relevant. The use of color-conscious casting was a brilliant choice on behalf of the creative team. A cast comprised majority of people of color helped convey 200-year old story to a 21st century audience. George Washington, Aaron Burr, and Thomas Jefferson were not black, but Chris Jackson, Leslie Odom Jr., and Daveed Diggs- the men I believe were perfectly cast in these roles- were. Who was to say the founding the fathers had to be white? By exploring color- conscious casting, people who were not given a voice in the 1700s were able to tell their stories in Hamilton. It’s not about having people that look exactly like the characters they are portraying, it’s about prioritizing representation but in a way that audience members can still connect it to the original story.

 The fight for equality has always been a part of American culture. Immigrant ambition is expressed in “MyShot” the quintessential “I am” song. The cast members chanting “I am just like my country, I’m young scrapy and hungry,” are truly the image of our nation. They are not forced to mask who they are. They don the hairstyles and skin tones of minority culture. When Hamilton first appears on the stage in the opening number “Alexander Hamilton”, he emerges as an immigrant in new country. He has hope, fear, and desire in his eyes. We hear the other characters recount all that has happened in his past that has led him to that moment.  The audience is learning of his past as he relives it. Having a Latino man sing a song about the strength of immigrants, while many people who look like him are denied proper treatment by American immigration policies, creates a powerful image of resilience and hope.

The relationships Alexander Hamilton has with those around him drive the storyline. Almost every man Hamilton encounters throughout the show poses as a threat to him. George Washington carries the country on his back, but with the onset of the Revolutionary War he recruits a young Alexander Hamilton as his aid. Hamilton wishes to have not only the power that Washington has but also the revered status. Washington invest in Hamilton because he sees himself in him. Hamilton’s young brain bursting with ideas clashes Washington’s wisdom. Despite their differences they are able to form a close bond, however, this bond pits Hamilton against many of his future colleagues. Hamilton’s most gruesome dispute is with Aaron Burr. Aaron Burr feels as though he, as a born and bred American, should have a better opportunity to ascend into American politics. However, Hamilton, who was once his friend, outshines him in almost all of his ventures. Hamilton and Burr hate each other because they are each other’s biggest competition. Both Lin Manuel Miranda and Aaron Burr use their ability to command the stage in their quest to outsmart each other. Their identities as actors makes this dynamic even more interesting as aspects of their real life are on the table, Miranda as first-generation immigrant to Puerto Rican parents, and Odom Jr. as an African American.  Ultimately, Hamilton’s inability to fully trust those around him stems from his childhood. His vulnerable performance in “Hurricane” reveals that writing- his biggest weapon- was the only thing has been truly to rely on.  

Thanks to director Thomas Kail and choreographer Andy Blankenbuehler, the use of figurative actions in Hamilton creates images like no other for audience members. Because the set of the show is so minimalistic, people are used in place of objects. The focus is not to recreate the 1700s, instead the focus is to mimic qualities and actions as it pertains to the current generation and what is happening on stage. One of my favorite figurative elements throughout the entire is show is at the end “The World Was Wide Enough.” As Hamilton is fatally shot by Burr in their pre-arranged duel, Hamilton is transported across the river, not by an actual boat, but by two ensemble members. One each side of Hamilton’s body, as it is toppled over, two ensemble members row their arms creating a beautiful and lifelike image, a boat better than a physical boat. The image of two people of color holding the dying body of another man of color with such care evokes a sense of community and belonging and reinforces that people of color an integral part of the American story. These kinds of things do not need to be blatantly explained, they are just understood, making the storytelling even more innovative. This minimalistic approach to scenic design forces audience members to pay even closer attention to the subject matter. Throughout the show cast members are constantly pantomiming and dancing, giving a tangible image to the storytelling in the subtlest moments. Another one of my favorite figurative moments in Hamilton is the “The Bullet”, a character originated by Tony Nominated actress Arianna Debose. As characters come in contact with death, they come in contact with her, as she represents an actual bullet. By putting a person in place of an object it easy to realize that death taunts, flirts, and creeps up on those who least expect it, though it is inevitable.

In both the 2015 Original Broadway release and the Disney+ release this year, Hamilton truly captured sentiments of 21st century culture under a 1700s backdrop. Diversity and inclusion were a priority in this production. As a black woman myself, I can honestly say that I felt represented in by the individuals in this production. Once again, I am in awe of Lin Manuel Miranda’s ability to create something out of nothing and doing it in a way that resonates with humans of every color, creed, and background.

Who am I?

 It seems like I’ve been chasing the answer to the question “Who am I?” for my whole life and still haven’t quite found it. I think for everyone, the search for identity is a common question. Almost 3 years ago, I was asked to write an essay for a scholarship application, and “Who Am I?” was the only prompt. This seemingly simple question really threw me off and I thought about it for weeks. Last minute, I ended up writing a pretty basic answer that was good enough to win the scholarship, but far from good enough to satisfy my own wonder and need for identity. I think that might be why part of me is jealous of Tevye’s daughters in Fiddler on the Roof. 

Jewish, female, and a part of a family. These three qualities defined, almost in entirety, who Tevye’s daughters were with little else left for self exploration. Ever since the beginning of their lives they knew who they were… or at least who they were supposed to be. Jewish, gendered, and a part of a family. Although it was restricting, it provided them with a set identity and secure sense of belonging. 

Tevye’s daughters first and foremost receive their sense of identity as a member of the Jewish community. When Tevye first mentions the non-jewish people in their village, he calls them the “others.” with a tone in his voice that makes it very clear how he feels about them. In a world where the Jewish people are made outcasts, the people of Anatevka have created their own community of belonging. Within their community, the mold is exactly what they are; all they have to do is follow the path that is laid out for them. 

The people of Anatevka find this path first in the Torah and its law. The Torah is like a “how to” for their life, full of rules and standards for them to follow. If anything in the Torah isn’t clear all they have to do is ask the Rabbi, and he will tell them what to do. At the beginning of the show, a young man comes to the Rabbi and says he has a question. Instantly everyone around them becomes quiet or is shushed. This clearly shows from the beginning that everyone has high respect for the Rabbi and his words. The young men are eager to follow him and learn. This is also seen in the wedding scene, when the wedding guests argue if it is wrong or not for men and women to dance together. The same effect happens, the people grow quiet and move closer, they lean in to see and hear what he will have to say with their eyes open wide. What the Rabbi says goes! When he says that dancing is not forbidden, the whole room eventually begins to dance.

Outside the word of the Torah, the cultural traditions of the Jewish religion also help define their path and who they are. Before the show opening song Tevye states, “because of our traditions, everyone knows who he is… and what God expects them to do.” It’s the simple things from how they dress–always wearing a prayer shawl and keeping their heads covered–to their behaviors. Some of these behaviors include their observance of the sabbath, their family roles, and their relationships with one another. 

The Jewish community in Anatevka also finds a sense of who they are through the gender roles expected of them in their society. This is seen through the portrayal of the men and women in the working environment. There are countless scenes of the men hard at work, and their movements in their jobs are sharp and aggressive. They are shown pulling waggons, chopping wood, smashing metal, and butchering meat (with their knives choreographed way higher in the air than I believe would be necessary). The women, in contrast, are shown doing jobs that are clean and gentle. We see them kneading dough (which arguably should be quite aggressive, but somehow isn’t), sliding food in and out of the oven at the perfect time, scrubbing children, ironing clothes, and folding the laundry. Showing how both genders do their work reflects their roles in the home and society, men as the big and strong authority figure, and women as the soft spoken, delicate keeper of the house. 

We also learn a lot about the gender roles and expectations of the people of Anatevka from their portrayal of movement in the Wedding Dance. The females movements are gentle, and they quickly fall in line. We see their chests and chins held high during their simple calm movements, with sweet smiles always on their face. They float from movement to movement like they float from task to task – quickly and quietly, sweetly and delicately. We see all of this contrasted with the movements of the men on the other side of the rope. Their movements are much less controlled – even sloppier in a way. Their arms flail out of choreography, their claps are much sharper and more aggressive. They also have bottles of alcohol as a key component of their choreography, which the women do not have. Men in Anatevka have much more freedom and say in what they do, while the women’s role is to quietly obey and be the prized possession of the men, little to no attention drawn to them. The contrast between male and female dancing in this scene show that the lives and expectations were different, but very clear. Each person is called to fit in on their side of the rope, with the small square they are allowed to dance in almost like the small space for freedom of individuality they are allowed to explore.

Finally, they find identity and belonging through their family. Family is extremely important to the people in Anatevka. There is no divorce, and a part from extreme circumstances, families rarely separate. We see this clearly in the relationship between Tevye’s daughters. The sister’s close bond is clear in their first song “Matchmaker.” We see them helping each other complete their chores and get ready for dinner. The choreography so well depicts each girl knowing exactly the move her sister is going to make next, and either assisting her or letting her shine. They sing and banter together, knowing exactly what will take the funniest but still playful jab at their sister, but not going too far as to hurt her (as someone with a sister, I know that this is a perfect art). 

We see this love and bond even further during the dance at the wedding. When the three oldest sisters dance together, their love for each other shines through. They each take turns looking at each other, with a great affection in their eyes and approval in their soft nods. They also show how fond they are of each other when Tzeitel gives each of her younger sisters a soft kiss on the cheek when they break a part. This shows that even though she is getting married, their sisterhood will never go away. They will be there for each other through thick and thin. They prove this at the end of the show when Chava comes back to say goodbye to her family after doing the unthinkable: marrying a Christain. Regardless of her status with the community, Tzeitel runs to greet her with a hug as soon as she sees her, showing that after even the worst, nothing between them could ever change; they will always be sisters. 

In Anatevka, you could be known and belong if you followed the mold, and a small part of me wonders why anyone would want to break that. It sometimes seems like being told who you are might be easier than trying to figure it out for yourself. As Tevye says, “without our traditions our lives would be as shaky as a fiddler on the roof.” So… who am I? What are my traditions, identity, and belonging? I still don’t know, but maybe “shaky” isn’t a bad thing. Shaky pushes us forward, stability just holds us back from being who we truly are meant to become.

You’re Probably Wrong and It’s Not Your Fault

How the Nuances of Jewry, Modernity, and Gender Intersect in the Ensemble of Fiddler on the Roof
by Schuyler Kresge

20,261 performances. That stunningly large integer is the estimated number of times that Jerry Brock, Sheldon Harnick, and Joseph Stein’s 1964 work Fiddler on the Roof has been performed since its initial Broadway run (Silver et al). Known internationally as one of the most prolific musicals in history, the show captures life in a shtetl (small Jewish villages that were predominantly located in Eastern Europe) during the early twentieth century. 

While 20,261 consecutive performances of any work is jaw-dropping regardless of context, what underscores the triumph of Fiddler is that it is uniquely Jewish in a way that few other musicals in the popular canon are. More than simply having elements or tropes of Judaism as seen in other musicals featuring Jewish characters, Fiddler on the Roof is steeped in Judaism in a way that threatens to make it inaccessible. In order to combat this and fully engage unfamiliar audiences in the shtetl of Anatevka, Brock, Harnick, and Stein deftly employ the Jewish subgroup of Fiddler’s ensemble. By presenting audiences with the issues of belonging and modernity directly through the ensemble’s Jewry (collective Jewish identity), Fiddler allows audiences to understand the core themes of generational conflict regardless of their background. In doing so, Fiddler adaptations, specifically Norman Jewison’s 1971 film adaptation for this analysis, open themselves up to critiques regarding the roles of gender in Orthodox Jewry. However well-meaning these critiques are, they remain founded upon audiences’ flawed understandings of the nuances of Jewry. While the Jewish portion of Fiddler’s ensemble serves a crucial role in a gentile audience’s accessibility to Fiddler’s Jewry, the ensemble also provides an easy target for accusations of problematic gender roles despite the reality that the rigid gender structure represents Anatevka and Judaism writ large‘s fervent attempt at defending from increasing antisemitism. 

In order to understand how the shtetl Jewry found in Fiddler’s Jewish ensemble is empowering rather than oppressive, it is important to first appreciate the significance of how the Jewish sub-ensemble engages tradition and belonging throughout Fiddler on the Roof. More than any other dominant surviving religion, the concept of belonging and codification is absolutely absolutely essential to Jewish community. Since Judaism’s founding over 3,500 years ago, dominant groups ranging from the Ancient Egyptians to Revolutionary-era Russians like those of Fiddler have incessantly persecuted both Judaism as a religion as well as Jews as an ethnic group. In response to these attacks, Jews leaned into the only thing they could carry with them as their oppressors destroyed their physical property and forcibly dispersed their communities— their traditions. To early twentieth-century shtetl Jews like Tevye and the characters of the Fiddler  ensemble, actively engaging in tradition is a mitzvah. While non-Jews may recognize the word mitzvah from attending celebrations like b’nai/b’not mitzvahs (the plurals of bar and bat mitzvah),  halachah (the cumulative Jewish law) defines mitzvot with the heavy weight of actions commanded of Jews by G-d. Put simply, engaging in tradition and defining belonging by faithfulness to halachah is simultaneously required by G-d and the historical geopolitical treatment of Jews. It is this perspective of the level of religious importance that many audiences lack when attempting to understand belonging and gender roles in Fiddler

As such, while the defined gender roles outlined in the beginning of Fiddler may appear problematically patriarchal, the ensemble willingly engages them, and freely leave (albeit with some controversy) if they choose to disengage with tradition. Yes, to Fiddler’s Jewish sub-ensemble, belonging is dictated by halachah. And yet, it is the willing consent and dialectical engagement of the ensemble that makes Jewry in Anatevka a safe space, not an oppressive one. This can be best seen in the opening number, “Prologue / ‘Tradition’”. In “Prologue / ‘Tradition’”, Tevye welcomes the audience to Anatevka by presenting the eponymous “fiddler on the roof”’s attempts to play while avoiding falling as analogous to the shtetl’s attempts to survive and be Jewish in a world of antisemitism. As the camera shows the sharply-defined gender rules in Anatevka, the Jewish population extols the value of tradition in song. The design elements of this scene deliberately support this idea of gendered belonging, as the audience sees the genders segregated throughout this montage. While these strict gender separations seen through Fiddler on the Roof’s ensemble during “Prologue / ‘Tradition'” seem to support a casual audience’s belief that shtetl Jewry is oppressive, a close reading of Tevye’s words once again provides a Judaism-aware audience the context to understand the flaws within this argument. As Tevye relates life in Anatevka to the roof fiddler, he answers his own question, stating “how do we keep our balance?…Tradition!” When placed in the context of mitzvot and halachah outlined above, it is evident that tradition is a matter of survival and necessity to Fiddler on the Roof’s Jewish ensemble, forming belonging and community, not oppression.

Just as “Prologue / ‘Tradition’” serves as an attempt to show a a community with immense trauma bound together through tradition, Tevye’s monologues act as check-ins on the extremely unique way in which halachah interacts with societal progression and modernity. While halachah is regarded as the law of G-d, there is also an understanding within Judaism that G-d’s will works out, even in the rare event that it appears to be in opposition with halachah. As such, there are critical moments in Jewish culture where tradition is overlooked in favor of what is considered an act of G-d. It is in this “grey zone” that much of the generational conflict of Fiddler occurs. By understanding that these conflicts are, essentially, scholarly textual debates, the role of belonging in Fiddler’s ensemble makes even more sense. 

When Tevye monologues, briefly reprises the “Tradition” leitmotif, or talks directly to G-d after his daughters rebel against tradition, Tevye is attempting to work out whether or not his daughters’ actions are G-d’s will or a pure violation of halachah. Jewison, Brock, Harnick, and Stein underscore the importance of tradition in belonging to Jewry in Anatevka through the contrast between how Tevye copes with Hodel and Chava’s different choices in marriage. The key difference between the Hodel-Perchik and the Chava-Fyedka marriages is that despite his radical nature, Perchik is a Jew whereas Fyedka is a Gentile. As such, when Hodel and Perchik announce their marriage plans regardless of Tevye’s permission, while there is controversy, they are permitted to remain in the ensemble community because they have not violated any of the “requirements” for belonging. While Tevye initially states “I’ll lock her up in her room” (2:03), he quickly comes to the understanding that the halachic tradition of patriarchally-arranged marriages is being overwritten by the will of G-d and vocalizes this recognition when he compares G-d’s matchmaking of Adam and Eve to Hodel and Perchik in the very same sentence. In stark distinction to Tevye’s reaction to Hodel’s engagement, Tevye simply cannot abide by Chava’s choice of partner. In abandoning halachah entirely, no moral grey zone of debate between halachah and G-d’s will exists. To Tevye, Chava has made the conscious choice to abandon the traditions that comprise the identity of Fiddler’s Jewish ensemble. Any potential for misconceptions regarding whether or not Tevye still cares for Chava are settled when he asks Tzeitel to pass on a final goodbye at the end of Act II. Once again, a close reading of the words Tevye employs is helpful in understanding the importance of belonging in the ensemble of Jewry in Anatevka. When Tevye says “and God be with you” (2:54), he is opening up beyond the halachic traditions that have protected Anatevka’s Jewish community at a time they are under direct attack. This incredibly touching moment shows how Jewison, Brock, Harnick, and Stein employ Jewry and Judaism to represent belonging and community in such nuanced ways that non-Jewish audiences might perceive them as toxic or problematic. 

Undeniably, the Jewry expressed in Fiddler on the Roof is antiquated in contrast to the hypermodern Judaism that most Westerners are familiar with. The roles of gender within the community of Fiddler’s Jewish ensemble are codified and firm. However, a strong reliance on tradition and rigid gender boundaries does not make a system inherently toxic, especially considering the intricate nuances of the ensemble’s Jewry. Jewison, Brock, Harnick, and Stein consistently go out of their way to signal that Anatevka’s Jewish ensemble is insular and homogenous in community as a protective measure, a measure the Russian ensemble proves necessary with attacks via pogroms. Furthermore, Tevye (representative of the patriarchs of the ensemble) shows the ability to modernize contingent upon a belief that G-d permitted the advancement. For a deeply Jewish community, this is a powerful display of trust that non-Jewish audiences can under-appreciate. Finally, it is helpful to take a moment to acknowledge that the nuances of Judaism’s role in Fiddler on the Roof can be incredibly challenging to understand. There are many moments within Fiddler where I struggled to comprehend the halachic motivations behind seemingly regressive gender roles within the Anatevka shtetl, and I am a practicing and active Jew. However, a work as impactful as Fiddler deserves a good faith analysis of the intersection of Jewry, modernity, and gender within Fiddler to properly recognize how that intersection impacts community and belonging within Fiddler on the Roof.

CITED Sources

(JTA), Stephen Silver, et al. Some Say ‘Fiddler on the Roof’ Has Been Staged Daily since 1964. Covid-19 Ended It. 21 June 2020, jewishnews.timesofisrael.com/some-think-fiddler-on-the-roof-staged-every-day-since-1964-covid-19-ended-it/. (Used to calculate the number of performances, along with a calculator)

If Anatevka were a Bridge, Tradition would be the Keystone

by: Kira Hinchey

Imagine a community as a stone bridge. Each stone represents a different building block, each essential to the community’s identity. At the center lies the most important part that ties everyone together: the keystone. For many communities, tradition stands as that keystone. Shared traditions connect people to each other and to the past. Some examples include holidays, birthdays, religious traditions, and group ceremonies. But tradition doesn’t just show up, out of the blue, on special occasions. Tradition includes how we interact with each other on a daily basis. Who can talk to whom and who can marry whom. For example, when you address someone older or of higher prestige, you typically address them using “Mr.” or “Mrs.” to acknowledge the traditional social boundaries between you (though, for good reason, our society has begun to phase out gender-specific language like this). When combined, these traditions create a blueprint to help us navigate life in society. Sometimes traditions become outdated; specifically, as we have seen recently in America, those intent on excluding individuals or limiting their life choices based on race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, and other core identities. Some traditions stay, some disappear, others evolve. Change serves as the only constant in our lives. And when that change comes, we have to evaluate for ourselves which traditions remain a strong, connecting force that promotes belonging, and which traditions no longer prove useful to us and our loved ones’ happiness.

Fiddler on the Roof, written and revised for the big screen by Joseph Stein and produced by Norman Jewison, explores this internal struggle. Instead of a close-up view of one individual, Fiddler pans out its focus to encompass a small village called Anatevka. In Anatevka, everyone finds their sense of belonging by adhering to religious and traditional roles in society, rooted in Orthodox Judaism. The show utilizes its scenic design, interactions between individuals, and large ensemble performances to establish a sense of community and showcase Anatevka’s cherished traditions. Along the way, Tevye, the town’s milkman, finds himself, as we all do, questioning his community’s traditions when they inhibit his daughters’ happiness. At the same time, he desperately tries to adhere to his community’s standards for belonging.

“Here, in our little village of Anatevka, you might say every one of us is a fiddler on the roof… You may ask, ‘Why do we stay up there if it’s so dangerous?’ Well, we stay because Anatevka is our home. And how do we keep our balance? That I can you in one word: TRADITION!” With this opening line, Tevye divulges his community’s top priority. Upholding tradition. At this point, audience members may wonder several things: Well, which traditions? Where do these traditions come from? Suddenly, the show presents the answers to these questions and whisks the audience away to Anatevka through a combination of scenic elements and an ensemble number. Culturally relevant images flash across the screen. Aerial shots switch between horses, carts, and dirt roads and views from inside the synagogue of Yiddish words on Jewish paintings lining the walls, menorah candles, the star of David. Images of a rural village and Jewish symbols intermingle, helping us see that Orthodox Judaism permeates all aspects of their community.

The scene shifts towards the ensemble. Each person in the bustling town performs a designated task. Tevye pours milk for a neighbor, men work on animal skins and weld metal, and women wash clothes and pick feathers off of chickens. All the while, the women sing lines about their societal role as the “Mama” and “Daughter,” and the men sing about their role as the “Papa” and “Son.”  What originally looks like mass chaos gets dissected and labeled through the song. An older woman talks to a young girl and her mother. She fulfills the community’s need for a matchmaker. This seems odd to a twenty-first century audience. I, personally, would not want my father to be the sole decider of with whom I spend the rest of my life. But Anatevka exists during a different time. The matchmaker role must provide some type of social cohesion. Otherwise, the role would not exist. Even a hunched-over man dressed in tarnished clothes has an established role as a beggar to play in the village. Right off the bat, the show demonstrates the importance of religion and social role to belonging in their society. For society to accept you, you must accept your role based on your gender and economic status. Oh, and you must be Jewish. As Tevye says, “Without our traditions, our lives would be as shaky as a fiddler on the roof.”

As the show progresses, Tevye comes to see just how “shaky” life can become. For example, when Tevye’s oldest daughter, Tzeitel, and her childhood love, Motel, tell Tevye they wish to get married, Tevye reacts with outrage and disbelief. His outburst reflects the rigid social structure of their village. He flails his arms and the lovers cringe as he yells, “Arranging a match for yourself? Tell me. What are you? Everything? The bridegroom, the matchmaker, the guests all rolled into one?” This man’s anger comes from a place of fear and outright confusion. Tzeitel and Motel ask Tevye to forgo the traditional use of a matchmaker and allow them to take agency in a way that their societal roles do not allow. It’s crazy. At least to Tevye. However, after a moment, Tevye deliberates on the concept, and for the first time, he realizes that the traditional way of marriage in their village views women as property and would prevent his daughter from finding happiness. So, he chooses to depart from the norm. The tight-knit nature of the village means that his decision has societal consequences. Before this moment, Tevye already verbally promised his daughter, (like a piece of property!), to the town butcher. Because of this decision, his relationship with the butcher grows tense.  

Aside from personal relationships between characters, the society’s emphasis on gender roles appears through the choreography of the ensemble during Tzeitel and Motel’s wedding. This scene introduces a traditional Jewish wedding. Yellow rope candles held by the crowd burn as Tzietiel and Motel sip from a chalice. As soon as Motel’s foot meets the glass (“Mazel Tov!”) the crowd absorbs the couple and hoists them on chair to their respective sides of the reception. The women perform small, meak group dances while the men shout, cheer, and push each other around in a circle. The men’s costumes consist of identical black suits, making the individual disappear into the mass. The community welcomes Motel into his role as a husband and Tzietiel to her role as a wife. A rope in the center of the room draws a literal line between the genders. Then, Perchik appears. Perchik, an academic living with Tevye’s family, proposes the two groups dance together. To us Americans, wanting to dance does not seem radical. But members on both sides resist. They even ask the Rabbi if dancing can be considered a sin. He racks his brain and reports that the Torah does not prohibit dancing. Tevye views this decree as permission and decides that he can safely break the separated-dancing tradition. This scene serves as an example of challenging tradition while also respecting it. The rabbi joins the circle and touches hands with one of Tevye’s daughters. Disclaimer: I definitely do not claim to be an expert on Judaism, but I believe the religion prohibits Rabbis from close contact with women. The Rabbi retracts his hand, but instead of shutting down the party, he adapts by extending a cloth to the daughter so that they may dance without physical contact.

Over the course of the production, Tevye grapples with several challenges towards established tradition. By doing so, he discovers the traditions that matter the most to his community. Up to this point, members of his community have mocked and questioned his scandalous decisions, yet they do not oust him and his family from the group. The society retains its unity. Which raises the question: what are the boundaries for questioning social norms? Which element of their shared belonging, if lost, would result in the unraveling of the community? Well, the answer can range depending on the core values of the community. For Anatevka, the core of their community, their keystone, lies in Judaism. This shouldn’t come as a surprise. Other religions have persecuted Jewish people throughout history, a specific example being the Christian Russians in Fiddler. In this community, Judaism trumps all other relationships; it provides the strength and unity they need so that other communities don’t run they over.

That is why when Chava, Tevye’s third daughter, elopes with Fyedka, a Russian, Tevye abandons his role as a father and ostracizes her. He permits Tzeitel to choose her husband, but only because Motel is also Jewish. He breaks social norms and dances with his wife at the wedding, but only after the Rabbi confirms that the Torah does not consider dancing a sin. For a group so long persecuted by other religions, their religion means everything. Tevye realizes that if he does not denounce his daughter, his entire family would no longer belong to their community. Without the support of the village, his family would literally starve, especially in such an isolated area such as Anatevka. So, he draws the line at religion.

At this point, we know just how important the community of Anatevka views tradition and religion. The cohesion created by these elements generate so much power, they can force families apart. Using the bridge analogy, the community has sealed its cultural element stones together firmly to religion, if you deviate from Judaism, you will find yourself pushed off into the water below. All the families in the village walk along this metaphorical bridge. And then comes the inescapable change. Near the end of the production, the Russians appear and force Jewish residents to vacate, with threats of violence. It is like the Russians marched up to the Anatevka bridge and said, “This river is ours now,” and bombed the bridge.

The families disperse. Snow covers the homes, now physically and metaphorically empty. Over the course of the production, Tevye fights between his family’s happiness and societal belonging. But once the dust settles, he finds that his cherished community no longer exists. Chava and her husband stop by Tevye’s house to say goodbye. He shuns his daughter until the last moment when he utters, “God be with you.” His previous reasons for ignoring his daughter stemmed from his religious beliefs, but also, arguably more strongly, from his need to belong in his community. Don’t get me wrong, being forced out of your community is horrible, without a doubt. But in this specific instance, it frees Tevye from the social standards. His prescribed role in the community no longer applies. His family alone defines his belonging now. Tevye’s belief transformation in Fiddler speaks to a universal struggle to respect past traditions but also question their worth. All communities have tradition, both spoken and unspoken. But if the community disappears or evolves, or you change, it only makes sense that your notions of tradition and belonging change as well. For Tevye, the community of Anatevka dictated the rules of having Jewish family. But without these imposed standards, he can finally decide for himself how to respect his religion and maintain a happy family. And through this change, Tevye finds the strength to connect with his daughter before heading to America.

West Side Story: The Tale of Two Ensembles

by Ilana Cohen

Although each individual has their own story and identity, one can gain a better understanding of one’s identity by seeing them in their community. A person’s community influences how one performs culture, race, religion, gender, and sexuality; thus, to fully understand one’s cultural identity, their community and how they interact with members of their community must be analyzed. In a musical theatre context, the ensemble is the community. Ensembles provide the audience a deeper grasp into the lives of principal characters by showing how the people in the principal’s life act towards them and towards each other, informing the character’s behaviors and beliefs. The film adaptation of the musical West Side Story demonstrates how important ensemble can be in understanding principal characters’ cultural identities. The distinct performances of the two ensembles in West Side Story, the Jets and the Sharks and their respective ladies, both separately and interacting, gives the audience insight into how these starkly different groups perform gender, sexuality, and race, and how each groups’ identity performances are received by one another and greater American society.

American audiences get to observe the immigrant experience from the perspectives of various Puerto Rican immigrants through the performances of the Sharks and their female counterparts. The production number “America” gives insight into the Puerto Rican cultural identity held by the Sharks and their ladies through their energetic and expressive choreography. The dance movements are sharp and quick with many kicks and turns. The footwork is intricate and is combined with arm and hip movements to give them a Latin flavor. Though the movements incorporate identifiably Latin style in the choreography, it is the energy and the expression in the way the movements are performed that truly form the Puerto Rican identity. The performers are full of happiness and spirit as their movements embody a celebration of life. With the joy they exude through their movements in combination with the lyrics celebrating their new lives in America, the ladies show their unique perspective as Puerto Rican immigrants, and their shared joy unites them and adds to their ethnic identity. While most of the number was the men and women dancing alternating back and forth, highlighting conflicting views because the women were taking to life in America better than the men, by the end of the number, they were all dancing simultaneously showing that they are united in their ethnic identity and share a passion and love for life shown through their energetic, up-beat dancing. 

Not only is the choreography of this number significant for understanding the Sharks Latinx identity, but also the lyrics show differing outlooks on their identity as immigrants is important. The song starts with Anita, backed by the ladies, and Bernardo, backed by the Sharks, arguing back and forth about how they feel about America. Anita and the women sing about the opportunities and benefits of moving to America, while Bernardo and the Sharks focus on how they are marginalized in America and were better off in Puerto Rico. The differing viewpoints of the Puerto Rican men and women on immigrating to America is significant because it shows that there is not a single opinion of a cultural group. Instead, the lyrics show that within any cultural group, individuals can still have their own opinions and perspectives. This idea is important because it humanizes each member of the ensemble, making them be seen as individuals within a group rather than a nondescript, androgynous group. Jerome Robbins cared about this concept and intentionally choreographed his dancers not completely in unison or with the same moves as to make them look like a community of distinct individuals rather than a mass of the same character. In his interview, Nikko Kimzin, who played a Shark in a production of West Side Story, talks about how the director purposefully had each ensemble member have a name, know their rank in their gang, what part of the city they are from, and who their girlfriend is, so each ensemble member would be able to create a unique character with a background that could inform their interactions with one another.

The Jets offer audiences observation of a group that is usually overlooked by society: the teenage children of the previous generation of immigrants that came to America. Their parents came from Europe seeking a better life and were treated as outsiders when they came to America.  The majority of these immigrants struggled greatly when they arrived in America, having to live in small, crowded apartments and work long hours at factory jobs. However, not many people think about the struggles of the next generation, being raised in these impoverished neighborhoods with their parents not around because they are constantly working. In the musical number “Gee Officer Krupke!,” the audience sees the struggles and marginalization of the Jets by American society. The Jets are seen as punks and delinquents to the rest of society, especially Officer Krupke, which makes sense as they are shown only as combative and rowdy previously in the show. This number is the first time that the audience members are supposed to sympathize with the Jets, as they blame their depravity on their harsh home life and adolescence. While the Jets previously only portrayed themselves as hypermasculine and mature, during this number, the Jets infantilize themselves– dancing around, making silly faces, and using funny voices to act out various scenarios– to elicit sensitivity from the audience by making the audience see them as children still. The number ends with the Jets in unison saying “Gee, Officer Krupke, krup you,” which represents the Jets attitude toward greater society. Society has cast them off as delinquents despite all of the mitigating factors that made them so misbehaved, so the Jets decided to cast off society and just stick to one another. 

By understanding the background of the Jets and how they are treated in society, it is easier to understand why they cling to their identity as Jets. Outcast from the rest of society, the Jets found community within each other, bonded by their shared upbringing and resulting marginalization. The strength of their Jet community is shown through the Jet Song, in which the members of the Jets sing about their pride for being a Jet. The Jets walk tall and fast down the street in a large clump, showing the strength of their community, and they climb onto elevated surfaces like see-saws and park benches to show their pride and their clout. However, to fully understand the Jets identity, the audience must examine how the Jets interact with their rival gang, the Sharks.

Production numbers in which the two ensembles interact allow the audience to understand what relations were like between these cultural groups. The relationships between the different ensembles in West Side Story can be seen most clearly in the number “Dance at the Gym.” Both groups begin walking in circles, girls on the inside and boys on the outside, to find their partners for the dance. As they walk in a circle, the hostility between the groups is visible through the dirty looks exchanged, and when the music ends and they are to partner with the person in front of them, the looks of disgust when the Jet girl sees she is to dance with Bernardo followed by the Sharks going to the Shark girls and the Jets doing the same without a word said, shows how obvious their feud was that though it was unspoken, the Sharks and Jets knew they could not dance with one another. Once the partners are all sorted out, both groups begin the Mambo, doing the same dance all together in the gym, with only the reds and purples of the Sharks costumes allowing the audience to distinguish them from the Jets, dressed in blues and yellows. The contrasts between the groups can be seen early on in the number, as the Sharks begin to incorporate hip and arm movements that show them as distinctly Latinx. In contrast, the Jets incorporate popular American dance moves like the Twist and head bobbing into their dance, showing them as culturally white, especially when compared to the Sharks.  Additionally, the Sharks and their ladies have their hands all over one another while they dance while the Jets and their ladies do not really touch each other. These stark contrasts in dance show how the Sharks and Jets express their sexuality and ethnicity differently, giving the audience some idea why the Sharks and the Jets do not get along.

Though the film is revered and is most people’s only familiarity with West Side Story, the film adaptation of the musical gets rid of the emphasis on ensemble and takes away the viewer’s ability to choose who they watch. The film imposes the director’s own artistic interpretation of the piece on film as it is his choice what the audience is shown and what is highlighted. Thus, the film version of West Side Story does not show the full impact an ensemble can have on the audience’s understanding of the cultural identities of characters in a musical. Without a film director choosing to focus the camera in on the ensemble, it is important for the audience to choose times to focus on the ensemble in a stage production, observing how they perform the choreography, how they act toward one another, and how they act towards outside characters. It is through these community interactions and performances of gender, sexuality, race, and ethnicity that the audience can understand the cultural identities of the principal characters.

Who Tells Your Story?: Hamilton, Its Ensemble, and Its Legacy

By Lily Jaremski

I bought a fur coat.  Sorry for jumping right in with that, but I am very excited about it. It was one of my greatest achievements in 2019. While studying abroad in Sweden, I visited my friend in Dublin for a few days. I had been on the lookout for a fluffy winter coat since they seemed to be very fashionable in Stockholm, and I spotted the perfect one while thrifting. It was glorious – geometric black and white patterns, almost zebra but not quite. Mod, vintage, completely outrageous (and faux, of course). So, I got it, managed to squish it into my suitcase to take back home, and hung it proudly in my closet.

Fast forward to this summer when the early release of #Hamilfilm on Disney+ was announced. As a theatre buff, I was naturally ecstatic that I could finally see a show that was going to be too expensive for me to see for the next ten years. From the comfort of my own home at that! Immediately, my family set a date to watch it, and I decided I would dress for the theatre. Out came my fur coat.

At the time, I did not recognize that I was performing the classism of live, Broadway theatre. In my head, a momentous event like finally  being able to see Hamilton  meant that I needed to dress “fancy.” Soon after the release of Hamilton on Disney+, criticisms came pouring in online from all corners of the internet: op-eds, think pieces, Twitter. While there had been some academic criticism at the initial time of Hamilton’s Broadway debut, mostly in the form of highbrow academic literature, now it was coming from any old person. Once released to the masses, it became fodder for criticism from the masses.

That’s not surprising. If I had paid $400 for a ticket to see the show, I wouldn’t want to say anything bad about it. There’s an emotional experience to being in a theatre, witnessing powerful performances that makes careful examinations of narratives around race hard to parse. If you can examine a musical with a critical eye through tears and wonder, I applaud you. I cannot. As such, the exclusivity of live, Broadway theatre has always provided a barrier to serious critique of the messaging or content of a show. If the music is good and the performances enchanting, it can do no wrong.

Do not get me wrong – I’m not saying Hamilton is bad. Lin Manuel Miranda’s particular musical style is revolutionary. While it draws from modern musical styles like rap and hip-hop, it has another quality, something all its own. Moana and In the Heights are both amazing, but Hamilton is the height of surprising mastery of language, each line a twist or turn that delights the audience with its unexpectedness.

What made the show an even more of a cultural moment were the impeccable performances. Every member of the original cast was completely on beat and in character. The ensemble worked together smoothly to perfectly convey movement, settings, emotion, and energy. Not a single moment on stage is not perfectly crafted so it delights. But that sheer perfection conceals some real problems with the politics of Hamilton.

Theatre is historically and inherently classist and white. While American theatregoers love a scrappy “underdog” story on the stage, Broadway reinforces systems of power that keep those underdogs on the bottom of the heap. Generally, there is an economic barrier to engaging in theatre. Average people could maybe save to see a few shows in their lifetime while my fellow fur coat owners can attend any show regularly. White is considered default; roles for actors of color are much less common. Hamilton first stirred up controversy when its casting call requested “non-white” actors. The casting call had to be amended so white actors could also audition, to avoid calls of discrimination. On the surface, the producers of the show sought to combat problems of whiteness in American theatre by producing a show with a diverse cast. And while this aim is historically important,  it doesn’t change the problems with Hamilton’s politics.

Lin-Manuel Miranda loves referencing other musicals in his works. (“Too darn hot/ like my man Cole Porter said” from In the Heights is a personal favorite). In the song “Right Hand Man,” George Washington raps, “Now I’m the model of a modern major general,” referencing one of the oldest iconic songs in musical theatre, performed by one of the stodgiest white characters theatre has ever produced. By being a black man performing the lyrics as a rap, the character of Washington reclaims the form of theatre – it’s cool, it’s fresh, it’s a new invention. Characters from history become interesting. The founding of America echoes the struggles faced by people of color today. But as fun as it is to imagine the founding fathers as the characters we see on stage, we have to face the reality that the real figures were deeply flawed.

The majority of the historical figures depicted owned slaves or engaged in the slave trade, a fact which is only alluded to briefly. One particularly egregious line from “What’d I Miss?” references Jefferson’s “mistress” (read: slave he impregnated) Sally Hemmings by name. In the final number, Eliza Hamilton implies that Alexander would have done more to stop the slave trade “if [he] only had time.” By casting actors of color in these roles, the audience is able to continue to imagine the often-perpetrated version of founding fathers. They are heroes, so often protected from criticism for their less than savory actions. Rather than analyze its characters in a modern light, Hamilton instead chooses to maintain the narrative of greatness, and by extension American exceptionalism. No example embodies this more than Alexander Hamilton’s choice to  support Jefferson for president, because Burr “stands for nothing.” He articulates that Jefferson should win because he stands for something – in this case, protecting slavery.

So, do we throw it away? I don’t think so. The beauty of having a work like Hamilton available to the masses is that it is taken down from its pop culture podium and available to be analyzed.  I would argue that all of Broadway should face the same critiques. Hamilton broke many barriers, including its choice to include a cast where the heroes were all played by people of color, and always should be. In a world marked by expectations of whiteness, it follows the tradition of groundbreaking shows that came before it, like 1921’s Shuffle Along or 1967’s all-black Hello Dolly with Pearl Bailey and Cab Calloway.

This show is an example of performers of color having to be the best of the best. Every performer in the original cast is at the peak of their game, but they had to be. While people may not vocally doubt a cast comprised entirely of actors of color today, the same stakes are in place now that were there all the way back in 1921. Hamilton is truly an ensemble show. While certain actors are featured more than others, the whole group must be totally in sync. Movement, sound, and beats must intersect, especially when so many of the lyrics come in unexpected patterns.

One of the most delightful parts of watching Hamilton is seeing the actors switch characters between acts. Daveed Diggs, in particular, charms in two completely different ways as Lafayette and Thomas Jefferson. Other actors pop in and out of the ensemble with ease, only adding enough pieces on top of their base costume to make the distinction clear, before blending back into the fray again.

Every movement is purposeful and planned to perfection. Ariana DuBose plays a character called “The Bullet.” Many audio-only Hamilton fans only discovered its existence by watching the show for the first time this summer. Throughout the show, she foreshadows death to Hamilton’s friends and family, before finally carrying the bullet that kills Hamilton in “The World Was Wide Enough.” While she never speaks, the power of movement was enough to carry a whole character. The use on ensemble movement is absolutely critical to some of the show’s best sequences, like the duel in “The World Was Wide Enough” and the slow motion rewind in “Satisfied.”

The design of the stage in particular allows the performers to work collectively and shine as a group. With sparse décor and settings, scenes and characters are created and dissolved by the placement of a desk or the donning of a revolutionary soldier jacket. It gives the audience a sense of scrappiness, that art is being created on the stage as you watch. It’s hard not to get swept up in the patriotism as this talented cast of actors creates a new nation for you on stage.

In conclusion, Hamilton’s not perfect. It is art, and it demands to be discussed, picked apart, and ultimately improved upon. All of theatre could benefit from that treatment. Maybe the next historical musical can tell the stories of people of color who fought to make this country what it is today, and those who will continue to fight. I, for one, look forward to saving up to see one in person when live theatre comes back. Maybe I’ll wear my fur coat.

Forbidden Love: Maria as Pocahontas

By Elise Darby

Pocahontas and West Side Story share a major similarity: both productions display a story of forbidden love. Just like Pocahontas and Captain John Smith, the love between Tony and Maria is disapproved of because of their different races. Both characters want the love they have never been allowed to experience, providing them with a unique taste of the culture they have been taught all their lives to despise. In both Pocahontas and West Side Story, the separation of communities creates unparalleled love stories when the two groups are at last united, speaking to the way groups, whose very existence seem to oppose each other, belong in harmony with one another.

From the beginning of West Side Story, the two different communities are separated, and their differences are highlighted. Throughout the production, it is always the Sharks versus the Jets; they do not mix. The Sharks and the Jets are divided by their ethnicity. The Puerto Rican members are all a part of the Sharks, while the Jets are a part of the white community. The ensembles never intertwine. In fact, the Jets and the Sharks despise each other. They are constantly arguing, picking on each other, and creating chaos. In front of the cops, however, they appear civilized to avoid getting in any sort of trouble with the law.

As an ensemble, their performances are divided between the two groups. In fact, their dancing is a way for the two groups to express their culture. When they dance, the movements are different within the two groups and the number is clearly divided amongst the Jets and the Sharks. For example, in West Side Story’s, “Dance at the Gym,” the Puerto Rican women move their hips, raise one hand into the air, and use the other hand to hold their skirt, which is a common dance move for their culture. On the other hand, the American Jets take big strides; they look stiff, awkward, and their dance moves do not look as swift as the Sharks. The American Jets’ dance moves would be easily described as “white.” As the Sharks take over the gym floor again, the room is filled with claps to the beat of the music. As two of the characters dance, they move elegantly with one another. The Jets, however, are more focused on flips, tricks, and sudden movements with their arms, while the Jets are twirling, moving elegantly around the room, and holding hands with one another. The Puerto Rican Sharks seem to have a more romantic, graceful movement to their dancing, which is similar to their culture that is full of romance and grace. On the contrary, the American Sharks dance sharply, and their dance moves display their “whiteness.” As the group dance ends, the division between the Sharks and the Jets quickly halts as Tony’s eyes align with Maria’s. The screen blurs out the rest of the dancers and the differences of race seem to disappear for a moment. As Maria and Tony begin to dance, they do not touch; they keep their distance at first. The background dancers have their arms together, making a bridge with their dance partner as Tony and Maria first touch, symbolizing the bridge Tony and Maria are making between the segregation of the Jets and the Sharks. As they slowly lean in for a kiss, Maria’s brother, Bernardo, quickly interrupts and stops Tony. He questions his sister, “Don’t you see he’s one of them?” and she replies by saying, “No, I saw only him.” Maria does not see Tony for his race; the color of his skin is not a factor for her. Bernardo persists and says, “There is only one thing he wants from a Puerto Rican girl” and Tony defends himself by claiming, “That’s a lie.” Bernardo takes his sister away from Tony and makes her leave the dance. He will not tolerate any of his Sharks mixing with the Jets—especially his little sister. Just as Pocahontas’ father, Chief Powhatan, disapproves of the relationship between Pocahontas and John Smith, Bernardo is against his sister’s interest in Tony. Chief Powhatan wants Pocahontas to marry someone of the same race: a native warrior. Likewise, Bernardo wants Maria to be focused on men from the Puerto Rican race, not an American Jet.

The Puerto Rican members of the Sharks are constantly being ridiculed by the Jets. The tension between the two groups seems to continue growing as the production continues on. Although there is a sense of belonging felt within the two groups, the women that are a part of the Sharks make it clear that they are enjoying living in Manhattan. In the song, “America,” the women sing that “life is alright in America.” However, the men quickly comment back that life is only good “if you’re white in America” or as “long as you stay on your own side.” Although the Sharks have a clique of their own and stick together, the community that they live in is very divided. Through this song, we are able see the discrimination the Puerto Rican’s face, simply because of their ethnicity and race. They are seen and treated as a minority; in the eyes of the Jets, they are second class citizens. The Jets are a group of “American” boys. They, too, have a sense of belonging within their clique. In fact, Riff reminds one of the Jets that they are “never alone” and that they are always “well protected” with the other Jets around. The loyalty that the Jets have with one another make them strong and give them power. However, the Jets and the Sharks never join together simply because of the color of their skin. Racism is the biggest reason for the divide between the Jets and the Sharks—it is why they do not get along. Both the Jets and the Sharks have one goal: to be considered better than one another.

Pocahontas’ relationship with John Smith was not supported since they were not both from the same ethnicity. In West Side Story’s “I Feel Pretty,” Maria dances around the room with joy for her newfound love. Her friends, on the other hand, claim that “she isn’t in love, she’s merely insane.” The other girls do not think it is possible for this relationship to work with Tony because they look different. Later, after Maria’s friends leave the store they work at, Tony sneaks in to meet Maria. Their relationship is secretive and requires a lot of tiptoeing around—just like John Smith and Pocahontas. At the store, Tony and Maria pretend they are living in a world that it is socially acceptable for them to be together and in love. Using the mannequins, they act like they are meeting each other’s parents. Eventually, they even pretend they are getting married. In the world they live in now, this seems like a dream. Sadly, getting married to one another and meeting each other’s families seems like an impossible future for the couple. As they sing in unison, they sing that “even death won’t part [them] now.” The test of their love through death comes sooner than they had hope for, however.

Pocahontas’ father does not support of the relationship she has with John Smith, and neither do other members in the community. She is supposed to stay away from the Englishmen. Throughout West Side Story, Tony and Maria lose the sense of belonging they had felt within their separate groups. They want to be together, but no one else wants this relationship to last. Their communities do not support their love. No matter how much fighting and chaos occurs between their cliques, they do not separate. As the communities come together and begin to fight one another, people end up dead. Bernardo kills the leader of the Jets, Riff. In the midst of anger, Tony grabs the knife and stabs Maria’s brother to defend his fellow Jet. Chino runs to Maria to tell her Bernardo is dead, but instead of asking about her brother and other Sharks in the rumble, she is worried about Tony—not the people of her own race. Even after Tony killed Maria’s brother, all she wants is for Tony to hold her as she cries in his arms. After Tony leaves, Anita comes into Maria’s room and sees Tony running down the street. Anita angrily exclaims that Tony “is one of them.” The groups, which are divided based on their race and ethnicity, are referred to as “they” and “them,” never “we” or “us.” Anita begins to sing “A Boy Like That” and encourages Maria to “stick to her own kind.” Anita is trying to get Maria to dump the Jet and be loyal to her culture as a Puerto Rican Shark. After all, Tony killed her brother. The love that Maria has for Tony is being put to its biggest test. If she stays with Tony, she is betraying her culture, her family, and all of the other Puerto Rican Sharks. Yet, Maria’s love for Tony remains strong. Comparably, Powhatan is about to execute John Smith, but Pocahontas stops him. Like Maria, her love was being put to the test; she defends John Smith despite the negative feelings other members in her culture possess.

As Anita enters into Doc’s store, the Jets begin to throw her around, make racist remarks, and attempt to rape her. Due to her ethnicity and gender, the Jets see her as inferior. In return to their cruel behavior, Anita lies and says that Maria is dead. In response, Tony searches for Chino; he wishes to be dead too. In the midst of his search, he sees Maria alive, but he is shot. He dies in Maria’s arms. Throughout the film, Tony and Maria are committed to one another. Before dying, they talked about getting away from Manhattan. With the Jets in the Sharks around, they would never have been able to live peacefully with one another. Before dying, Tony and Maria talk about leaving together, running away. Their loyalty between one another is strong up until Tony’s last breath. Maria tells both the Sharks and the Jets that they all killed Riff, Bernardo, and Tony with their hate.

Despite its fairytale romance, West Side Story did not end with a “happily ever after” like the princess movies. Everyone did not remain healthy and alive. Their love could not continue on. But, despite Tony and Maria never getting their perfect ending together, the two’s union makes sweeping cultural statements about how group hatred will only separate communities with the potential for love, acceptance, and shared growth. Despite its tragic ending, the musical suggests the necessity for bridging social, racial, and cultural gaps in society, creating a nationwide love story.

How The Original Cast of HAMILTON is a Powerful Display of Community On and Off the Stage

By Cassidy Johnson

The pop-culture phenomenon and Broadway smash hit Hamilton: An American Musical is a revolutionary and symbolic piece of work for a plethora of reasons. It’s not revolutionary because it happens to feature a revolution, but instead, because the work shatters preconceived notions many held about a Broadway musical by integrating hip-hop and R&B themes, and the “color-conscious” casting to highlight the dichotomy between 1776 and modern America. What is truly revolutionary to me is the impact of the cast itself on stage and off.

A musical can have amazing songs, thoughtful choreography, and smart acting, but if it doesn’t resonate with audiences, then is the musical really great? That was never a question for Hamilton, written by playwright and actor Lin-Manuel Miranda. Miranda surely deserves the majority of the credit for how Hamilton got its success and subsequent name recognition –and he receives it– but the musical as we know and love today would not be the same without the original cast. The original cast of Hamilton, featuring Leslie Odom Jr. Phillipa Soo, Daveed Diggs, Christopher Jackson, and more, not only created a visible community among the characters in their performances, but banded together behind the scenes, and continues to be symbolic or representation elsewhere. Miranda wrote an amazing script, intelligent songs, and emotional storylines, but he owes the success of his work to those who performed, and we owe them for what they have given us.

The first act of the musical (everything before Jefferson’s number “What Did I Miss?”) is where we see the greatest sense of community among the characters. It’s not particularly a hard conclusion to come to: sisters stick together, and war (and shared trauma) has a way of bringing people together. Like most musicals that I’ve seen or heard, the show begins with an ensemble number. “Alexander Hamilton” maybe one man but the effect we are told he has on the cast of characters before we even meet is impressive. We get a sense of each person in the ensemble without knowing who they are. From the start, it’s more important for the audience to see how each person is bonded by their connection to Alexander Hamilton before knowing any other name. Whether the character loves him in the first act, resents him, or leads him, they all possess an emotional connection to him. 

The finale of Hamilton, “Who Lives, Who Dies, Who Tells Your Story” is a mirror of the ensemble introduction. Yet again, each character — now Jefferson instead of Lafayette — tells the audience Hamilton’s impact, not on them, but the nation. At the end of the musical, the characters, from Jefferson to Eliza, still have strong feelings about him, but they are further connected by their recognition of the lasting national contributions of one man. Alexander Hamilton is the single thread connecting each character who graces the stage; he goes from having a place in everyone’s life to having a place in the history of the nation. 

The first glimmer of budding friendly connection between Hamilton and other characters is at the end of “Aaron Burr, Sir.” After Lawrence and company take turns essentially roasting Burr, Hamilton makes his presence known by uttering “If you stand for nothing Burr, what’ll you fall for?” Noticing him now, Lawrence, Mulligan, and Lafayette ask who is this? In the next number, “My Shot” the three men are thoroughly impressed with the newcomer declaring the need to get him in front of a crowd. Hamilton has quickly differentiated himself from Burr, shown that he has a man of action and conviction, not someone who prefers to “wait for it.” Because of this Lawrence, Mulligan, and Lafayette see him as one of them and respect him from there on out. He belongs with them in the revolution. We see the bond between this band of brothers grow through both renditions of “The Story of Tonight,” “Farmer Refuted,” “Right Hand Man” and “Ten Duel Commandments.” However, the bond between the quartet is something only seen in the first act and has no counter in the second. This is due to both practical and dramatic reasons. Lawrence dies and Lafayette goes back to France. The second act of the musical is less about how Hamilton gets to where he wants to be, and more about the challenges he faces as he keeps taking his shots. In the last half of the musical, the ensemble does not lend themselves to his rise, but his downfall.

The connection shown between the Schulyer sisters goes beyond their blood relation and represents the bond between women in that era and now. Much like the men fighting the Revolutionary War, the Schuyler sisters have a little community full of love, support, and sacrifice for one another. These women are bonded by shared societal expectations of young wealthy women. This is exemplified by “Helpless” and “Satisfied.” Both sisters are ensorcelled by the same man, but only one of them is aware of that fact. In “Helpless” Eliza introduces us to her loves tory with Hamilton, but in “Satisfied” Angelica gives us the real story, Eliza fell in love with his persona, Angelica fell in love with his mind, but she relents. She loves her sister more than anything else, and she confessed her feelings Eliza would be “silently resigned” and let her have him. She knows only one of them wins. Angelica sacrifices a life of love, happiness, and satisfaction so that her sister can experience just that. This devotion between Eliza and Angelica continues throughout the second act, unlike the bond between Hamilton and his friends. Peggy may be dead, but the remaining Schuyler sisters stick together. Even though Angelica and Alexander are still a bit flirtatious, Angelica never fails to stand by her sister. In “The Reynolds Pamphlet” Angelica crosses an ocean to be there for her heartbroken sister. Even though she and Alexander are now “only a moment away” she lets him know “I’m not here for you.” The sense of community among the women is stronger than any attraction to a man.

In my opinion, the sense of community the original Broadway cast of Hamilton formed off the stage is just as important as their performances on stage if not more. While their subsequent power results from the talent they showed on stage, the impact and symbolism of their actions as a group and as themselves actually moves me more. When reading the module materials related to Hamilton, I was struck by the Bloomberg article “How Hamilton’s Cast Got Broadway’s Best Deal.” And at the risk of straying from the prompt, I feel it is worth discussion. The article details how the cast argued for a share of Royalty Participation profits from the smash musical. In the 3-page long letter, they wrote to lead producer Jeffrey Seller the cast notes “we did not write the show, we didn’t choreograph, direct, design, or produce it . . . We do, however, take great pride and comfort in the knowledge that our contribution was just as vital as the aforementioned in the creation of HAMILTON an American Musical.” While going back and forth with production on offers and counteroffers the performers stuck together. Their position was that being allowed to “share in the success of this show that we have dedicated ourselves to for so long” would be the right to do and only add the legendary reputation that Hamilton was gaining. In the end, the original cast was successful, sharing 0.33% percent of net profits from all U.S. productions except Broadway and any future revivals. This display of community resonates deeper with me more than any performance on stage because the fight they fought for themselves was real. They knew worth, they knew their contributions, and were determined to be recognized and compensated for their efforts. 

As a person of color, you often expect that fighting for your worth will be more difficult than it should be. You already had to work harder to get in the door, and now you have to fight to be recognized for what you contribute once you’re there? That’s exhausting. But it’s stories like this that are inspiring to audience members like me. Due to the “color-conscious” casting, this community that sought proper monetary compensation looks like me. The symbolism of having persons of color play famous Founding Fathers and prominent members of society is amazing and forward-thinking. But knowing that an ensemble of people of color fought a battle that I may have to fight myself one day is both sobering and awe-inspiring.

The cast members banded together regardless of their gender unlike the characters they play in Hamilton. The single thread that tied them all together was the shared knowledge of their worth. They may not have agreed at every step of the negotiations, but they stuck together. Their community as performers was more important than any one person’s desires. To be corny, they took their shot and didn’t give up until they were satisfied. Forget Alexander Hamilton, it’s the story of the original cast that’s inspiring. 

A dot Ham v A dot Burr: Narrative foils in the American dream of Hamilton: An American Musical

Always think twice before a murder. That was one of the most profound lessons Hamilton: An American Musical taught me. There is always a chance that the duel between you and your nemesis will become the climax of an internationally acclaimed musical. You will spend the majority of two hours and forty minutes narrating said nemesis’ life while simultaneously getting roasted to bits by the entire show. It happened to Aaron Burr, it might as well happen to you too. In the original Broadway show of Hamilton: An American Musical, the sets, colors, costumes, and songs to convey the juxtaposition of Hamilton and Burr’s belongingness on stage, as their presence symbolized the driving and hindering forces of the American dream.

Hamilton as a character embodied the essence of the American dream: the idealization of an American society where everyone, despite their backgrounds and identities, can be successful with hard work and determination. This narrative is integral to the identity of the United States inside and outside the country. For many people, coming to the US means a better chance at success and an opportunity for a better life. Lin-Manuel Miranda agreed with this idea in his musical: he showed that Hamilton, as an immigrant, belongs in the American dream narratives and those who wants to exclude them (Aaron Burr) are the true outcasts. Here, we should consider Lin-Manuel Miranda’s background as a first-generation immigrant whose parents did find success in the US.  The American dream is, for him, real and attainable. His reality reflects onto his musical, yet his reality is not the only reality. Just as the American dream narrative neglects to consider the deeply rooted socioeconomical inequality within the American society, Hamilton: The American Musical also neglected the messier side of history to fit the story into a pretty mold of heroism and bootstrapped successes.

In Act I, the lyrics of Hamilton: The American Musical was clear on labeling Hamilton in a way that fit the American dream narrative, especially in the introduction of his character. The first four lines of the song Alexander Hamilton established both Hamilton underprivileged backgrounds and his eventual ascend to high social status. The description focused on three aspects of his identity: his parental background, his class, and his status as an immigrant, all of which left Hamilton in the margins of society with little to no resources. The odds seemed so stacked against Hamilton, that the introduction of his story was a question: “How?” How does Hamilton, with all of these difficulties, became a “hero and a scholar”? Aaron Burr delivered the question with incredulity, signaling himself as the doubter and non-supporter of Hamilton’s dream. The answer was in the next verse: Hamilton achieved success through hard work, through intelligence and wit, and through resourcefulness. The lyrics listed out these traits with a repetition of the preposition “by”, emphasizing that they were the most important reasons for success. Hamilton’s marginalized identity, which the audience sympathized with, and his bootstrapper traits, which the audience admired, constituted his symbolism to the American dream. However, by only acknowledging one side of Hamilton’s identity and neglecting his roles as a white person and a colonizer, these lyrics also erased a part of history to fit Hamilton into an archetype. By pushing the narrative of the bootstrapped success, the musical also encouraged the audience to ignore the historical context of colonialism and slavery, just as the American dream encouraged people to ignore the socioeconomical inequality in pursue of personal advancements.

Throughout Act I, the sets emphasized Hamilton’s belongingness, and by contrast Burr’s rejection from the main stage through color, costumes, and choreography. The colors of the show – both in lighting and costumes – usually harmonized with Hamilton’s color palette. In Alexander Hamilton, most characters wore white, including Hamilton. In contrast, Burr was the only one in dark clothes in the song. While Hamilton was accepted into the crowd seamlessly, Burr stuck out with his darker palette. While the gold-colored lights illuminated Hamilton as well as the other characters, Burr seemed to cast more shadows under the lights. As Hamilton appeared on stage, the music went silent for a few second, and the audience was immediately drawn toward him. This emphasis was even clearer in the Disney+ filming of the musical, as the camera zoomed toward his face and the audience could see the emotions in Hamilton’s upturn eyes. From the moment he appeared, Hamilton took center stage and Burr moved either to the side or to the front. Because the Broadway stage for Hamilton was a revolving stage, everything physically revolved around Hamilton: the spotlight shined above center stage to illuminate Hamilton’s works and person in a bright warm light. The choreography also moved in a circle around Hamilton, and as he moved around the stage, the ensemble made space and interact with him. This was also a contrast to Burr, who was both another part of the ensemble around Hamilton and an outlier in color and movements. While he did interact with Hamilton, like handing him his book, Burr didn’t really interact with the other cast members in this scene. Physically and visually, Burr was already excluded from the other characters. As the song progress, Hamilton stood out even more from the ensemble, but his standing out was different from Burr’s difference. Hamilton changed from a white coat to a brown coat, the light made his coat almost golden. Unlike Burr’s dark clothes, Hamilton’s change in color did not take away from his harmony with the other cast and lighting – as his color was still in the same warm tone as the yellow lights – but made him glow and stand out. The cast moved toward the front this time and Hamilton seemingly disappeared into the back. However, the moment was brief, and the audience soon found Hamilton again as the ensemble turned their eyes toward him. Hamilton stood over the crowd: he commanded their attention. Burr stood apart from the crowd: he was casting shadows. Putting this contrast into the American dream narrative: the story did not welcome Burr and what he stood for (skepticism and hindrance of the American dream), just as there was no place for such ideas in the idealized America.

Further down the line of Act I, Hamilton started to have meaningful interactions and conversations with the other Founding Fathers.  Here was where his costumes made clear his status as an immigrant among the American men. Hamilton wore mainly warm color in the first acts, while the Founding Fathers had darker clothes in cool tones (similar to Burr’s clothes). This color contrasts seemingly emphasized Hamilton’s difference from the other Founding Fathers, yet he was a “brother” and Washington’s “right-hand man”. In My Shot and The Story of Tonight, the spotlight still focused on him and its gold tone was still flattering toward his colors. In Right-hand man, the lighting changed into blue to match with Hamilton’s uniform. Furthermore, the spotlight was always on him, while Burr always stood on the side of the light. In the war, in the moment of heroism, Hamilton belonged on that battlefield. Burr did not.

Act II started with a similar motif, but now was a fall-from-grace of Hamilton, seemingly undoing the upbeat, classic American dream story of Act I. The immigrant lauded in the war was now actually ostracized from his comrades. The first song of Act II, What did I miss?, started similarly to Alexander Hamilton with a recap of who Hamilton was and what happened in his life. The same question “how”, but this time, it was how Hamilton lost his success. Burr was now smug, smiling as he sang Hamilton’s misdeeds. He put himself onto a higher position on a stair, but he still had minimum interactions with the ensemble. Eventually, his time in the spotlight ended quickly to give up the stage for Thomas Jefferson. What did I miss? had a similar structure to Alexander Hamilton and served a similar purpose. It (re)introduced a major character who would later gain great success, and had that character surrounded by the ensemble in contrast with Aaron Burr. However, the interactions between Jefferson and the ensemble were still not as profound and immersive as Hamilton’s interactions in the first act. While they still danced around him, there was few moments where the ensemble looked at Jefferson or helped with his movement and narration as they did with Hamilton. This showed, even with Hamilton not present, that the story was still his, and no one could replace his present on stage. Tying this to the American dream narrative and Hamilton’s on-stage identity as an immigrant, we can see that this musical was subtly making the case of the importance of Hamilton and his symbolization of an immigrant’s dream. Even though things went quite dramatically downhill for Hamilton in Act II, the structure of the musical still upheld the same ideas. Hamilton was still the main character, the hero of the story, and Burr was still the person who was not in “the room where it happened”.

The contrasts between Hamilton and Burr once against was stark in the song The Election of 1800. In this song, Burr was at the height of his triumph, while Hamilton was at his lowest. Burr was a successful politician with a family, while Hamilton had ruined his career and put his family in an awful position. Yet, Burr’s appearance on stage was awkward among the ensembles. They might be talking about him, but they didn’t pay attention or interact with him, despite his effort to engage. He ran between them, looking from left to right, yet there was no communication between Burr and the rest of the cast. In contrast, they seek out Hamilton, who completely did not want anything to do with other people, to ask for his opinion. They actively tried to engage with him and pulled him into their circle. They were “asking to hear [his] voice”, while Burr was silent between the people. In the end of the song, Burr lost, again. Hamilton, while not explicitly on stage, was the winner of that battle.

The only battle that Hamilton lost was also the last battle of this musical. However, the musical did not end with his death: it ended with how he lived. Who lives, Who dies, Who tells your story was a celebration of Hamilton’s life. The musical ended with another emphasis of Hamilton’s story. Before then, Burr expressed regrets of killing Hamilton, saying that he was the one who “paid for it”. He, with self-awareness, identified himself as the “villain to [the] story”. Indeed, in a story of the American dream, hindrance of that dream was the villain, was the outlier. Burr was self-aware, yet the American dream narrative itself was not. It wants to pretend that hindrance was a personal matter, that the United States itself is void of structural hindrance, and it distances itself from the villain of the story. Hamilton fell into that narrative, and therefore, the musical itself has erased a big part of the immigrant’s story and the struggle they faced against the system that worked to ostracized them. By celebrating Hamilton and distancing Burr, Hamilton actual offered a divisive view of America: it focused on personal advancement, instead of criticizing and speaking out against a system that forced people to compete against each other to not be pushed to the margin.

-By Rose Nguyen.

It’s Always Hamiltime for Some Hamildiversity

Lin Manuel Miranda’s 2015 smash Broadway hit Hamilton revolutionized not only the music genre associated with musical theatre, but it also heavily influenced the general public’s perception of the origins of America. By remaining historically accurate yet also emphasizing the personal drama of Hamilton’s life, Hamilton retains the classic heartstring tug of musical theatre that people connect with, while also improving viewer’s AP US History grades. Despite that, ever since premiering on Disney+, Hamilton has been the subject of countless controversies for its glorification of slave owners such as George Washington and blatant omission of the darker aspects of Hamilton’s political views. These criticisms, while valid, eclipse the real purpose of Hamilton. Lin Manuel Miranda wrote Hamilton to illustrate how immigrants are integral to America’s origin story and emphasized its modern relevance by casting non-white actors and using rap music as the medium through which the story is told.

         Hamilton was dealt the challenging task of telling a historically accurate narrative, keeping the story entertaining, and staying within the usual length of Broadway musicals. People criticize American history for being taught through rose-colored glasses whether it be through popular media or academic classes, and Hamilton was no exception. The main issue viewers found with Hamilton is the glorification of slave owners, implied from blatantly disregarding that many Founding Fathers did own slaves. Although Miranda does briefly address slavery through character John Laurens’s abolitionist views, he fails to acknowledge the fact that both Washington and Jefferson owned many slaves, and even painted Washington in a positive light. However, many criticisms of Hamilton’s portrayals of historical figuresare through a 21st century lens. Miranda didn’t omit these controversial factors to idealize a society that thrived off of the cruelties of slavery. Instead, he covered what he could given the general time frame for Broadway musicals, which is about two and a half hours, and he treated slavery in the context of the era with the way it was unfortunately viewed: as normal.

         Lin Manuel Miranda chooses to start Hamilton by having Aaron Burr ask the audience “how does a bastard, orphan, son of a whore, … grow up to be a hero and a father?” Unlike other American-born Founding Fathers such as Jefferson and Washington, Hamilton was born a bastard out of wedlock and escaped his birthplace at the Caribbean by the skin of his teeth. These attributes are immediately acknowledged and pinned with assumptions, as the very first line is a historically stuffy white man pondering how a historically non-stuffy Caribbean-born man managed to find success in America. In fact, one of the main mantras of the first act is setting up a parallel between Hamilton and the budding nation of America as underdogs, referring to both as “young, scrappy, and hungry”, paving untraditional roads to success. At the first public presentation of Hamilton at the White House’s poetry jam in 2009, Miranda pitched Alexander Hamilton as a man who embodies hip-hop: a bastard immigrant who rose to power by becoming George Washington’s right-hand man, and “caught beef with every other Founding Father”. Before Hamilton was even conceived of as a staged musical, Miranda asserted that Hamilton’s story recognized the impact of outsiders on American culture.

         Much of Hamilton’s fame spawned from its use of hip-hop, a genre symbolizing how the influence of non-white people has become integral to American culture. As stated earlier, Miranda’s view that Hamilton embodied much of what the hip-hop genre represented with stories of underdog success. Hamilton told an immigrant story with a non-traditional genre that was unprecedented in both Broadway and the 18th century. By integrating hip-hop culture with the success of Alexander Hamilton, Miranda emphasized how what is considered “outsider” influences are relevant throughout history. Additionally, using a non-traditional genre for musical theatre further created a unique environment on stage that further differentiated Hamilton from other Broadway shows. Miranda also cites hip-hop as an efficient means of storytelling because rapping communicates information much faster than singing or dialogue. Using hip-hop as the medium through which Hamilton’s story is told cleverly integrates two eras, connecting immigrant influences from the American Revolution to modern day.

         Lin Manuel Miranda’s choice of casting non-white actors as the leads in Hamilton sought to reframe America’s success around the contribution of immigrants. By having African Americans, Latinxs, and Asians play the Founding Fathers and other main characters who contributed to the budding ideologies of America, Miranda argued that the nation was built on the back of immigrants. The founding of America has taken the Broadway stage twice in history: in 1969 Tony Award winning musical 1776, and, obviously, Hamilton. These two shows approached a similar narrative in wildly different ways. 1776 followed John Adams’s efforts to get the Declaration of Independence signed. It attempted to create a historically accurate environment with casting, costumes, and more mild music that was consistent with the culture at the time. Hamilton, on the other hand, while technically remaining historically accurate with content, took many liberties with casting choices and music style, much of which contributed to its blowout success. To narrate what some might view as a tedious biography of a former Secretary of Treasury, Miranda created an entire community on stage that flourished by being outside of the mainstream. While being non-white in musical theatre usually can be viewed as a major setback except in specific musicals set outside of America, Miranda cultivated a blockbuster musical that thrived off of integrating American stories with traditionally non-American influences.

         The main issue with race-blind casting is the subconscious prejudices and expectations that are prompted by non-white main characters. A Black lead must be struggling financially. An Asian lead must be suffering under academic and parental pressure. A Latinx lead must be struggling to just put food on the table. And as always, there’s always the tentative bet that the show just isn’t set in America, and nobody speaks English. Storytelling normally thrives off of these assumptions, since casting a BIPOC lead easily eliminates a good bit of exposition. People of color tend to have a clear path through stories, while white characters always need an airtight explanation for what put them in their specific position. These separate notions of “us” and “them” give audiences a means to define themselves through the “us”, and, frequently with BIPOC casting, an ego boost since they’re better off than the “them”. In Hamilton, Miranda completely throws these universal understandings out the window, casting non-white people as white historical figures and have them communicate in a decidedly non-white method. In fact, the only white lead actor plays the non-American and non-rapping villain King George III. With these casting choices, Miranda completely overturns the usual conceptions and redefines both the “us” and the “them”. The audience identifies with and supports the non-white actors onstage and ostracizes the white character. In Hamilton, rather than noticing and gearing up assumptions when a BIPOC character has a scene, a white character communicating in a traditional musical theatre song is viewed as “outsider”.

         It’s no surprise that Lin Manuel Miranda, an outsider to traditional Broadway, chose to premiere a song from his work in progress at the white house for America’s first black president. In Hamilton, Miranda tells the story of a bastard immigrant’s impact on the founding of the United States. His choice of casting non-white actors and using the hip-hop genre as the medium, Miranda tells not only Alexander Hamilton’s story, but America’s story. His choices resonate with audiences of diverse backgrounds and beliefs, crossing cultural biases to move audiences and change musical history with a historical musical.

You Can’t Sit With Us: A White Man’s Tale of Othering

By: E. Osigwe

West Side Story introduces the Jets as the top gang in town. They intimidate with just one look and strut down the streets as if they own them, but do they? It seems that the only requirement for doing so is acting the part. They have, not because anyone gave them this power but because they took it. Although, I’m not judging because this seems to have worked for the Jets so far. It has even afforded them some privilege as they speak recklessly with law enforcement and usually manage to escape any insults about their good-for-nothing immigrant parents. The Sharks, too, =have nothing but the streets and their community, having only recently relocated to America. Yet, society frequently criminalizes them for the color of their skin, which the Jets often use to craft their insults. The gang discriminates against Anybody’s as well. However, the Jets gear her insults toward her gender identity or at least their narrow-minded understanding of it.

Paradoxically, the Jets’ tendency to other outsiders acts to reinforce bonds within the group. However, it also reinforces the labels from their parents, community, and law enforcement who consistently criminalize them. Nevertheless, they project much of the same stereotypical, degrading language that they’ve received onto Anybody’s and the Sharks. In doing so, they perpetuate the very villainization that they despise when aimed at them.  These observations reveal a certain level of privilege and hypocrisy in what it means to be a Jet. Despite both gangs’ vilification by the local law enforcement, the Jets and the Sharks are continuously at odds with one another. Despite Anybody’s desire to join the gang and help them defeat the Sharks, the consistently reject her. Thus, the Jets develop a sense of belonging through the othering of those outside of their pack.

The primary unifying factor of the Jets is the way in which the world perceives them. Throughout the musical, the Jets reference their junkie mothers and their alcoholic fathers who beat them. Their sob stories paint them as helpless, basically predestined basket cases in the eyes of the rest of their community. In “Officer Krupke,” the Jets make light of society’s futile efforts to understand them by diagnosing them with “a social disease” or declaring them “psychologically sick” or just downright “no good.” They understand that society’s desire to “fix” them stems from a need to label them and put them in an easily definable category. After all, it’s almost impossible to control something that you don’t understand. Despite their decision to stay out of trouble by “giving the people something to believe in,” the Jets ultimately convey their objection to these labels by yelling “Officer Krupke, krup you!” So, in order to get by, the Jets play into their labels by milking their sob stories. As they each take part in mimicking those who seek to villainize them, the Jets reveal a shared identity of being neglected. They are also frequently misunderstood by a world that seeks to conform them to a more socially acceptable manner of conducting themselves.

Anybody’s shares a similar outcast status with the Jets. Although no one explicitly discusses her sexuality in the film, Anybody’s exudes the traditional “tomboy” trope. She is extremely ahead of her time as she rocks a pixie cut, an old tank top, jeans, and some beat-up sneakers in 1950s Manhattan. Apparently, this is enough for grounds to ridicule her as the Jets consistently deny her requests to join the gang. Their insults are usually targeted toward her femininity, or seemingly lack thereof, and are always sexist. When preparing to make another request to join the gang, Anybody’s reminds them that she just helped them fight off the Sharks, even after the cops showed up. They take turns laughing at her, telling her to go put on a skirt, and “get lost.” They even claim that she only participated in the brawl as some desperate attempt “to get a guy to touch her.” She constantly tries to prove herself and is literally willing to fight anyone to do so, especially the Sharks. So, shouldn’t that be all that matters? Sadly, the Jets can’t seem to see past her female status. She is a misfit just like the rest of the Jets as her rejection of traditional gender norms has caused society to ostracize her. Even her name reveals her deeply rooted desire to be anybody’s, to belong with the Jets. Notably, their decision to reject and other her based on her sex also reveals their hypocrisy. Despite knowing what it feels like for someone to brand them with labels that don’t match their identities, they choose to ignore their similarities with Anybody’s. They choose to ignore her possession of the very ideals that unify them as a group, such as a willingness to fight, their disapproval of outsiders like the Sharks, and resentment toward law enforcement. Thus, their mistreatment of Anybody’s highlights their misguided attempt to preserve their unity by becoming like the very people they despise. They other those who deviate even a little from their preconceived notions about how a Jet should look. This decision, though discriminatory and toxic in every way, ultimately serves to strengthen their ties to one another as they join in on the ridicule and keep outsiders at a distance.

It’s understandable why the Jets hold their gang identity so close. They don’t know where they would be without it. They have had nothing for so long that they are willing to fight to maintain their community and ensure that nothing ever changes. A prime example of this would be the Jets’ relationship with the Sharks. Despite their shared delinquent status, the Jets are quick to subscribe to stereotypes about Puerto Ricans because their primary concern is keeping their power. Notably unprovoked, the Jets jump Bernardo on his first day in America because they have convinced themselves that Puerto Ricans pose a threat to their rule over the neighborhood. As if that wasn’t enough, when they form the Sharks to protect themselves from the Jets, the Jets set out to start a rumble with them. The Jets note that other gangs have tried to challenge them in the past, but they insist that “these Puerto Ricans are different.” As such, their language toward the Sharks is overtly racist. They claim to be “drowning in tamale” as the Sharks “multiply like cockroaches,” taking over their turf, eating all their food, and breathing all their air. They even start to make a game of it as they each take turns coming up with more racist insults. So, the Jets automatically assume that the Sharks are a threat because of their nationality. It’s easy for the Jets to differentiate themselves from the Sharks based on race because it is so heavily ingrained in their society to do so. Back then, law enforcement officers like crooked Lieutenany Schrank and, honestly, the average American citizen frequently profiled Puerto Ricans. I mean, it was the 1950s. Once again, the Jets other themselves from outsiders to preserve their tight-knit community. They turn the villainization of those who are different into a group activity, allowing this discrimination to strengthen their bonds.

Although, it’s worth mentioning that the Jets also share a history of discrimination at the hands of law enforcement. For example, Lieutenant Schrank offers to help them fight off the Sharks in the rumble. Not only that, but he hopes to pin the entire thing on the Sharks so that he can have a reason to deport them. He sees it as the perfect opportunity to clean up his streets after the Puerto Ricans have turned the town into a “pigsty.”  The Jets don’t even hesitate to remain silent, divulging absolutely no information about the whereabouts of the rumble. Why wouldn’t the Jets jump at the chance to reclaim their turf from the Sharks once and for all? It’s because their conflict with the Sharks has very little to do with race and a whole lot more to do with ownership. It’s about maintaining a sense of control over their circumstances when so much else in their lives is out of their hands. At the first sign of resistance, Lieutenant Schrank resorts to showing his true colors by threatening to throw the Jets and “the immigrant scum they came from” in jail if they don’t comply. This is the first and only time that anyone insults the Jets based on their ethnicities instead of their delinquent status. Predictably, they do not take it very well. Their white privilege has usually allowed for the erasure of their parents’ immigrant statuses. My guess is Lieutenant Schrank never got the memo. So, as much as they despise the Sharks, they also recognize Lieutenant Schrank as the enemy. He is the physical manifestation of the same corrupt, hypocritical criminal justice system that profiles and villainizes them and the Sharks alike. The only difference now is he bases this mistreatment on yet another circumstance that they cannot control: their ethnicities.

So, albeit for different reasons, Anybody’s, the Jets, and the Sharks share a social-reject status that has manifested into delinquency in response to their unjust profiling and mistreatment. Even so, the Jets strive to hold on to the little power they have as a group. They don’t respond well to outsiders of any kind threatening their group dynamic. Their goal is to maintain as much control over their surroundings as possible. It looks like subscribing to widely accepted stereotypes about “no-good Puerto Ricans” and useless females is a means of doing so. The discrimination of others afforded to them by their white, male privilege is the only power they have. So, they choose to exercise it as they see fit. Naturally, the Jets find it easier to recognize and vilify one’s differences rather than highlight one’s similarities.

This type of perspective is not unique to the Jets. In this country, we have developed a tendency to distance ourselves from those who suffer discrimination by focusing on what makes us different from them. We may even join in on the abuse. We choose to feed hypocrisy as people who look and act like the Jets are simply “misguided” and “unruly,” while those who look like the Sharks are inherently “threatening” and “uncivilized.” Othering is an active, conscious effort to villainize those who are different. It’s what has perpetuated such toxic ideologies as misogyny, homophobia, and racism. Studying the Jets’ language and behavior towards Anybody’s and the Sharks reveals why people commonly find othering to be so attractive. Simply put, it’s the power and the incentivizing sense of belonging that othering offers the majority group.

All (white) Men Are Created Equal

By: Remi W.

A thoughtful and wise philosopher once said, “We’re all in this together, and it shows when we stand hand in hand…”(High School Musical 2006). But, are we really? Is standing hand in hand the only thing we need to do to unite as a country, as people? I would argue that it takes more than that, and the Broadway musical turned streaming sensation Hamilton, which is written by Lin Manuel-Miranda, would struggle to agree. If you’ve been living under a rock and have not heard, it comes as one of Lin’s major hit shows, directed by Thomas Kail; it tells the story of Alexander Hamilton, an immigrant from the Caribbean who made a name for himself in the US of A, and if you’ve ever heard of him, you know it went pretty well. Behind the scenes, Lin made sure that the musical included a cast of majority POC to represent what America really looks like and to allow these groups of people to feel seen, to feel united in our country. However, this musical neglects to recognize the suffering that Black people faced in the late 1700’s and beyond; its arrival and portrayal on Disney+ does little to fix this problem. Although more accessible, Hamilton as seen on Disney+ ignores the idea of the ensemble and with that further ignores the suffering of POC which completely eliminates any possibility of unity.

Alexander Hamilton does not make unity an easy task. The show starts with a song that involves every single character in the musical telling the origin story of Alexander Hamilton. A whole cast together for one song and some details of personal struggle make us feel as though we will relate to this; unfortunately, singing a song that only relates other characters to the title character of the show doesn’t feel much like community. Audience members do not even learn who most of the character’s names until a few songs later. “Me, I fought with him, me, I died for him, me, I trusted him, me, I loved him, and me, I’m the damn fool that shot him…” Manuel-Miranda writes, solely focused on Hamilton (or quite literally himself in the case of the streamable version on Disney+) and ignoring the possibility that other characters have reason for living that does not involve him. Not only did Eliza Schuyler, John Laurens, Aaron Burr, and countless others make (read: were forced to make) sacrifices for Alexander Hamilton to succeed, but he fought against them all the way until the end. Hamilton’s interaction with Aaron Burr dominates most of the plot. Constantly back and forth, especially in songs like “Your Obediant Servant,” “The Election of 1800,” and “Non-Stop,” these two never cease to find something to fight over, not to mention that they eventually duke it out in a duel, and Hamilton ends up dying. Burr clearly pushes Hamilton’s buttons and vice versa as we can see through the facial expressions of Lin and Leslie Odom, Jr. who plays Burr from the close ups granted to us through Disney+. He fights almost as much if not more with his own wife, Eliza, in songs like “That Would Be Enough,” “Take A Break,” and “Stay Alive-Reprise,” and let’s not forget about the cheating scandal. Eliza’s pain comes through the screen during Phillipa Soo’s rendition of “Burn,” and viewers can feel the heartache she so beautifully portrays as she burns her letters. Hamilton will go on to fight with Thomas Jefferson, George Washington, James Madison, Samuel Seaburry, Angelica Schuyler, and indirectly King George III (the list could go on, but for the sake of time, I will pause here). With a whole plot that involves one character fighting against the rest of the characters for various reasons, that task of building community or a sense of unity becomes much harder. Lin writes the characters completely centered around Alexander Hamilton which does not help to create the sense of togetherness that theatre goers look for in musicals.

As a future educator and a member of the Peabody College here at Vanderbilt, I have learned my fair share about white washed history; this musical only perpetuates it. Although Lin and casting directors Bethany Knox and Bernard Tesley made the conscious decision to cast many POC in roles where white people would usually stand to represent what America really looks like, he lost the sense of community by continuing the narrative of the white, rich, and snobby founding fathers. He continues to center the white voices of history by telling a story we all hear in high school and adding a few tweaks. Not only does this center white voices by telling exclusively their story, but it completely disregards the story of Black people at this time. At the end of the musical, George Washington, who is played by Christopher Jackson, solemnly hangs his head while Phillipa Soo sings “I speak out against slavery…” as if this erases the years of suffering endured by slaves due, in part, to people in Alexander Hamilton’s life, including George Washington. For the rest of the musical, the only person who speaks out against slavery is John Laurens, played by Anthony Ramos, who dies early and never gets to fulfill his wish of abolishing slavery. Lin writes Hamilton’s response to Laurens’ death and claims he needs to get to work in terms of slavery, but then mentions it only once after the fact. This mention of slavery comes in “Cabinet Battle #1” where Hamilton really only says it to get a dig in at Thomas Jefferson, one of his biggest foes. “Keep ranting, we know who’s really doing the planting…” writes Lin in an attempt to expose Jefferson for claiming that he does all the work in the South. This does not condemn slavery in any way, just stabs at Jefferson for stretching the truth. The ensemble members can be seen in “What’d I Miss” scrubbing the floors of Jefferson’s home in Montecello, and they come to attention when he enters the room. “Sally be a lamb, darling, won’t you open it,” he says to a presumed slave as he hands her a letter found in his office, referencing one of the most submissive animals known to man. And no one says anything about this being wrong. Intentional? Maybe not. Uncomfortable? Absolutely. When you ask “What is one thing that could unite Americans in 2020?” the answers that come to mind do not include slavery. 

There is also a clear divide between the ensemble members (slaves) and the historically white founding fathers. The ensemble costumes are all white, shabby, and minimal, much like anyone who did not have money during these times while the upper class individuals have exquisite gowns and fancy suits. These costumes explicitly show viewers the difference in class status and further separates the characters from one another. Their costumes change to something more “suitable” in the song “A Winter’s Ball” as only those who had power and money (and we most likely white) were invited to this affair. Viewers can see this divide between characters, and it certainly does not foster any sense of community. Lin, director Thomas Kail, and costume designer Paul Tazewell made these lyric, blocking, and costuming decisions possibly hoping to bring the masses together over the abolition of slavery and came up short. Seeing slavery almost dismissed in this musical gives POC (or anyone who cares about POC) no reason to come together over this show, and once again, destroys the idea of unity.

The choreography of the show, created by Andy Blankenbuehler, mesmerizes audience members, and the precision in the movements amongst the ensemble members shows how united a country can be in the face of a revolution. Unfortunately, due to the filming and distribution of Hamilton on Disney+, the ensemble completely disappears from most shots. In favor of close up angles of the main characters and famous actors, ensemble choreography gets tossed to the side, which makes community seem useless and nonexistent. The only thing important to Disney+ is every action the main characters produce. Understandably, many non theatre goers would be confused to be watching a “movie” where the camera angles do not change and the actors seem a mile away. However, when you eliminate the ensemble, you eliminate the community. Each ensemble member has a role to play, whether assigned to them or by them. These roles allow us to feel as though we can interact with the set, the time period, and the story. They make audience members feel like part of the musical, and this makes the musical easier to enjoy. The Disney+ version of Hamilton completely disregards the need for these actors, and makes all their hard work purposeless. It makes viewers feel as if they should only care about the main characters and does little to bring them into the community on stage.

Aside from all of the things that the show itself does poorly, Disney+ does not  make community among the American people any easier to achieve. If you can afford a subscription to Disney+, which is $6.99 per month, Hamilton streams at the click of a button. Most people who would benefit from seeing Hamilton may not be able to afford a subscription to Disney+, however, it eliminates the need to buy a ticket to Broadway or to a touring show which costs more than a whole years subscription. While it does unite people who are able to watch online or on a SmartTV, it does nothing to bring individuals into the theatre. If anything, it pushes people away from buying tickets to see shows, and away from the theatre community as a whole. Before it aired on Disney+, many people who never had the desire to step into a theatre had reason to go. Having to go to the theatre to see Hamilton brought theatre goers and non theatre goers together at last. With the pandemic, everyone now watches from the safety of their own home, but the streaming of the musical will change how we interact with others in the theatre forever. Non theatre goers will have no reason to step into a theatre no matter how amazing the musical because they can just wait for it to come out on some streaming platform. While this may have minimal impact, this only further tears the audience in two. 

Hamilton has phenomenal music, actors, sets, costumes, and lyrics; even with all of those things, it still fails to bring Americans together. With its dismissal of slavery, its centering of white voices, and its arrival on Disney+ which ignores the ensemble and the need for in person theatre, it falls flat in its ability to be what the American people need for inspiration in this time of national divide. Not only does it fail to provide what we need to be inspired to come together, but it actively tears down the idea of unity. If you want a sing-a-long musical to enjoy on your Saturday night, this one was made for you. If you want something to make you feel better about the state of our country, this one you can skip.

Jets Side Story

By Margie Johnson

Set in the 1950’s, West Side Story features the rivalry between two gangs in the Upper West Side of New York City. Although they face a common enemy, the police, the hostility between the two groups is palpable. Both groups consist of all male teenagers but differ in ethnicity. These groups, with the exception of a few minor characters, ultimately form the ensemble of the production. The Jets, led by their leader Riff, feature an all white gang who have grown up in the Upper West Side for their entire lives. In contrast, the Sharks, led by their leader Bernardo, are Puerto Rican and recent immigrants to the country. Throughout the story, the Jets attempt to dominate their neighborhood through the power granted by their whiteness and their status as the established ethnic group. The Sharks, however, utilize the strength of their community bounded by their culture and immigrant status to push back against this hostile environment, illustrating that when faced with the overpowering forces of assimilation, one must cling to their culture to survive.

The Jets utilize their white privilege to intimidate and assert their authority. In the very first scene, the camera pans to the Jets leaning together against a chain fence. The members are silent and snap in unison, creating a singular crack amidst the introductory music. Every step taken falls in a pattern amongst the other members, signifying the connection they feel to the ground they walk on. When striding across the court, the group collectively walks into an ongoing basketball game. The Jets stare silently in unison, creating a sense of hostility towards the harmless teenagers. As a result, the teenagers flee from the scene, leaving the ball to the Jets as they immediately begin a basketball game of their own. Now that the Jets have won the smaller battle and taken over the basketball court, they have nothing to  prove and can move more freely and individually. Thus, as the brilliant choreography and staging brings to life, every movement made by the gang is calculated and used as a performance to showcase their power and superiority, as shown in the lyrics sung by the ensemble in the high energy dance and song, “here come the Jets little world step aside.” By compiling the members into a singular unit, the Jets are able to concentrate the power into an overwhelming force.  This force follows every move made by their leader, Riff. When walking down the street away from the court, the group begins their usual pace of snapping and walking in unison. As the music quickens, however, Riff introduces new moves into the flow of movement. Immediately after doing so, a few members of the group copy his exact move, followed by the rest of the members following suit. They do so in front of audiences of smaller children along the sidewalk, again emphasizing that these movements signify a physical show of power. The movement made by the Jets’ leader ripple through the crew of gang members who will do anything to serve him as he attempts to rule his part of the city. The sea of movement with waves of one particular course through the ensemble prevents any outliers or outsiders from joining the group, particularly if they do not fit the white male mold. For example, teenager Susan Oakes desperately wishes to be a Jet. Although she is allowed to follow the group around the city, she is never able to participate and is repeatedly told to go home. When pleading to the gang to accept her after fighting alongside them in the first encounter with the Sharks, one member retorts to the group, “how else is she gonna get a guy to touch her?” Susan’s whiteness grants her the limited authority to follow the group along and listen to their meetings, but she is precluded by her gender from being fully accepted as a Jet. Thus, it is the strict homogeneity of race and gender of the Jets that allow them to carry a sense of superiority over the population of the Upper West Side and reinforce a dominant hegemony. 

In complete contrast, the Sharks, led by Bernando, express their dominance through the vibrance of their cultural traditions. One tradition, for example, is the fluidity of their dancing. During a dance event held for both the Sharks and the Jets, both gangs are ordered to dance with the opposite gender of the other gang. Male Sharks are expected to dance with female Jets just as male Jets are expected to dance with female Sharks. Although ordered to do so, once the music begins, the gangs immediately divide and the respective gang members pull away their original partner. When it is the Sharks’ time to dance, the female and male dancers flow in one unit, with each kick, jump, or twirl intertwining with their partner’s. Just as they stand together as a gang, they move together in dance; emphasizing their refusal to let go of their LatinX culture. In contrast, the Jets move with great exuberance and American self confidence, but with flailed arms and legs. Instead of moving as one unit as seen with the Sharks, the females and males each take turns showing off their moves. For example, after a long dance period of the Sharks, the Jets barge right through the middle, breaking apart the group of Sharks in the process. As they do so, the male Shark completes a flip while his female partner twirls beside him, suggesting that their dance is for the attention of the audience rather than their attraction. Further, when nobody is watching other than the audience of their own gang, the Sharks break out into another dance number with both the males and females. The females, specifically Anita, take over a large portion of the song, with female members chiming in with their own unique lines and dance moves. A dance scene similar to this one featuring the Jets, however, is never shown throughout the entire production. Instead, the majority of the dancing with the Jets is seen with just the male members of the gang for the benefit of their rival gang, further emphasizing the Jet’s need to prove their validity. Just as the Sharks have arrived together in America, they will stay together in America, surpassing the need for fear and intimidation to unify. Even their name implies lurking danger and threat while the Jets’ name implies surging of power.

Once settled into America, the female members of the Sharks desperately desire to adopt an American lifestyle. Despite their attempts, however, they will never be accepted by the Jets or by the surrounding community due to their lack of “American” style, clothing, language (without accent), and skin color. After the first scuffle with the Jets at the beginning of the film, a police officer tells Bernardo to “get [his] friends out of here.” In one swift sentence, a sense of hostility has been established between the officer and the Sharks. They, Bernardo’s “friends” who look and speak like him, are not welcomed “here”, in America.  During a song titled, “America,” Anita and the other female members describe the luxuries they now possess after moving to Manhattan. From skyscrapers to Cadillacs and washing machines, the women rave about their passion for their newfound home and do so in cheerful song and dance. They are reminded in a call and response type dance number, however, by the male members about the limitations to their luxuries as immigrants. After every response by the males, the group breaks into shouts and cheer. In one line, Bernando states, “life is all right in America if you’re all white in America.” Instead of being feared and respected by the community just as the Jets are, Anita notes that they are reduced to “foreigners.” She does so shaking her head and hands in disgust, erupting a response from the gang to shout, “Lice! Cockroaches!” While the ensemble carries out the tune in a joking and playful manner, all of the members acknowledge that they will never fully obtain the American dream that they crave. They must, then, rely on their tightly bound Latino community for survival in their new and unwelcoming environment. 

West Side Story highlights the animosity between the established group (Jets) and the newcomers (Sharks) in order to illustrate the severity of race and gender confinements and clashes. Although full of vibrance and passion, the Sharks will never fully be accepted into the Upper West Side by the Jets or by the surrounding community. As a result, they must rely on their gang, bound together by their culture, in order to face the challenges associated with their immigrant status. In contrast, the Jets are able to strike fear and intimidation into their community due to the privilege and power granted by their whiteness, and do so through performative and unified dance. It is not until the grave instances of life or death as seen in the final moments of the production with Tony’s passing, that the gangs are able to see past their racist and nationalistic cultural differences. This calls into question, then, when can the strength of a community surpass the limitations of racist ideals? Can two cultures, rooted in hatred for cultural differences, truly be unified or even allowed to coexist?

To Be(long) or Not to Be(long): Fitting in through the Lens of Hamilton

Late in the summer of 2016, Lin Manuel Miranda shaped national conversation with his Broadway debut of Hamilton: An American Musical. Non-thespians were skeptical at first; but the musical quickly became popular in theatrical and non-theatrical circles alike. Unlike many other musicals of its time, Hamilton experienced a very long and noteworthy honeymoon phase. Spontaneous fangirling met formal accolades in the months and years following Hamilton’s release. However, the musical that was once considered a unifying force across political spectrums, genders, and races has since been met with intense criticisms that threaten to taint the legacy of the musical itself– an ironic twist given the musical’s primary themes. Pundits argue that Miranda’s rewriting of American history is problematic because it mischaracterizes the ethical foundations of white American history and dismisses the pivotal roles of people of color. But truth be told, nothing about Hamilton is uniquely problematic. Miranda tells the story of American history as it has always been told: as an outward presentation of diversity, inclusion, and opportunity underlined by racist and patriarchal systems that do not allow people of color to tell their own true stories. Using its cast’s racial composition as a starting point, Hamilton upholds some notions of belonging while dispelling others. The notions are continuously challenged and upheld through subtle and explicit details that support the complexities of the musical and of American history itself.

There exists an inherent bond between members of a traumatised group. Minorities in the United States share a history defined by their own oppression that ensures a basic level of community within groups. And increasingly commonly, minority groups share a knowledge of each others’ traumatic histories that establishes solidarity between groups. This solidarity has become increasingly evident in political discussions, communal relationships, and on the Broadway stage. Hamilton’s majority-minority cast existed as a community before they were united on the Broadway stage, and they will continue to exist as one long after. It is partially this pre-existing bond that makes Hamilton’s on stage relationships mesh so seamlessly. Requiring that lead roles be played by people of color creates a sentiment of belonging that is realized on and off stage.

It is important to note that while Hamilton consists of a mostly minority lead cast, the casting is not color blind as much as it is color conscious. On the broad scale, it is very intentional that Hamilton’s lead roles, aside from King George, are played by actors of color. However, in the more specific relationships between characters, there is no consideration for how race may or may not affect the dynamic between or authenticity of character relationships. For example, in the original Broadway cast, the Schuyler sisters are played by actresses who are of Black, Filippino, and white descent. Most of the family units throughout the musical consist of equally mismatched racial and ethnic pairings. Through this casting decision, Hamilton regards both its actors and characters as a collective unit that “belongs” together, and attempts to pass this phenomenon off as organic.  

Through musical composition, Miranda creates an in-group of “intellectuals”– for lack of a better term– that distinguishes the thought leaders of the late 18th and early 19th centuries from characters who were less involved in the foundation of U.S. politics. In Hamilton, intelligence is communicated through rap. Aaron Burr and Alexander Hamilton, who rap the most out of all of the characters, are consistently positioned as two cunning politicians on opposite sides of a heated, but well thought out, debate. Marquis de Lafayette, whose undeniable wit was integral to the Colonies’ success in the Revolutionary War, raps the fastest verses in Broadway’s history as a testament to his quick-mindedness. In act 2, Thomas Jefferson makes up for his absence in act 1 by dropping dramatic and fast-paced verses that challenge the audience’s ability to keep up. The lyrics, “If Washington isn’t gon’ listen to disciplined dissidents, this is the difference, this kid is out!”, remind the audience of Jefferson’s remarkable way with words. The ability of some characters to communicate with each other using quick verses, hip hop references, and second languages highlights that those characters share similar levels of cultural competence and intellectual understanding. 

Characters George Washington, Hercules Mulligan, and John Laurens also have their moments in the rapping spotlight, but rather notably, Angelica Schuyler is the only woman to grace the list of rappers throughout the musical. From her opening number to the final curtain call, Angelica’s intellect is undeniable. Though much of her aptitude is suggested through explicit lyrics (“I’m the oldest and the wittiest[…]” or “I’ve been reading Common Sense by Thomas Paine”), her performance during “Satisfied” assures audiences that she is on the same level, intellectually, as her male counterparts. On the opposite spectrum, it is worth noting that King George is the only main character who is not a woman that never raps on stage. In fact, all three of his numbers follow the same simple melody. Even King George’s lack of rapping suggests a perceived simple mindedness, which is subliminally suggested as a partial cause to his ultimate defeat in the Revolutionary War. In this way, Hamilton transcends assumed gender barriers by creating a semi-inclusive community of intellectuals, but still keeps some characters– and even audience members who struggle to keep up with fast-paced lyrics– from joining that intellectual community.

Furthermore, today’s political divisions are largely based on identity politics: alliances are formed based on community held assumptions about race, religion, and sexual identity. However, Hamilton’s construction and representation of political factions creates communities that supersede those identities. When considering race, act 1 of the musical largely focuses on the U.S. Colonies as a singular political entity as they fought against Great Britain. The only physical distinction between these two groups is their costuming. In regards to religion, though some allusions and direct references to a deity are sprinkled throughout the musical, there is not a unifying or divisive religious presence that affects the story’s overall development or notions of belonging. Like most Broadway musicals and recounts of American history, sexuality outside of the heteronormative spectrum is largely absent. Although there are some hypotheses of a possible bromance between John Laurens and Alexander Hamilton himself, the historical evidence is not strong enough, nor is the design of the characters’ relationship intentional enough, to confidently suggest that Hamilton challenges any norms related to sexuality. Hamilton’s characters are assumed to have a foundational sameness that allows the plot to focus on only the most important differences between characters– which in this case, is political affiliation. 

Even while phenotypical differences between the cast are ignored throughout the musical, the script– or lyrics– does include some nods to the historical reality that race was on the forefront of political debate during the nation’s founding. In an emotional recount of the Battle of Yorktown and those moments immediately following the British surrender, John Laurens narrates, “Black and white soldiers wonder alike if this really means freedom.” To which the beloved George Washignton dramatically replies, “Not. Yet.” The whole musical, but especially this moment, relies on a level of cognitive dissonance that the audience has the responsibility of rectifying. The real George Washington, who was a racist, slave-owning elite, is played by a teary-eyed Black man who expresses some sort of solemnity– or is it hopefulness?– about the fate of slavery in the United States. The duality of the George Washingtons, and of every character in Hamilton, exists to expel the notion that people of color are absent from the narrative of the birth of America. The musical itself is fixated on the belief that people of color belong in the American narrative. 

However, the progressiveness of using people of color to tell the same whitewashed version of American history in order to include them in the narrative is doubtful. It is true that Miranda created a sense of “belonging” for both actors and audiences who had never seen themselves in these stories before Hamilton. However, people of color should not have to “belong” in white history to be included in American history– they have stories of their own. In one perspective, using people of color to tell white history suggests that, outside of any patriotic narrative, people of color do not belong in American history. In Hamilton and in the real world alike, their presence only exists to further the goals of white supremacy. From this perspective, Hamilton is like diversity without inclusion: quotas are filled and boxes are checked, but nothing about power dynamics has been redressed nor have injustices been remedied. 

Hamilton is a story about belonging. It is about belonging in history, belonging in presence, and belonging in remembrance. As many questions as Hamilton answers about belonging, it also asks. Just as there is duality in each of Hamilton’s characters, there are valid merits and critiques of the work itself. It harms while it helps. It innovates while it sticks to the status quo. Hamilton created spaces for some groups to belong where they never had before; and we can only hope that it opened doors for those groups to belong in the real world– with the same passion and power and influence– just as they do on the Broadway stage. 

By Zoë Mulraine

Hamilton- Casting, Culture, and Racial Support

By Ben Damir

Most plays and musicals that explode from the theatrical world into broader American culture have not needed cultural or social relevance to succeed. Just look at the top grossing musicals and you’ll see – The Lion King, Wicked, The Phantom of the Opera – all decent shows, but each generally disconnected from the world at the time of their release. What made Lin-Manuel Miranda’s hit 2015 musical Hamilton so much more than any of these other shows was its emphasis on current racial issues. Highly publicized KKK rallies, black activist movements, and protests swamped the year of its release, giving Hamilton the perfect opportunity to discuss these weighty questions of race. It was catchy, well-written, beautifully choreographed, and as successful critically as it was socially and fiscally. Yet between the incomprehensible amount of money it made, its 16 Tony nominations, 11 wins, and Pulitzer, Hamilton’s greatest achievement came in the form of its racial implications and empowerments. Hamilton empowers people of color by disrupting norms regarding historical racial accuracy, by celebrating black bodies and legitimizing black culture to wider audiences, and by paving the way for a culture of equity rather than equality. 

We all know those theatre-goers that get caught up on the littlest things. You try to talk about the meaning of the show, and they’re still stuck laughing about the time a cue was late or a microphone gave feedback. Hamilton’s success brought a similar group of individuals that could not seem to get over the casting of historically white figures as people of color. Now, I could argue all of the things that Hamilton gained by having a racially underrepresented cast (and indeed I will!), but first I’d like to reflect on the reverse. What did it miss out on by not having a white cast? Whiteness with a historically white group of people is the default, the assumption. But Hamilton proved that casting black actors to tell white people’s stories does not diminish those stories in the slightest. The narratives are true to history, and offer unique perspectives from a group of people whose perspectives have been ignored throughout history. Although the actions of the founding fathers may have caused centuries of harm to the actors and their families, they did not allow their hardships to flatly villainize anyone, but rather to consciously inform them. The actors ultimately played the founding fathers as human. Far from perfect, but not evil. They had flaws, they had triumphs, they had hopes, and families, and lives. The cast’s diversity opened up room for a plethora of character interpretations, and broke down a wall of racial casting that clearly did not need to exist to begin with, instead favoring race-conscious casting. Among the clearest examples of racially-conscious casting choices and subsequent character interpretations are Samuel Seabury and King George III, as played by Thayne Jasperson and Jonathan Groff respectively. These white actors enjoyed positions of power in their connection to British royalty, and cast the revolutionaries as the minority population- the underdogs. Audiences are encouraged to empathize with the underdog, particularly since these underdogs are widely considered national heroes. By casting the patriots as people of color, a connection is established between these two oppressed groups across history- American revolutionaries and people of color. Audiences of all ethnicities see a bit of themselves onstage and empathize with the characters, all while subconsciously supporting an interracialism that America frequently lacks. 

Hamilton supported black culture in several ways, notably in its respect for black bodies and black art. Nowhere in the show are black bodies confined to the sidelines or played down in costuming and makeup, as can be found in dozens of shows where race is not central to the plot. The founding fathers may have actually worn powdered white wigs, but in Hamilton they make no attempt to cover their natural black hair. On several instances throughout the show, particularly during “Cabinet Battle #1,” Daveed Diggs, actor for Thomas Jefferson, even pats his hair playfully, using it to convey a sense of superiority. Moreover, the simple act of placing black bodies in fancy period costuming when they were barred from such sophistication during the actual period is an empowering and political action. These bodies are then prominently shown, front and center, throughout the show, emphasizing their actors’ positions of power and importance. American culture, and by extension American musicals, has had a history of downplaying or negatively associating black bodies (see also, tokenism and “King Kong” stereotypes), so these empowering notes on black bodies are refreshing and long overdue.

Another significant aspect of black culture that is recognized in the show is the use of hip hop and rap. Hamilton uses these genres for nearly every song throughout the show, serving the double purposes of bringing excitement to otherwise dry content and representing the diverse cast and cultures that make up the show. Let’s face it- people writing essays and going to meetings are not exciting topics for a musical (1776 proved that- sorry!), so incorporating high energy, fast-paced musical forms serves to liven up some potentially boring moments. The diverse casting is also represented and appreciated through the use of the historically black genres of rap and hip hop. These genres have long been scorned by white audiences, particularly older generations, of whom 61% said that “rap music is not real music” in a debate.org online poll. Hamilton did not single-handedly fix this close-minded perception of rap music, but it did open up the genre to a larger audience and prove that it is as legitimate as any other form of musical self-expression. Perhaps not everybody enjoyed the lyrical style and quick beats, but the show at least dispelled some racist notions that rap and hip hop were genres based in sex, drugs, and violence. By writing lyrically genius rap songs about many older Americans’ heroes, Lin-Manuel Miranda forced them to acknowledge that the genres were capable of legitimate music. Yet culture was not the only thing that Hamilton brought to the world- it paved the way for genuine racial equity. 

Whenever I discuss the concept of equity, I ask people to envision a foot race, between a black man and a white man. In the first centuries of the race, the white man jogged steadily, while the black man was bound at the starting line by heavy chains. Eventually, some of the chains were removed, and every once in a while more chains would come off. Nevertheless, the chains were never fully gone, and the white man had already gotten a massive head start. Equality, as the current American system would have it, would be removing the black man’s chains and letting him run freely. Equity would be boosting the black man up to wherever the white man is, and allowing the two of them to continue running from an equal starting point. While both cases maintain that the black man’s chains should be removed, only the latter addresses how far ahead the white man got in his multi-century head start. Among Hamilton’s great achievements in racial justice was its equity-based casting call, which called for “NON-WHITE men and women…” The show’s artistic vision required that the actors be people of color, but the audition notice nevertheless stirred up controversy and prompted calls of reverse racism. There is not enough space in this essay to explain why reverse racism isn’t a real thing, so let it suffice to say that it isn’t. By supporting people of color in particular, Hamilton gave them power in an industry that has historically failed to adequately represent them time and time again (see The King and I and every other incorrectly cast character of color). It gave acknowledgement to the fact that color-blindness is not a real way to fix generational racism, poverty, and oppression, and that the only way to move to true equality is to help the marginalized get on equal footing with those in power. More than that, Hamilton was one of the clearest recent examples of equity and race-consciousness; since then, focus on equity has increased dramatically, even resulting in legislative measures to address racially-connected cycles of poverty, such as CA Prop 16 and Portland’s Racial Equity Steering Committee. I should specify that Hamilton did not invent the idea of equity or pioneer it, but its casting was a source of controversy that exposed a lot of people to it. More than that, the production put its money where its mouth is, and actively included marginalized groups to create a unique perspective and wildly successful production. 

Perhaps Hamilton’s greatest achievement was making all of these intense social comments right underneath our noses. Audiences may sometimes have had to wrap their minds around black actors playing the founding fathers, or this or that regarding the casting calls, but after accepting those points, people loved the show. It’s been out for only 5 years and it’s already #7 in the list of highest grossing Broadway musicals, losing only to productions that have been running for significantly longer. I have no doubt that nearly all the readers of this essay could sing at least a few Hamilton songs all the way through, and am certain that more than a few could recite the entire show. So ultimately, Hamilton’s greatest successes in racial development and respect came from its great successes socially, critically, and financially, and vice versa. People loved seeing the show because it was beautiful and moving, and in that enjoyment gained some minor understanding of its racial points. It would have been easy to impart the show’s messages through a simple play or politically charged musical revue, but by thinly veiling them beneath the show’s catchiness and lovability, Hamilton reached untold audiences and imbued its messages with fun, grace, and charm.