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.