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.

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