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.

The Madame Butterfly Effect

by Lily Jaremski           

“A virgin will give them a treat/ Lower your eyelids and play sweet/ Men pay the moon to get fresh meat.” The Engineer’s first words about Kim do not bode well for a feminist storyline in Miss Saigon. Clearly, she is nothing but meat to be gobbled up, much like the other girls at the club, who have no opportunities other than to go home with American soldiers. Even though Kim’s affair with Chris is framed as more romantic than what goes on in the club, ultimately, she becomes another Vietnamese woman with a half-American child, left behind by the child’s father. Her situation is so dire that she ends up killing herself  – the only  comfortable future she envisions for her child is one without her in it.

            Tuptim, from The King and I, has a very similar story despite the disparity in styles of the two shows. She is a slave girl, a gift from the King of Burma to the show’s titular King of Siam. After her quiet and reverent introduction to the King, Tuptim reveals to the audience her secret love for the scholar Lun Tha who travels with her. They sneak around at the palace for a while to meet in secret but are ultimately discovered and forced to flee. They are caught, Lun Tha is executed, and Tuptim’s story ends the same was Kim’s does: she kills herself, albeit not on stage.

            One of the oldest famous versions of this tragic Asian woman on stage is found in Giacomo Puccini’s Madame Butterfly, which tells the story of a Japanese woman who marries and gives birth to a child with an American man, who leaves her to marry an American woman. Once they return to bring his child to America, she kills herself. Clearly, the work was the direct inspiration for the story of Miss Saigon, over 70 years after the opera’s debut in Milan. In addition to promoting a tragic narrative for Asian women on stage, the opera contributes to a persistent stereotype of Asian women as sex objects for white men, a notion that remains problematic to this day.

            In addition to copying the tragic elements of the Madame Butterfly story, Miss Saigon and The King and I have also embraced the American theatrical tradition of white men writing the stories of characters of color. Miss Saigon was created by modern theatre heavyweight Cameron Mackintosh as a (at that time) modern retelling of Madame Butterfly set in the ongoing tragic fallout of the Vietnam War. The King and I was a passion project by Rodgers and Hammerstein, who hoped to tell stories about marginalized communities (see also: South Pacific).

However, both of these attempts failed, particularly in their original runs. Both shows, which debuted decades apart, had a white actor in yellowface as the main Asian male character, as well as many members of the ensemble in yellowface as well. The stories come across as paternalistic, rather than empowering for the characters. Modern revivals of The King and I make attempts to portray the court of Siam accurately, while Miss Saigon has since committed to color conscious casting. When produced, both shows have offered the greatest density of opportunities for Asian actors looking for work on the Broadway stage, yet the roles are stereotypical, even with a modern reimagining. Tuptim and Kim would each benefit for a reexamination of how their stories are portrayed.

            Kim first steps on to the stage of Miss Saigon as a picture of innocence amongst an environment of sin. After being treated to several minutes of harshly sexualized women who work at the club, Kim is quiet and plain, dressed in traditional Vietnamese clothing. Around her, the other “experienced” women dance in skimpy, Americanized outfits and lingerie. Her image of innocence is soon shattered when the Engineer lifts up her skirt and violently removes her underwear, so she will be deemed suitable for the American men. In this scene, all of the women are judged based on their sexuality in the white male gaze. Whether they are pure, like Kim, or “ruined” like the other women, their sexuality is all they can barter with.

            Mackintosh, like many at the time, had heard of the precarious situation these characters’ real-life counterparts were in. Real women worked in a sex industry for purely American soldiers. Systems like this still exist in Southeast Asia, as shown in the later scenes set in Bangkok, Thailand. There, the women still work to satisfy white, Western tourists. Kim has set her own innocence aside in order to perform sex work to care for her son. While it is commendable that Mackintosh would want to promote this story, the show effectively performs violence against its own characters. While many artists have created shows that depict violence and trauma they have survived, Miss Saigon lacks a nuanced look at its characters’ lives. As such, sexualized violence and norms are reinforced over and over again when the dancers perform in skimpy outfits and Kim’s underwear are ripped off.  

            In her story, Tuptim faces violence as well, though not overtly sexual in the story of The King and I. She is brought into the King of Siam’s court as a “gift” from the King of neighboring Burma – a slave. Seeing as she is supposed to join the ranks as one of the King’s wives, it is implied that she will have to sleep with him and bear children. Like the other members of the court, Tuptim shows deference to the King, but once she is left alone on stage she reveals she is in love with another man, singing, “Though the man may be/ My Lord and Master/ Though he may study me/ As hard as he can/ The smile beneath my smile/ He’ll never see/ He’ll never know I love another man.” In an effort to place emphasis on Anna and the King’s relationship, the issues of human trafficking and forced marriage to the King are not examined in the show with much detail beyond the King’s multiple wives being a quirk of their culture.

            In the show, the wives serve as a chorus along with their children to be taught by Anna, the Westerner. Tuptim is portrayed as not wanting to be one of the King’s wives because she loves another man, not because she does not love the King. The rest of the wives serve as a chorus, rather than having individual personalities. Lyrically, the show does not treat them much differently than the children, who also sing during lessons and perform during “The Small House of Uncle Thomas.” Tuptim could never continue to live in the world of the show because she cannot comply with the demands of the court because she chose to follow her heart over submission.

            Ultimately, both characters decide to commit suicide after being subjected to physical and sexual violence throughout their stories. Both women are used as property and leverage, and face tragedy after stepping out of their submissive roles. Tuptim runs away to be with the man she loved rather than the King, in a stunt that left him to die. Rather than submit and be an obedient bride for the King, Tuptim asserts that she will kill herself once left in a jail cell. Kim commits suicide after realizing that Chris and his wife will not raise her child in America if she is still living. Rather than allow others who would control her to decide her fate, Kim takes matters into her own hands, singing, “This is the hour I swore I’d see/ I alone can tell now what the end will be.” In both stories, suicide is framed as a tragic, yet courageous choice made by the character.

            It is hard to root for the ending of Tuptim and Kim’s stories as courageous when audience members know that they were put in those precarious situations by the creators of the stories of which they play a part. When watching the show, we feel for the characters because they have few options for maintaining power in their societies. However, Mackintosh, Rogers, and Hammerstein saddle the blame for giving these characters tragic and stereotypical storylines. Asian actors continue to be vastly underrepresented on the Broadway stage, and even within shows with majority Asian casts the roles tend to be stereotypical. In the end, I do not blame Tuptim or Kim for how their stories play out. They do the best they can to make choices to help their loved ones when stuck in precarious political situations. They sing beautifully and emotionally and decry their oppressors with passion. Ultimately, more artists of color are needed to tell poignant yet empowering stories of marginalized people.