Hamilton and Restructuring American Legacy Through Race

Soleil Moffitt, Yehchan Kim, and Jonah Barbin


Intro

Yehchan 

It’s funny because I’d shock people by saying I never watched Hamilton. And now that I finally watched it – I think I get why they were shocked!

Jonah

I can’t believe I’d never seen Hamilton until now. When it was the ‘sensation that was sweeping the nation,’ I knew it must have been good, but I had no idea what topics the show was actually tackling.

Soleil

Same here! I’d heard a couple of songs here and there, but I hadn’t had the opportunity to really sit down and watch the production. I really didn’t know what I was signing up for!  I enjoyed every second of it. 


Dialogue Part 1: General Analysis – Casting, Immigration, and Legacy

Y: So our guiding question for Hamilton is: How does race ask the audience to rethink legacy in the musical Hamilton

J: Right. So Hamilton redefines our identification as a country through its founding story. America is a country of immigrants, right? America is the ultimate melting pot. So Hamilton emphasizes that diversity by highlighting that one of these Founding Fathers that we look up to so greatly was an immigrant himself. And we never hear about this. Why do we never hear about this? How do more people not know that?

S: Exactly! Maybe that’s why Lin-Manuel Miranda chose Hamilton’s story. Of all of the founding fathers, why focus on Hamilton? Maybe he saw something that could represent America’s experience in Hamilton’s story. 

Y: Yeah, I definitely agree. I feel like Hamilton uses race to explore America’s diversity and celebrates it. And through these celebrations of race and culture, we see an underlying theme of legacy that even extends itself beyond the stage.

S: Yes! The casting further supports this. This musical is special in the sense that it is cast mainly of African American and Latinx actors. So an audience of people with similar ethnicities could look at America’s history and see themselves. 

Y: Right. And by changing the races within the story, Lin Manuel Miranda uses Hamilton to kind of give us an idea of what our history would look like with different races – he shows us a legacy that includes people of color. Additionally, he uses race to make us reexamine this legacy as something mostly white-owned.

LMM as Usnavi
LMM as Hamilton

As for casting, Lin-Manuel Miranda casting himself as the protagonist is a recurring pattern in his musical career, but has a special meaning, intended or not, to the audience in Hamilton. In a time when Hispanic immigration policies are especially fraught with controversy, the casting of a Puerto Rican man as a historically significant and white character draws special attention to a relevant, but sometimes glossed-over characteristic of our “ten dollar Founding Father”: his being an immigrant too. And by playing Hamilton as a Puerto Rican man, Miranda celebrates and argues the importance of immigration, and draws attention to the dangers of anti-immigrant rhetoric: would we be turning away Hamiltons of equal, or even greater significance, today?

J: Miranda is also playing with this idea that, “Hey, history is all whitewashed. But even your whitewashed history is incorrect.” So even though a lot of the people we learn about in history, including the founders, were white, Alexander Hamilton was an immigrant himself.

Y: Right, and in this musical specifically, we’re using people from now to represent then, right? Not only do they use people of color to represent modern America, but they also mix historical and modern costume elements. Despite wearing historical garb, actors wear contemporary hairstyles: Aaron Burr has a hairstyle featuring a contemporary line pattern and an edge-up; the Bullet has her hair dyed and in an updo; and the Founding Fathers wear natural hairstyles instead of powdered wigs or powdered hair. Miranda could have decided to keep the hairstyles historically relevant, and white, but by allowing actors to exhibit modern hairstyles greatly influenced by Black and Latinx communities, he represents these cultures on the Broadway stage. 

Aaron Burr
The Bullet
Thomas Jefferson

S: Yeah. And you can even talk about that musically, as well; that is, they mix both showtune and hip hop in their numbers. For example, we get songs heavily leaning towards rap (“My Shot,” for example) but we also get songs that are more traditional showtune, such as “Farmer Refuted.” In “My Shot” there is percussive instrumentation, a rhyming scheme, and a staccato-like melodic delivery; whereas in “Farmer Refuted,” a more traditional choice of melody, rhythm, and instrumentation is chosen: the Loyalist (Samuel Seabury) sings in a simple melody reminiscent of a church hymn, and is accompanied by a harpsichord that comedically – and intentionally so – harkens back to the 16-1700s. This style sharply contrasts with the modern hip hop that Hamilton uses to “refute” Seabury, and even the characters listening are like, “Oh, look at this guy. He’s so snooty, old-fashioned.”

“Farmer Refuted”: A character (John Laurens) expresses amusement while Hamilton is indignant

J: Yeah. I think the choreography is interesting, too, because when they’re telling stories, they have choreography in the background that goes with the telling. So when they talk about, for example, his cousin who committed suicide, they have somebody like mock hanging themselves behind him. Even if you feel like you don’t really understand what’s happening at the moment, you’re processing it much better than just listening to a song. Now in relation to the immigrant experience, when Hamilton pops out of the shadows, his self-introduction is a soft whisper. His choreography is also initially slow, almost as if he’s moving only slightly through the world. But by the time he’s in New York, he’s moving fast and decisively. It’s this notion of when you come to America, you have to be a go-getter – and to be successful as an immigrant, you have to work 10 times harder than you would as somebody who was born in America, and I think that’s what Hamilton had to do. And I think in a way Lin Manuel Miranda felt like he related to the idea of having to work harder to get Hamilton to be popular. And he had to work harder to even break into the industry as a minority. 

S: Totally, totally. I mean, like, how much criticism do you think he got when he was like, “Yeah, let’s do this pop culture musical, and let’s have it on Broadway”?

Y: Yeah. I remember reading Obama’s memoir A Promised Land, and he was like, when Miranda first presented Hamilton at the White House Poetry Jam, people didn’t take it seriously. I even went back to that clip (here). And I saw people’s reactions, how they saw the beginnings of Hamilton and some people were just laughing. They thought it was outlandish. Even Miranda seemed to be kind of smiling to himself because he knew how audacious his musical was.

The Obamas watching LMM perform “Alexander Hamilton”

S: Exactly. I remember it being first sort of like, “Oh, what is this new thing? It can’t be serious. This isn’t the essence of Broadway.” But now when you think of Broadway, a lot of times you think of Hamilton because it was such a huge spectacle. A lot of people loved it. And if we’re gonna talk about Lin Manuel Miranda’s legacy, he’s involved in so many Disney productions. And in them, you can hear sort of his twist. Like he tries to bring that sort of, like modern music element. I’m gonna say like in Moana, for example: he had, like, the Rock rapping – 

[Soleil and Yehchan laugh] 

In Disney movies, you’d expect it to be sort of like Snow White singing tralala… that sort of thing. But he completely rewrote it. So he’s making an impact not only on the Broadway stage, but in other industries as well. He’s taking it with him.

J: Miranda sees so much of himself in Hamilton.

Y: And he plays Hamilton. 

S:Yeah. 

J: Right, it’s not even subtle. It’s beautiful in that respect. And going off this idea of like, kind of how race and ethnicity factors in and explores this concept of legacy, right? [To Soleil] You talked about a lot of early productions are like Snow White, right? And all “Falalala” – 

[Soleil laughs] 

Like we need productions in this country, where people who are not white can see themselves in the main character, right? And by addressing that need, Lin-Manuel Miranda doesn’t only fulfill that need for himself, but he also sets up generations to come.


Part 2: “History Has Its Eyes on You” Analysis 

J: So I had “History Has Its Eyes on You.” So this is an interesting one to look at. It’s only Washington and Hamilton, so it is a smaller number – and a shorter number – but I still think there’s a lot to unpack.

Okay, so initial thoughts that I have on this number? I mean, clearly, if we’re talking about legacy – “History Has Its Eyes on You.” I mean, it can’t get more overt than that. And I mean, the first thing to look at is clearly like, again, this kind of duality, this almost double entendre – history has its eyes on Washington and Hamilton in this moment, right? What are they going to do next? Quite literally, history has its eyes on Miranda and Jackson singing to each other as minorities on the Broadway stage representing American “heroes” as people and cameras are watching them – – a meaning which I think is really cool. Also, the reason I picked this number is because there’s not a lot of people – there are only these two guys to look at. 

Sometimes I feel like I get lost in my analysis when there’s so many people on stage – you can’t appreciate everybody’s performance. Here, there’s no complex choreography – there’s no crazy dancing, but that gives way to the other analyses. So something I really noticed was Chris Jackson’s face: the pain in his face, and the expression in his face.

Chris Jackson in “History Has Its Eyes on You”

I think the way Chris Jackson was able to play this way, gives us this idea of this imperfection of the American experience, right, which I think relates to race, because his playing of Washington draws attention to his being white. We see Washington in our textbooks – he was “the great first president,” won the Revolutionary War, stepped down, was perfect, died and is now on our dollar bill like – 

S: Yeah, but it’s not that simple.

J: Right, it’s not that simple. And again, the fact that he’s being played here by a man who is a minority makes us reexamine history in a more complex manner. It’s almost a reminder that Washington didn’t live in a perfect society, right? There were people who were being forgotten in that society; there were people who were being oppressed in that society. And sometimes in American history when we analyze our founders, we forget that they lived in that imperfect society because their whiteness meant not facing the challenges that others were subjected to. 

Soleil: I totally agree, I was gonna say something similar like –  yeah, these are between two founding fathers historically, but if you just look at it on the stage, it’s also between two minority characters. And the audience could see them – see the situation and relate and reflect on that.


Part 3: “My Shot” Analysis – Music and Cultural Representation

S: So for my song, I did “My Shot.” This song is probably the one with the most hip-hop influence in the entire production. I felt the song was such a great representation of how Miranda mixed cultural influences to make the story representative of many different groups. Particularly, I liked how he used a lot of rap and hip hop culture from the Bronx. There’s such a strong nod towards hip hop culture that you can’t help but see it. So for some history: hip-hop was made in the Bronx in the 70s, from mainly African-American and Latinx communities. 

In Hamilton, you have a story about America’s foundation set in New York, full of influences from New York’s cultural epicenter. Even though the styles and references are centuries apart, it is an homage to what makes America America. And that is diversity. 

Y: I think you hit it right on the nose. I have a similar analysis for the “Ten Duel Commandments.” For some context, the “Ten Duel Commandments” is another hip-hop number that pays homage to Biggie’s “Ten Crack Commandments.” And this number is notable, because not only does it allow different ethnicities with ties into hip hop culture to feel included, but to a greater extent it also allows modern America to understand the historical relevance of the duel through a familiar medium. 

After all, formally settling disputes with guns and pinning large importance to an outmoded concept of honor are anachronisms today – they’re uncomfortable, they’re weird, we don’t get it. And as audience members, having a more familiar medium – hip hop – introducing us to these outmoded concepts helps transition the watch into a “What?” into an “Okay, sure.” Not only does the musical wrap up that sound in order to deliver it to the audience – it also makes it modern, digestible. 

S: Exactly. And in my song, “My Shot,” I liked how there were so many small details: like record scratching in the music and elements of breakdance in the choreography. So audiences of that cultural background, or even people who are just familiar with hip hop in general, could really pick up on it.

J: Instead of singing these traditional, classical songs, Miranda really dives deep into the rich culture of hip hop that was created by African Americans and Latinx creators. And by including these elements in a Founding Fathers musical, Miranda asserts that the contributions of these minority groups are just as important to modern society, if not more so, as some of the things that the Founders did.


Conclusion

Y: I’d like to thank my co-hosts – this podcast definitely wasn’t easy, and we spent countless hours trying to come up with our insights. I’d like to thank Soleil for kickstarting the project and organizing our structure from our scattered dialogues while helping me edit the transcript for clarity, and I’d like to thank Jonah for making time to work with us despite his busy schedule. And I thank the reader for sticking through for so long.

If anything, I hope you get this:

“This is a story about America then, told by America now”

-Miranda

The Male Gaze and Gypsy (1993)

Transformations intrigue us. We gasp at the Very Hungry Caterpillar’s metamorphosis as children, fixate on before and after diet photos, and unhealthily pore over Breaking Bad character analyses for days (I’m guilty of the latter). And just like Walter White’s becoming of Heisenberg, Louise Hovick’s development into the titular Gypsy Rose Lee sparks interest. What prompts this change? What does this transformation say about her character and her environment? 

Gypsy: A Memoir (1957)
Gypsy (1959 Stage Musical)
Gypsy (1993 TV Film Musical)

Director Emile Ardolino adapted the television film musical of Gypsy from the 1959 stage musical (which in turn took inspiration from Gypsy Rose Lee’s autobiography). With music by Jule Styne and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, Gypsy tracks the transformation of Louise Hovick from the shy, oft-overlooked sister of vaudeville headliner June to a bold, independent burlesque star. With that established, let’s try to answer the aforementioned questions.

First, what prompts this change? Easy: Madame Rose, Louise’s mother, volunteers her as a replacement for the main stripper because she believes it is a breakout opportunity. Louise, although initially unconfident, grows more comfortable as she receives (gross as it is to say) “support” from the burlesque theater audience. As Louise recognizes that she can play this role successfully, she capitalizes on it to become a burlesque star. 

What does this transformation say about her character and her environment? This question is much harder to answer. Gypsy Rose Lee clearly empowers herself by embracing her sexuality, and throws aside traditional notions of demure femininity as defined by the patriarchy. However, despite the decline of this form of stage entertainment, burlesque theater is still popular enough for Gypsy to succeed… a popularity which suggests more insidious elements. Although a message of triumph, Louise’s transformation to Gypsy Rose Lee also presents a sad truth: the influence of the male gaze, and more broadly, the power of a patriarchal society. 

A satirized example of the male gaze from the Hawkeye Initiative.*

Coined by Laura Mulvey, the “male gaze” refers to a heterosexual perspective that objectifies women in a sexual manner. Succeeding in popular media, especially in the early-to-mid 20th century, with a large – if not majority – heterosexual, male audience, meant catering to this male gaze.

Gypsy implicitly brings up the male gaze in an earlier dialogue between Louise and Tulsa, a boy that coworks in June’s act. When explaining the reasoning for why he tries to dance more than his female partner for a nightclub routine, Tulsa opines, “They always look at the girl in a dance team, especially if she’s pretty.” Tulsa is subconsciously aware of the male gaze – catering to a probably very male nightclub audience. Yet still wanting to be the main lead, Tulsa believes he must dance more. 

“They always look at the girl in a dance team, especially if she’s pretty.”

-Tulsa

Bette Midler playing Madame Rose in “Rose’s Turn” actively caters to the male gaze. She realizes the her desire to be a star manifests unhealthily in her aggressive pursuit of fame for her children. Madame Rose plays in an empty theater and objectifies herself to an imaginary audience (uncomfortable as it is for the viewers). She draws attention to her breasts (“How do you like them eggrolls, Mr. Goldstone?”), accentuates her body through suggestive movements, and refers to herself as “Mama” in a sultry voice. Madame Rose, despite playing for an imaginary audience, anticipates needing to cater to the male gaze. Both this and Tulsa’s example illustrate that the male gaze is ever-present, that it insidiously underpins popular media. Although the actors don’t explicitly recognize this male gaze, they knowingly create products for a majority-male audience, and by doing so, give hegemonic power, or consent, to patriarchal society. 

Louise
Gypsy Rose Lee

Louise’s quick shift from passive, shy girl into confident, independent woman also illustrates this power. Louise embraces her sexuality to gain personal agency as a burlesque star. And just like Tulsa and Madame Rose, she recognizes the male gaze and its power in patriarchal society – after all, she is a stripper. Such a contradiction could be confusing – that she empowers herself through her sexuality, yet that patriarchal society exploits her. While Louise does find empowerment, it is only through her sexuality; that is, within the confines of patriarchal society. 

So what? Although this movie carries a message of triumph and self-empowerment, it still reminds viewers that we live in a hegemonic patriarchal society which we perpetuate. And just like Louise, Tulsa, and Madame Rose, we support its hegemonic power in some way, whether it be normalizing the male gaze in popular media, or accepting stereotypical, restrictive gender roles for women in everyday life. 

And as a heterosexual, Korean-American male, that reminder is especially noteworthy. Not only did society teach me these problematic gender narratives as universal truths, but I also at one point believed them. And as I grow more aware of our society, it’s becoming increasingly important to ask: is this belief, or truth?

Footnotes:

*While researching the male gaze, I was introduced to this phenomenon through this article. The Hawkeye Initiative is a website made “to draw attention to how deformed, hypersexualized, and unrealistically dressed women are drawn in comics…” (FAQ).