Having an interest in pop culture and musicals, Matthew and Ewon are students taking a course in Cultural Identity and the American musical.
As a musician, Matthew finds interest and unique perspectives in the music that drives the musical forward in its storytelling and characterization. It is this love for music that drives his curiosity in its role in musicals and how musicals shape our culture and society.
Ewon, a dancer since the age of three, deeply engages with the way choreography adds emotion to the storyline of a musical. She also is an attentive listener to music, paying additional attention to details and analyzing the layers to gain a deeper understanding of the role of the song within a bigger picture.
Here, Matthew and Ewon are coming together to engage in a discussion about Hamilton, a 2020 film of the original broadway production about the biography of the historical figure, Alexander Hamilton. The film, directed by Thomas Kail and written by Lin-Manuel Miranda, earned great fame for its diverse music and casts. It even received many awards including the Pulitzer Prize of Drama and 11 awards from the 70th Tony Awards.
The question Matthew and Ewon attempt to answer is: how is Hamilton’s attempt to diversify the race of its cast a progress in the musical industry and the way the audience view musicals?
Q. What do you think was the purpose of a majority of people of color cast?
M: I believe it was to change the way we approach this story, to change the way we connect not only to the story, but the characters and history beyond the story. Albeit… parts of history, which is interesting, as it displays the historical account of the white majority with people of color. Another primary reason in the production’s casting decision could be to prove a cast that is majority people of color can be just as if not more successful than a cast majority white. Which, if that is true, Hamilton certainly did, defying box office and musical records left and right and becoming one of the most popular musicals ever.
E: Yes; due to the vast variety of the casts’ ethnicities, I think definitely a larger audience was able to empathize with the emotions in the musical. By inviting a larger variety of viewers, the musical made space for everybody to think back on the history of their own country and remind themselves of the struggles and triumphs that their country experienced, as all nations went through some battles to be established. The mixed ethnicities clearly guided the audience to disregard the race of the figures, but focus more on the emotions intertwined throughout the story and the universal desire to win freedom. I also think that the casting director, Bernard Telsey, intentionally made non-white actors to play all the characters to imply that American history is not only all about white people, but is the history of all races in America.
Q. How does this casting choice change the way this musical is interpreted by modern audiences?
E: This purposeful casting leads the audience to view Hamilton as an opportunity to acknowledge that American history, especially the stories of successful figures, mostly involve white males as the protagonist. By avoiding any caucasian actors in their cast, Telsey makes his casting obvious and easily noticeable, which leads to the audience wondering the purpose of this choice and attempting to understand the implications of this musical.
M: I agree entirely. Hamilton is not just about Hamilton with this casting decision, but rather opening up a completely new perspective; begging the question… Why? Which is brilliant. Knowing when this musical came out (2015) I wonder how much of this decision was influenced by the growing Black Lives Matter movement and especially, the way people of color are treated in America, not only when Lin Manuel Miranda and Telsey were beginning the production of this musical, but also now. It is a powerful statement and to me, one that was executed well, despite some of the criticism the storyline of the musical might and typically gets. Even just thinking about how some of the lines hit different from actors who are people of color in a time that was ruled by the Trump administration… “history has its eyes on you….”
Q. How does this musical change how the audience relates to the story?
M: I really feel like Hamilton takes a multifaceted approach in making this story relatable to a modern audience. First through its casting decision – telling the story of America then from America now, really trying to appeal the characters to an audience that matches the principles America was founded on and should be. Second, the music throughout the musical honestly revived the industry and engagement with younger audiences. Gone is the typical sound of an orchestra.. Which I am biased towards anyways because I am a classical musician myself so I still miss it… but replaced is upbeat funk, fun, hip hop and rap music. This is what really makes the musical more approachable; it’s inviting and makes you want to sing along on each character’s journey. Plus, hip hop originates from the African American community and is another way Hamilton cleverly diversifies its production and makes it more appealing to a wider audience.
E: Exactly. I just want to emphasize more on the diversity amongst the casts and how it eliminates any racial barrier in empathizing with the characters in Hamilton. Like no one will watch Hamilton and find it strongly unrelatable because the story is too “white.” I think the diverse casting is so effective in making the audience focus less on the fact that this musical is based on a story of a white man, but more on the emotional dynamics that everyone can relate to. For example, even as an asian myself, I teared up at the final production number, “Who Lives, Who Dies, Who Tells Your Story,” while listening to the list of accomplishments Eliza made to honor Hamilton and his unfinished dreams of establishing a better nation. I could easily empathize with Eliza’s great love and respect towards Hamilton, as well as the kind premises that Hamilton lived upon.
Q. Is this story biased regarding the portrayal of Hamilton?
M: The story is not particularly biased towards Hamilton. I would say it takes a more middle ground approach, never hiding his uglier qualities (cheating, impatient and impulsive) while celebrating his finer qualities (courageous, determined, hardworking). However, the story never mentions his or any of the other main characters connection to slavery – so its problematic and does lack in that since. I think it is a matter of perspective, some people might say that this lack is intolerable and is actually what undos the progress that this musical makes in terms of casting, while others, and I feel like this includes more of our perspective, feel as if this lack is to rather shift what this story is about entirely.
E: But it is hard to dismiss the fact that this musical does ignore America’s racist history and the unfair treatment of people of color, despite the main characters all being slave owners. Though the purpose of this musical is to give a general overview of Hamilton’s life, I do think that this musical was wrapped up with too positive of a light on Hamilton, which makes it seem biased. Yet, I think the producer tried to mitigate this bias by including other criticizable qualities of Hamilton—while being married to Eliza, he constantly texts her sister, Angelica, and later on has multiple sexual affairs with Maria Reynolds, which he even hides using his pecuniary power. I just think that the musical could have dealt the problem that Hamilton had slaves at some point of the story.
Q. How does music play a role in storytelling?
M: Like many other musicals that came before, Hamilton is no different in serving up witty, catchy earworms of musical motifs for its characters. However, Lin Manuel Miranda takes these motifs to really another level than others before. Layering them on each other over and over again, truly creating powerful and engaging moments. The music really becomes its own narrator. In “The Schuyler Sisters,” the story shifts its focus to the steadfast and bright Schlyer sisters. From the very moment they enter the song, they belt out their names, giving an audience a glimpse into their personalities and that this song will diverge from the male dominated songs before. The music drops into this deep repetitive backbeat which embodies this motif of “work work,” adding another layer of attitude and spunk that the sisters already provide. Even more so, moments of pause in the groove add more emphasis on the words being sung by Angelica and bring even more weight to the shift in tone. Angelica sings “never be satisfied,” Eliza sings “look around.” The sisters want freedom, freedom in a different sense than Hamilton, but by adding this song, this drive, and these motifs… it really sets up the musical to a wider audience in yet another way and makes the audience themselves ask more questions and engage more deeply… and this is only one example… which is just crazy.
E: As Matthew mentioned before, the diversity in the music incorporated in Hamilton allows a larger audience to relate and empathize with the story. It plays such an important role in highlighting the emotions being transferred through the storyline: the rapped lyrics contribute to the urgency of Hamilton’s personality; the melody of “Burn” being in the minor key expresses the devastation and despair of Eliza after learning that Hamilton had an affair with Maria; the percussion instruments, especially the snare drums, giving accents to the rhythm in “My Shot” represents the energy and motivation that drives Hamilton to success. The most unique aspect of Hamilton, I would say, is the fact that there are barely any words that are spoken normally; there is a rhythm to every word, which engages the audience from beginning to end.
Q. How does the music emphasize diversity?
M: I feel like this goes back to an earlier thought that we touched on in the fact that the music throughout Hamilton originates from the African American community, especially in parts of New York, which makes this musical connect to a broader audience. It is no longer buttoned up western orchestral music – but energetic hip hop that is music from today’s communities for today’s communities.
Q. How does the musical’s choreography make the production more accessible to a wider audience?
E: Because all the words are either rapped or sung, it could be difficult for some people to clearly understand each and every word. Honestly, if I did not have the option to turn on subtitles, I may have struggled to understand some of the lyrics as well. Which is why the choreography is so important. The choreography is overall very literal; it is a direct expression of what is being sung. For example, in “Alexander Hamilton,” the dancers express the story of Hamilton’s childhood by a man shaking off a woman who is desperately holding onto him to represent his father’s departure, a woman being lifted horizontally to depict his mother’s death, another man standing on a chair, tying his neck with an invisible rope to portray the suicide of his cousin, and the dancers moving their body as if pulling something hard while the voices sing “Will they know what you overcame?” Also, if you watch carefully, you’ll notice that the main actors don’t really dance at all, but there is a set group of dancers who do all the dancing for them. This is especially apparent in “Yorktown”, where Hamilton only walks and points minimally, while the rest of the dancers actively move their bodies and dance for the whole time. I believe this is purposeful to allow the singers to focus on their singing and delivery of words, while the back-up dancers aid in clarity using their bodies.
M: And it’s so powerful, the blocking, the staging, everything works flawlessly together to really push the story and the music forward. A moment that really caught my attention is the choreography from “Hurricane.” This is probably one of the lesser known songs from Hamilton, yet a greater known moment on stage as the stage begins to slowly spin, turning the entire cast into a visual hurricane right as Hamilton sings “in the eye of the hurricane.” Hamilton being the eye, remaining center stage and facing forward as the dancers around him swing chairs and other set pieces in an extremely controlled manner through the air. Plus the dancers are wearing all white, which with the lighting dimmed to a deep blue, convincingly turns them visually into a hurricane. It creates this slow motion effect and really drives the tension and emotions that are at play for an audience. It leaves you on the edge of your seat… holding your breath… and it is an incredible effect.
Q. Any last words?
M: Overall, I think Ewon and I both agree on the note that Hamilton is both problematic but well-produced. As elaborated before, the musical does not completely reckon with the past and its shortcomings, but it still puts people of color in a light that has not been given before. After all, it is super successful; even more so than most other productions with mostly white casts. There is just so much to take from Hamilton, so many themes, so many lessons, and what it boils down to is how each individual sees and takes from it. For some people, we acknowledge that Hamilton is disappointing, but for others, it is a force to get behind and use to advance their voices.