Hamilton: An icon or failure?

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?

Photo by: https://www.theatrecrafts.com/pages/home/shows/hamilton/ 

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.

Hamilton 2020 (Live Audio) – 46 Who Lives, Who Dies, Who Tells Your Story

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.

The Schuyler sisters – Hamilton (Original Cast 2016 – Live) [HD]

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.

Hamilton Yorktown

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. 

Hamilton    Hurricane

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.  

Hamilton and Restructuring American Legacy Through Race

Soleil Moffitt, Yehchan Kim, and Jonah Barbin



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!


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.


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. 


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.


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”