Our Founding Fathers Were Bad Dads

My life is full of lies. I have spent the past year stressing over elections for politicians that lied straight to my face; my mom keeps telling me I’m special; and my ex says she still loves me. All I ask for is a smidgen of truth or just a temporary escape from the lies of reality, and surprisingly, I often find this safe haven in musicals. Now, I’m not about to argue that Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark is a canonical, historical event nor am I going to claim that Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson should replace our history textbooks (although our education system would be hell of a lot more fun). Musicals can be some of the rawest forms of commercial performance and expression. There is no lying during show-stopping belts or spectacular ensemble choreography, and there’s even a semblance of truth in the acting. Every movement, every note, every expression has truth in it somewhere, and that comfortable feeling of sincerity is one we chase every day.  

After seeing it back in 2018, Hamilton was my safe space. There was a song for every moment in my life that I could retreat to instead of facing reality. For a show centered around the birth of American politics, it is remarkably apolitical, and that’s what makes it so universally appealing. The production number “The Room Where It Happens” isn’t about the formation of the National Bank; it’s about wanting to fit in and being a part of something bigger than oneself. “Burn” provides solace for the heartbroken, and “You’ll Be Back” deploys an 18th century tyrannical monarch to help them cope with this heartache. But, just like every political campaign, just like my supposedly innate uniqueness, and just like my ex’s empty words of affirmation, Hamilton is too good to be true, and for the sake of performative diversity, Lin-Manuel Miranda throws away his shot to make a substantive, meaningful statement on sexism, cyclical political centrism, and the racism that this diversity is meant to battle.

The public opinion of Hamilton has shifted negatively in recent years without a tangible impetus for this downward turn. The music has aged well, the creative players haven’t been involved in any egregious scandals, and the Disney+ release has made the show more accessible than ever. Frankly, Hamilton didn’t change; the world around it did. Similar to Into the Heights marking the beginning of Barack Obama’s presidency, Hamilton’s late 2015 release bookended the other side of it, but its meteoric rise also coincided with that of our current president, who launched his original campaign a month before Hamilton’s Broadway debut. Donald Trump’s populist promises and uncompromising attitude towards lawmaking and the Democratic Party shot him past the more centrist candidates running for Republican nomination, and Hillary Clinton’s similarly bipartisan message did little to slow Trump’s momentum. The situation is more complicated than a one sentence explanation, but the root cause of it is not. The decline of centrism allowed Trump to enter the forefront of national media and enabled his eventual victory.

People are going to bat for this guy?

Hamilton is a celebration of American exceptionalism, unity, and patriotism, all monumental tenets of centrism. Of course, there are moments of discord between the Founding Fathers. Thomas Jefferson and James Madison giddily dance around to celebrate the discovery of the damning Reynolds Pamphlet, and it seems like they can’t stop shooting each other every 30 minutes. But, in the end, they all live happily ever after. Sure, Hamilton unnecessarily dies, but Jefferson and Madison finally recognize his genius, George Washington is honored for being the ultimate symbol of American unity, and all the slaves are freed! (Oh wait…no. Eliza Hamilton just speaks out against slavery.) These idealistic outcomes and revisionist perspectives on political figures are what American politics have revolved around since the country’s inception. Before Trump’s recent defeat, the transition of power between administrations has been largely cordial, and this respect lends itself to forgiveness. Our history books paint Thomas Jefferson as a master negotiator and one of the great American writers of the Revolution, not a rapist and serial slave owner. More recently, George W. Bush, responsible for the backwards Patriot Act and the continuation of the endless war against terrorism (*cough* oil *cough*), is now lauded as a respectful man that brought us out of the dark shadow 9/11 cast upon this country by liberals and conservatives alike. The sins these politicians committed and the regressive policies they passed are forgiven to maintain the image of excellency that we are told our representatives share in common because if our leaders are bad people, what does that make us?

Hamilton projects American exceptionalism for the world to see because that is what its audiences crave; that is the truth they want to believe. No proud American wants to recognize the atrocities of slavery in their totality. So, we’re given smaller, palatable truths to swallow. Sally Hemings was Thomas Jefferson’s mistress, not property. George Washington freed his slaves when he died, excusing his ownership of these men and women during his lifetime, and Hamilton portrays these men in exactly this way. Jefferson and Washington are illustrated as heroes of the Revolution and sympathetic to the struggles of slaves, despite the latter not being further from the truth. Lin-Manuel Miranda had a rare opportunity to tell American audiences the truth. In an industry and world dominated by white men, he had the privilege to shine a spotlight on the reality of America hidden in the shadows for too long, but Americans don’t like that truth. Instead, Miranda compromised, like any “great” politician would do.

Lin may compromise his morals, but he sure doesn’t compromise a good ol’ lip bite selfie!

Miranda takes a Jordan-like approach to his products. In 1990, one of the first African-American senate candidates in North Carolina Harvey Gantt challenged incumbent senator (and unabashed racist) Jesse Helms. Basketball legend Michael Jordan refused to endorse Gantt’s Democratic campaign, justifying his lack of activism with “Republicans buy sneakers too.” Gant lost the election by a narrow 5 point margin. At the end of the day, Miranda’s shows are for-profit products. They are opportunities for him to showcase his talent in front of the brightest lights on the biggest stage. Maybe he wrote this show with the express purpose to make a statement on bigotry and the state of America, but any meaningful attempt at that falls flat. Miranda writes a show that appeals to the centrist ideals of America without alienating any of his potential customers but does throw progressivism a bone in his casting. All of the protagonists are minorities! Again, in such a Caucasian-dominated industry, this is a huge step forward for diversity in Broadway and talented minorities are finally recognized, but simply making the cast diverse is not enough on its own. The diverse cast propped on a pedestal leads to complacent writing that does not acknowledge the full extent of America’s past and makes the audience too comfortable with the false identity of these characters.

Going back to Thomas Jefferson, Daveed Diggs compounds the issue of Miranda’s lack of activist writing. His natural stage presence and charm makes it nearly impossible to dislike Thomas Jefferson. The swagger that he exudes in the Cabinet Battles and his introductory number “What’d I Miss” fills the theatre, and this charisma is what audience members remember. Until my viewing of Hamilton, my only experience with the portrayal of Thomas Jefferson were educational documentaries with dramatic reenactments of historical events and pictures of his uncomfortably greasy hair. Do you expect that relic of American history to compete with Daveed freaking Diggs? Now when the name “Thomas Jefferson” is mentioned the first image that comes to mind is Daveed Diggs with his lavishly purple coat and stylish cane. The musical not only completely disregards Jefferson’s gross mistreatment of his slaves, but it subtly relinquishes the image of Thomas Jefferson as a white, privileged man.

Contrary to Hamilton‘s portrayal, the actual Thomas Jefferson had negative zero swag.

This performative casting diversity continues to be applauded for the future of Broadway that it represents and for getting Leslie Odom Jr., Daveed Diggs, and Chris Jackson all on the same stage, but it distracts from more than just racism and centrism. Male characters dominate Hamilton. That isn’t unique to this show specifically, but the women’s lack of effect on the plot throughout the show is another missed opportunity by Miranda to make a powerful statement on sexism in America. Eliza feels like a pawn waiting to be moved. Alexander Hamilton walks into the ball, and she and her sister immediately swoon over him. She spends the rest of the show pleading for her husband to relax or at the very least survive, neither of which he can do, and in the second act, she is a conduit for the heartbreak that comes with Hamilton cheating on her and her son passing away. Only when Hamilton dies does Eliza finally get the faculty and power to effect change. She and her choices are reactionary to the world around her without the people around her paying much mind to her decisions. It’s rather disappointing because Phillipa Soo’s incredible vocals and strong acting could make a true female lead shine, but Miranda diminishes her to a source of internal conflict for Hamilton and of the resulting soliloquies when he neglects to heed her advice.

American exceptionalism is an ideal that we accept as the truth but do not necessarily believe to be true. From the moment we step in an American public school, everything from the Pledge of Allegiance to President’s Day are empty promises of national greatness, but there’s no reason to believe otherwise without evidence to the contrary. People with privilege and power are the individuals writing our textbooks and producing our shows telling us America is great, and the reality is that most of these individuals are rich, white men. But, sometimes a minority creator defies expectations and is given a platform for their voice to be heard. Lin-Manuel Miranda had the opportunity to tell the American people the whole truth and nothing but the truth. In the midst of rampant unemployment, people drowning in debt, and the perpetual presence of systemic racism, Miranda fed us what centrists and patriots have told us for years. America was great, is great, and always will be great, and we truly believe it when we watch Hamilton. Only when we step out of the theatre and face the reality we desperately tried to escape do we realize the truth of our nation. America was not great, is not great, and will never be great unless we stop compromising for the bigots of the past and present and recognize the flaws of our nation.

The Heights of Controversy: Lin-Manuel Miranda Made A Mistake

Lovingly Written by Maggie Mershon

When Lin-Manuel Miranda developed In the Heights, he intended for it to be a story of his Latin heritage for other people of Latin heritage. At the root of the show, this sentiment remains. Miranda weaves the story of Usnavi, Benny, Nina, and Vanessa, The Rosarios, Abuela Claudia as they go from day to day in their community in Washington Heights. As was his intent, Miranda created characters for Latino people that weren’t seen on the Broadway stage. These were not gang members or criminals, but people with dreams, striving for a better life.

However, as the show continued to move up the ladder of financial success and those risking capital became integral to your production. An artist can, in some cases, become beholden to the whims of those who pay hundreds of dollars to see these shows, and perhaps lose focus of his intended audience in favor of their paying audience. In other words, It’s a majority white, incredibly privileged audience who expects to be involved in the story that’s on stage. So how does that affect the way the story is told? Does it change the meaning of the musical when the people who are watching are expected to be “in on” what’s going on? Does it force the show to shed its intended identity? I believe that in the context of performance to a majority white audience, In the Heights compromises its original intention-to exhibit a genuine picture of Latin culture-and instead through its story, lyrics, and casting actively caters to this audience and tokenizes what should be empowered.

If you don’t know Miranda from Heights or Hamilton, perhaps you recognize him from Internet lip-biting infamy

Source: @Lin_Manuel via Twitter

In this class, we’ve been talking a lot about Hamilton, another show written by and starring Miranda. Specifically, we’ve talked about the piece delivers a centrist narrative that appeals to both sides of the aisle and is unable to communicate an impactful message of systematic change. I believe that this commentary also applies to In the Heights, where even then, Miranda is fully aware of who his audience is. In the opening number, we hear him sing, “You may be thinkin’ / I’m up shit’s creek / I’ve never been north of 96th street,” a direct reference to the demographic difference across the geography of Manhattan.

In this story we follow several diverse members of a neighborhood in Washington Heights, as they simply go about their lives. They work incredibly hard to sustain themselves: Usnavi demonstrates this in his opening rap, rattling off the orders of his bodega’s regulars; Mr. Rosario sells his business to provide for his daughter; and  Vanessa works from the crack of dawn every day to try and get out of her toxic home life. There is a sense that because these characters all work extremely hard and look out for one another, they will achieve what they are aiming for, as The Engineer in Miss Saigon refers to it, The American Dream. The audience wants to see them achieve this dream: financial success, a family, and a home where they are happy and loved. The musical does not disappoint in this regard. When Abuela Claudia gives Usnavi her lottery winnings, she gives him a chance to do whatever he wants-he has earned this money through his hard work and caring for the people around him. In the beginning of the musical he talks about how desperate he is to get back home to Puerto Rico. Once he has that money? Usnavi ruminates on his live in New York and is no longer driven to return to the Dominican Republic. He concludes he is already at home, Washington Heights is his home and his dream.

This is a beautiful sentiment. The idea that the community in which Usnavi grew up is the one in which he feels happy and secure is great, but the gentrification that the characters are fighting does not disappear in the reality of these characters. The musical may end before we see our protagonists pushed out, but it is coming sure enough. And as this home Usnavi takes up becomes destined to some destitute fate, Usnavi takes up its burden, promising to keep the legacies of the people who live there, to serve them and to uplift their beautiful stories. He’s even decided to go on a second date with Vanessa, whose coworkers helped pay to get her out of her current living situation. With the money he has earned from being a good guy, Usnavi is able to uplift his community and sustain his home.

Who wouldn’t give these faces winning lottery tickets?

Source: Carlito Pucl, ‘In the Heights’ – 2008 Tony Awards Performance – 96000, YouTube

Honestly, I would be shocked if such a heartwarming ending didn’t bring a tear to your eye or swell your heart. This ending provides the audience with an inspiration sendoff that, “Wow, anyone really can follow their dreams.” But that is not the case. It’s an exceptional act of kindness for Vanessa’s coworkers to give her enough money for a down payment, but what happens when she can’t pay next months rent? It’s touching that Mr. Rosario would sell his business to support his daughter but how will he continue to afford life in the community he has called home for so long? And concerning Usnavi-lottery tickets don’t come around every day. Without this enormous completely random gift, how would he continue to support his failing business as he watches the community around him crumble? Furthermore, should it be his responsibility to take care of the community with this money now that he has it? Of course, when watching people on stage and considering morality, we all know what we should do, and what Abuela, Usnavi’s mentor, would have done. But Usnavi as an individual, supporting the community off of one lottery ticket and warding off gentrification is unrealistic and an irresponsible way to portray hope. These stories of people lifting each other up in their community are beautiful and touching but they only treat symptoms and absolve the audience from their guilt and power to stop the root of the disease.

Built into the design of the show are assumptions about the culture that Miranda has acknowledged are not necessarily perfect. In an interview he gave at Swarthmore College, he noted that Abuela Claudia’s journey was, “the farthest outside my experience, I did a lot of research on Cuba and that initial wave of migration in the 40s, and then your job is to forget about it… your job is to write this woman’s story, so you choose, “Okay, when did she get here? What was her experience?” (Zapata, Rosado, Martinez, & Miranda, 2011) Miranda as well as any one understands that there are inconsistencies within his story, which, when presented for an audience that comes from that same background, and understands these things as well as he does, works in his favor. In the case of the specific demographic of Heights’s Broadway audiences, it doesn’t necessarily support the multicultural message intended.

Multiculturalism is an essential component to the spirit of In the Heights. In the opening number, the ensemble sings, “I hang my flag up on display / it reminds me that I came from miles away.” Each member of the ensemble has a story and a culture that they individually bring to their community in Washington Heights. For example, Miranda, a Puerto Rican man, plays Usnavi, a second generation Dominican. Miranda thought it was important to accurately represent the culture of Washington Heights, Usnavi be Dominican. However, when it came down to casting him, Miranda made the decision to compact the two cultures and, instead of finding a Dominican actor to fill the role, played it himself. Miranda received criticism for the inaccuracy of his Dominican accent for other Latino members of the theatre community but was widely accepted by audiences who saw the Broadway show, a majority of whom were white. This oversight directly opposes pursuits of multiculturalism, ignoring a character trait of its main character and gently assimilating Latino culture into one generic whole. Though in word Miranda succeeded in creating this multicultural community, it feels as though an active choice was made that this small design element wasn’t important enough or would not catch the attention of its audience if not corrected.

A DC production of In the Heights throws their flags up on display!

Source: Olney Theatre Center

I sincerely hope that this piece doesn’t come across as hateful, as there is a lot of wonderful work done by In the Heights. When it opened, the producers actively tried to make some seats available to audiences of lower-income backgrounds, targeting communities represented in the show. There are students around the globe who can now study theatre through characters that were written to look and act like them. That is an incredible achievement. But all the whole house can’t be filled by people not paying full price because profits will go down. And in terms of the Broadway show, what good can the piece do if it’s not accessible to the audience it seeks to empower? Even more, if there’s no call to action, no holding the white audience it is presented for responsible, then does it simply become a tokenization of culture? A story of immigrants pulling themselves up by their bootstraps that a white audience can feel good about, totally removed from, and forget at the end of the day?

When he wrote In the Heights, Miranda worked closely with Director Tommy Kail, who sometimes couldn’t understand the Spanish he was incorporating, and Miranda would pull it back. In his words, “we knew our goal in this show … This is a show that I wanted everyone to feel as welcome as possible in this neighborhood, the same way I felt welcomed in Anatevka, when I saw Fiddler on the Roof, even though that’s totally outside my experience” (Zapata & Miranda, 2011). Except Fiddler on the Roof didn’t play to contemporary crowds of anti-semetic Russians. The compromise and concessions that Miranda made to create a story that would fit on the Broadway stage didn’t make it any less of a literary success. It just may have had the impact it wanted if had it actually played in the heights.

Find Below a Work I Cited:

Miranda, L. (2011). In the Heights: A Conversation with Lin-Manuel Miranda [Interview by R. Zapata, A. Rosado, & L. Martinez]. Retrieved November 16, 2020, from https://www.swarthmore.edu/news-events/heights-a-conversation-lin-manuel-miranda

Hamilton: Contradictions that Create a Community

In 2016, Lin Manuel Miranda’s unique form of musical storytelling made Hamilton the sight to be seen on Broadway. Everyone soon fell in love with the novel “hip-hop musical” that shared the old, yet often neglected story of one America’s founding fathers, Alexander Hamilton. Specifically, how the mere immigrant orphan from the Caribbean rose to power to become Washington’s right-hand man, as well as one of the most respected figures in America’s political founding. By contrasting a dated story with a more contemporary music genre and progressive, off-race casting, Miranda’s retelling of Hamilton’s life reaches a greater audience. This outreach to a larger audience is due to the community Miranda creates on stage. The community of Hamilton is of white men (played by actors of color) in an era where women have little to no rights (where female actors are given primary roles in the story) where honor and integrity are held in the highest regard (though everyone acts upon shady, power-hungry incentives). This constant juxtaposition between Hamilton’s community and the outside community is what makes Hamilton such an endearing protagonist, unifying the audience behind him.

The two acts of Hamilton are very distinct from one another in regard to the sense of community. Even though the same actors are in both acts, Hamilton’s changing community, as well as the audience itself, are unified against different threats. In act one, Hamilton’s community exists of his rag-tag group of friends that are united in their fight against the British monarchy. This creates a standard for anyone hoping to join Hamilton’s circle. Specifically, they must be supportive of the American revolution. This comes to play in the reprise of “The Story of Tonight.” Aaron Burr, Hamilton’s close friend in the first act, is in love with a married woman: “It’s alright Burr. I wish you’d brought this girl with you tonight, Burr / You’re very kind, but I’m afraid it’s unlawful, sir / What do you mean? / She’s married / I see / She’s married to a British officer / Oh shit.” Hamilton reacts less to the fact that she is married, and instead to the fact that she is married to a British officer. The relationship is not taboo to Hamilton until he learns that she is part of a different “community” on the side of the British. Act two is less direct in this approach. Hamilton is more isolated in act two for none of his friends (except Burr) are around him anymore. Ironically, the actors that play his friends Marquis de Lafayette and Hercules Mulligan (Daveed Diggs and Okieriete Onaodowan respectively) play his main political adversaries in act two. Not only is this to subvert your expectations as an audience member, but also to create a rival community to Hamilton that still remains familiar. In parallel to act one, Hamilton is at war with Jefferson, a man with previously established wealth and power who easily accumulates votes–a socioeconomic foil to Hamilton. Hamilton’s community is reestablished as the Federalists, with the understanding that the Democratic-Republicans are the main adversary. The Democratic-Republican’s community often discriminates against Hamilton. In “Cabinet Battle #2,” Jefferson publicly remarks, “He knows nothing of loyalty / Smells like new money, dresses like fake royalty / Desperate to rise above his station / Everything he does betrays the ideals of our nation.” Similarly, the juxtaposition between Burr’s patient nature and Hamilton’s aggressive political activism in songs like “Wait for It” and “Non-Stop” further define those who can fit into Hamilton’s community. That is to say, the words and actions of rival communities create assumptions for Hamilton’s community, which become associated with ideals like “new money,” progressiveness, and impulsivity.

Hamilton’s discrimination is not limited to socioeconomic factors. The line “Arrogant immigrant, orphan / Bastard, whoreson” and variations of it are often repeated throughout the show (this example was taken from “Your Obedient Servant”), mainly through Burr’s narration. Ironically, though all of the historical characters portrayed in the show are white, most of the Hamilton cast are actors of color. This juxtaposition between what we hear the characters saying and what the characters look like not only points to the idiocy of discriminating against race, but also puts the community of Hamilton into a more contemporary setting. The community within Washington’s cabinet often disregards Hamilton due to his Caribbean lineage, even though he is smarter than most all of them. The audience shares in Hamilton’s frustration, subconsciously pushing Miranda’s progressive ideals of race onto the audience. In this sense, the audience shares a community with Hamilton, one centered among racial equality. Further, back in act one, Hamilton surrounds himself with societal outcasts, namely Lafayette, Laurens, and Mulligan, because he feels he is an outcast himself. It is no coincidence that as Hamilton’s connection with Eliza Schuyler, a woman from a well-established family, grows stronger, and his relationship with his outcasted cronies diminishes, he gains power in the outside community, leaving his old one behind.

Another interesting dichotomy that creates community is the representation of women in Hamilton. Women in the 18th century did not carry much of a voice. However, in Hamilton, the women of the show take much more control over the story. This idea is best seen in the song “The Schuyler Sisters.” Perhaps the most famous line from this song is when Angelica tells Burr, “And when I meet Thomas Jefferson, I’m ‘a compel him to include women in the sequel!” Miranda purposefully breaks historical accuracy in order to better establish the women in Hamilton’s community. In opposition to the traditional ideals of complaisance and agreeableness, Angelica and Eliza (and Peggy!) are striking and passionate. This is also in part due to the acting choices by Angelica and Eliza’s actors: Renée Elise Goldsberry and Phillipa Soo respectively. The two actors play the Schuyler sisters in a more progressive and modern manner. They actually take agency within the story, further establishing a contemporary community within an old story, which invites the audience to share in this sense of community. The women are just as revolutionary as the men and they actively make choices that affect Hamilton’s community. For example, when Hamilton publishes The Reynold’s Pamphlet, the audience is encapsulated with Phillipa Soo’s intense and engaging rendition of “Burn,” forever changing the dynamic of the community we see onstage. Eliza’s decision to leave Hamilton tarnishes his legacy and conveys that she can be independent of him. Similarly, it is Eliza, not Hamilton, that carries on their family legacy in “Who Lives, Who Dies, Who Tells Your Story.” Phillipa Soo creates depth to Eliza that gains sympathy and further support from the audience to the community in Hamilton.

Finally, honor plays a large role in the building of community within Hamilton. Three duels take place over the course of show, all with the intention of defending and accusing the honor of those involved. The first duel is between Charles Lee, an American General whose cowardice was responsible for the death of hundreds of troops, and Hamilton’s good friend John Laurens. Hamilton challenges Lee to the duel after Lee audaciously blamed his failures on George Washington. Therefore, Hamilton is defending Washington’s (and subsequently, his own) honor. The second duel was between Hamilton’s son Philip and a blabbermouth named George Eacker. Hamilton supported the duel with his son in order to protect his honor. And finally, the last duel was with Hamilton himself, defending his own honor against Aaron Burr. In all of these cases, Hamilton was defending his honor and legacy. Hamilton’s obsession with his legacy creates a relationship, a community, among his inner circle that is an “open-book.” Everyone in Hamilton hopes to be well-remembered, but Hamilton’s legacy holds more validity, for he keeps himself honest throughout the show. The audience trusts the account of Hamilton’s life because they learn to trust Hamilton himself. Whether in regard to the duels or The Reynolds Pamphlet, Hamilton is honest, while the outside community is not. Burr usurps Philip Schuyler’s (Hamilton’s father-in-law) position in the senate and, along with Jefferson and Madison, tries to blackmail Hamilton. Again, Hamilton’s community is contrasted with those against him, which goes to unite the audience on his side, despite his flaws.

There’s no doubt as to why Hamilton was such a success on Broadway. Of course, Hamilton’s music and acting are prestigious, but more than that, Miranda creates a community on stage that the audience can easily relate to. Miranda expertly bridges the gap between an old story and a modern world by including contemporary social issues such as racial discrimination, women’s rights, and integrity. He accomplishes this via his writing and casting choices. Hamilton’s cast is made up of a majority of actors of color. Similarly, though not as historically accurate, he gives the women in Hamilton agency and depth. Beyond that, Hamilton continuously unites the audience behind an unlikely protagonist: an “Arrogant immigrant, orphan / Bastard, whoreson,” by creating a likable community onstage around Hamilton that is readily supported by the audience, and contrasting it with other communities, rivals, with less appealing characteristics.  

Hamilton- Casting, Culture, and Racial Support

By Ben Damir

Most plays and musicals that explode from the theatrical world into broader American culture have not needed cultural or social relevance to succeed. Just look at the top grossing musicals and you’ll see – The Lion King, Wicked, The Phantom of the Opera – all decent shows, but each generally disconnected from the world at the time of their release. What made Lin-Manuel Miranda’s hit 2015 musical Hamilton so much more than any of these other shows was its emphasis on current racial issues. Highly publicized KKK rallies, black activist movements, and protests swamped the year of its release, giving Hamilton the perfect opportunity to discuss these weighty questions of race. It was catchy, well-written, beautifully choreographed, and as successful critically as it was socially and fiscally. Yet between the incomprehensible amount of money it made, its 16 Tony nominations, 11 wins, and Pulitzer, Hamilton’s greatest achievement came in the form of its racial implications and empowerments. Hamilton empowers people of color by disrupting norms regarding historical racial accuracy, by celebrating black bodies and legitimizing black culture to wider audiences, and by paving the way for a culture of equity rather than equality. 

We all know those theatre-goers that get caught up on the littlest things. You try to talk about the meaning of the show, and they’re still stuck laughing about the time a cue was late or a microphone gave feedback. Hamilton’s success brought a similar group of individuals that could not seem to get over the casting of historically white figures as people of color. Now, I could argue all of the things that Hamilton gained by having a racially underrepresented cast (and indeed I will!), but first I’d like to reflect on the reverse. What did it miss out on by not having a white cast? Whiteness with a historically white group of people is the default, the assumption. But Hamilton proved that casting black actors to tell white people’s stories does not diminish those stories in the slightest. The narratives are true to history, and offer unique perspectives from a group of people whose perspectives have been ignored throughout history. Although the actions of the founding fathers may have caused centuries of harm to the actors and their families, they did not allow their hardships to flatly villainize anyone, but rather to consciously inform them. The actors ultimately played the founding fathers as human. Far from perfect, but not evil. They had flaws, they had triumphs, they had hopes, and families, and lives. The cast’s diversity opened up room for a plethora of character interpretations, and broke down a wall of racial casting that clearly did not need to exist to begin with, instead favoring race-conscious casting. Among the clearest examples of racially-conscious casting choices and subsequent character interpretations are Samuel Seabury and King George III, as played by Thayne Jasperson and Jonathan Groff respectively. These white actors enjoyed positions of power in their connection to British royalty, and cast the revolutionaries as the minority population- the underdogs. Audiences are encouraged to empathize with the underdog, particularly since these underdogs are widely considered national heroes. By casting the patriots as people of color, a connection is established between these two oppressed groups across history- American revolutionaries and people of color. Audiences of all ethnicities see a bit of themselves onstage and empathize with the characters, all while subconsciously supporting an interracialism that America frequently lacks. 

Hamilton supported black culture in several ways, notably in its respect for black bodies and black art. Nowhere in the show are black bodies confined to the sidelines or played down in costuming and makeup, as can be found in dozens of shows where race is not central to the plot. The founding fathers may have actually worn powdered white wigs, but in Hamilton they make no attempt to cover their natural black hair. On several instances throughout the show, particularly during “Cabinet Battle #1,” Daveed Diggs, actor for Thomas Jefferson, even pats his hair playfully, using it to convey a sense of superiority. Moreover, the simple act of placing black bodies in fancy period costuming when they were barred from such sophistication during the actual period is an empowering and political action. These bodies are then prominently shown, front and center, throughout the show, emphasizing their actors’ positions of power and importance. American culture, and by extension American musicals, has had a history of downplaying or negatively associating black bodies (see also, tokenism and “King Kong” stereotypes), so these empowering notes on black bodies are refreshing and long overdue.

Another significant aspect of black culture that is recognized in the show is the use of hip hop and rap. Hamilton uses these genres for nearly every song throughout the show, serving the double purposes of bringing excitement to otherwise dry content and representing the diverse cast and cultures that make up the show. Let’s face it- people writing essays and going to meetings are not exciting topics for a musical (1776 proved that- sorry!), so incorporating high energy, fast-paced musical forms serves to liven up some potentially boring moments. The diverse casting is also represented and appreciated through the use of the historically black genres of rap and hip hop. These genres have long been scorned by white audiences, particularly older generations, of whom 61% said that “rap music is not real music” in a debate.org online poll. Hamilton did not single-handedly fix this close-minded perception of rap music, but it did open up the genre to a larger audience and prove that it is as legitimate as any other form of musical self-expression. Perhaps not everybody enjoyed the lyrical style and quick beats, but the show at least dispelled some racist notions that rap and hip hop were genres based in sex, drugs, and violence. By writing lyrically genius rap songs about many older Americans’ heroes, Lin-Manuel Miranda forced them to acknowledge that the genres were capable of legitimate music. Yet culture was not the only thing that Hamilton brought to the world- it paved the way for genuine racial equity. 

Whenever I discuss the concept of equity, I ask people to envision a foot race, between a black man and a white man. In the first centuries of the race, the white man jogged steadily, while the black man was bound at the starting line by heavy chains. Eventually, some of the chains were removed, and every once in a while more chains would come off. Nevertheless, the chains were never fully gone, and the white man had already gotten a massive head start. Equality, as the current American system would have it, would be removing the black man’s chains and letting him run freely. Equity would be boosting the black man up to wherever the white man is, and allowing the two of them to continue running from an equal starting point. While both cases maintain that the black man’s chains should be removed, only the latter addresses how far ahead the white man got in his multi-century head start. Among Hamilton’s great achievements in racial justice was its equity-based casting call, which called for “NON-WHITE men and women…” The show’s artistic vision required that the actors be people of color, but the audition notice nevertheless stirred up controversy and prompted calls of reverse racism. There is not enough space in this essay to explain why reverse racism isn’t a real thing, so let it suffice to say that it isn’t. By supporting people of color in particular, Hamilton gave them power in an industry that has historically failed to adequately represent them time and time again (see The King and I and every other incorrectly cast character of color). It gave acknowledgement to the fact that color-blindness is not a real way to fix generational racism, poverty, and oppression, and that the only way to move to true equality is to help the marginalized get on equal footing with those in power. More than that, Hamilton was one of the clearest recent examples of equity and race-consciousness; since then, focus on equity has increased dramatically, even resulting in legislative measures to address racially-connected cycles of poverty, such as CA Prop 16 and Portland’s Racial Equity Steering Committee. I should specify that Hamilton did not invent the idea of equity or pioneer it, but its casting was a source of controversy that exposed a lot of people to it. More than that, the production put its money where its mouth is, and actively included marginalized groups to create a unique perspective and wildly successful production. 

Perhaps Hamilton’s greatest achievement was making all of these intense social comments right underneath our noses. Audiences may sometimes have had to wrap their minds around black actors playing the founding fathers, or this or that regarding the casting calls, but after accepting those points, people loved the show. It’s been out for only 5 years and it’s already #7 in the list of highest grossing Broadway musicals, losing only to productions that have been running for significantly longer. I have no doubt that nearly all the readers of this essay could sing at least a few Hamilton songs all the way through, and am certain that more than a few could recite the entire show. So ultimately, Hamilton’s greatest successes in racial development and respect came from its great successes socially, critically, and financially, and vice versa. People loved seeing the show because it was beautiful and moving, and in that enjoyment gained some minor understanding of its racial points. It would have been easy to impart the show’s messages through a simple play or politically charged musical revue, but by thinly veiling them beneath the show’s catchiness and lovability, Hamilton reached untold audiences and imbued its messages with fun, grace, and charm.