Part I: “History Has Its Eyes on You”
Hamilton The Musical, the newest sensation to hit Broadway is sweeping the nation. It is being touted as a fresh new way to produce a Broadway play, introducing hip hop and rap into the lexicon of musicals. From the very beginnings, Hamilton has been turning heads, moving mountains, and making waves. Its unorthodox lyrics and beats help to give life to key American historical figures. The sick beats of the music are only part of why Hamilton is storming the nation. Of the 10 principle cast members, only one is a white male (in the role of mad King George). Hamilton is a racially diverse cast; one that is very rare amongst the streets of Broadway. Black and Latino actors play key American figures like Hamilton, Washington, Jefferson, Burr, and Madison.
But what makes “Hamilton” work so well is the fact that it’s a commentary on America’s past through the prism of America’s present, its future. It works because the historically white, male founding fathers are being played by a predominantly non-white cast of blacks and Latinos.
It starts during the year 1776. The play goes through the fragile foundational years of America. From the depths of the Revolutionary War, to the growth from colonies to a unified nation, Alexander Hamilton is an equal player alongside the behemoths of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and James Madison. Interwoven through this historical account is Alexander’s personal life. His marriage to Elizabeth Schuyler, his deep friendship with her sister Angelica, and his torrid affair with Maria Reynolds. The play also explores the parallel, antagonistic relationship between Alexander and Aaron Burr. The musical ends with the death of Hamilton in 1804 at the hands of Burr. The incident which will later define Hamilton and Burr in our social historical memory. But it is much more then Hamilton and Burr.
The director Thomas Kail has stated, “This is a story about America then, told by America now.” It deals with the early stages and creations of structures and systems which are alive and well; the federal banking system created by Hamilton, the two party system, the interplay between the federal and state governments. It also highlights something that Lin-Manuel finds essential,
"I think the biggest take away for Hamilton is pretty apolitical one, which gives me hope. We have been fighting about the same stuff for 200 years. Whether it is immigration, whether its foreign policy, whether it’s when are we a state when we are a country?…Learning how much we have been fighting about the same thing…We started fighting about these things, we make strides forward, and we make strides sideways, but we are still talking about these things”
Hamilton is set in the illustrious American past, but is just as relevant today. Issues about representation, gun violence, immigration, and gender equality all play out during the production. The play highlights the fact that Hamilton is an immigrant, who throughout his life will fight that stereotype. His friendship with the Marquis de Lafayette helped the Americans in fighting off the British. They state in the show, “Immigrants, we get the job done.” (Yorktown) This theme has become especially relevant in light of the minority and immigrant verbal attacks done by Donald Trump and his presidential bid.
Hamilton, is based in our past, but can be seen as a way into our future. The dialogue of our nation is as active now as it was when it was forming. As the last song of the play states, “Who lives, who dies, who tells your story?”
Part Two: “You want a revolution, I want a revelation”
Part 1 of this series introduced the phenomena that was sweeping the nation; Hamilton the Musical blending contemporary hip hop to the Broadway musical scores. The show has been breaking barriers with its success, intelligence, and fortitude. Hamilton is showing that a diverse cast can be successful. “Hamilton has created a space on Broadway for black and brown performers that otherwise wouldn’t exist. Opening up roles designed specifically to be played by performers of color means encroaching on that space.” It is showing mainstream that including dialogue surrounding immigration, race, class, and gender equality can be highly successful. The director has stated that this show is about America, past and present and one can look at the cast to see it is true.
Looking at the cast, the diversity is depicting our nation. This diversity is resonating across America. Representation of George Washington and Thomas Jefferson as other than stiff white men, have allowed for a deeper discussion. Discussions of what it means to be American, what it means to be racially diverse. Actor Leslie Odom Jr. (Aaron Burr) talks about the power of Broadway
"We can make it whatever we want it to be. Kids can play adults. And old people can play young people. And black people can play white people and Asian people can play black people. If it’s done with a thoughtfulness and a care and a reason, we can do anything."
People across social media have stated what it means to see women and men of their similar ethnic background being onstage, and in highly positive roles. (One of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s main goals was to write and produce plays which spoke to minority groups.) It is also prudent to mention that since the lyrics and songs were largely written in the mode of hip hop and rap, the actors cast would have to echo that.
"But “Hamilton” is a musical that lives and breathes hip-hop. Its music and diverse cast, juxtaposed with the story of a country just beginning to find its voice, perfectly reflect the complex racial history and identity of America. That’s integral to the story. That’s a non-negotiable."
Lin-Manuel has been very vocal in the importance of the diverse cast. He has also been very vocal in how this show could continue to grow.
In March 2017, Hamilton will start touring across America. It has also been announced that when the musical hits the local theater houses and high schools – the casting calls are open to Non-white casts as well as all roles for all genders.
This is done to continue the push to maintain the diverse cast but it has gone further, it allows for gender to become part of the dialogue. There is now potential in women playing the roles of George Washington, Alexander Hamilton, and so on.
By focusing on a diverse cast, by setting the music to hip hop, Miranda helped place them into the halls of history. History which is open to entire communities which had been denied access to putting themselves into the American narrative.
"It’s amazing that “Hamilton” has managed to capture the hearts and minds of so many people, but it’s also important to remember that, at its core, the show is exploring the ways in which race, ethnicity, and nationality intersect."
Hamilton is successfully showing the core issues of America, which have been present from its very early creation.
Another one of Hamilton’s importance is the female characters. Hamilton’s story and more importantly America’s, is laden with women’s involvement. History books do not show the important roles that Angelica and Eliza Schuyler played. We have correspondences between Angelica, Hamilton, Washington, Jefferson, and Lafayette. Miranda does not shy away from her or her intelligence. During the song “The Schuyler Sisters,” Angelica confronts Aaron Burr in his attempt to woo her that she is a woman with her own mind.
“You want a revolution? I want a revelation. So listen to my declaration. We hold these truths to be self-evident that all men are created equal. And when I meet Thomas Jefferson, I’m going to compel him to include women in the sequel.” (The Schuyler Sisters)
The play is very clear in the fundamental message that all genders and all races are valid.
The show is able to make permanent waves due to its large portions of historical accuracy. Miranda had access to Ron Chernow’s biography as well as historical archives which have preserved the personal correspondences of all the characters in the play. Miranda evens incorporates actual lines written by them into the song lyrics. This has allowed Miranda a space to which to change the narrative. People are eating it alive. Social media has exploded with how through Hamilton, they have looked intin the amount of visitors to the gravesite of Hamilton and the Schuyler Sisters. There is a new initiative o American history and the people that shaped it. Trinity Church in New York has seen a huge increase starting that is allowing students to attend shows at a low price.
Hamilton is changing the narrative with its fresh beats, catchy lyrics, and its diverse vision with its cast.
Part 3: Satisfied
The conclusion of my 3-part post on how the Hamilton musical has changed the narratives and bringing diversity to Broadway. This last piece of the puzzle is how Hamilton has impacted me. I have always had a love of history, yet growing up I struggled with the narratives I was given. I couldn’t find myself within the pages; the people building, defending, and sustaining our nation were far from me.
It wasn’t until I went to a Civil War Reenactment where I was introduced to ‘women’s’ roles in shaping our nation. Since that moment, I have constantly been in search of discovering, highlighting, and researching women’s roles in history. It is in this vein that makes Hamilton such a remarkable thing for me. It is another reason I find art, in all of its expressions, as essential as any academic endeavor. Leslie Odom Jr, the actor portraying Aaron Burr states, “The Power of Art, the power of what we do, can change people’s minds. If it can change your mind, it can change your actions, because you think hopefully before you act.”
Lin-Manuel Miranda could have merely written a play about the founding fathers like every other history book, but he didn’t. One of the main story lines throughout the play is the relationship of the Schuyler Sisters; their relationship as sisters and the relationships they each had with Hamilton. Their dynamic storyline made me go out and research their lives, and what I found was remarkable. Angelica Schuyler Church was the first born daughter of General and politician Philip Schuyler. She was known for her incredible mind and her connections to the ‘big’ players in the American Revolution. The musical sets her up by stating her position, “I’m a girl in a world in which my only job is to marry rich. My father has no sons, so I’m the one who has to social climb for one. I’m the oldest, the wittiest…” (Satisfied) Angelica, finding her intelligent equal and soul mate in Alexander, sacrifices her love to introduce him to her sister Eliza. A beautiful line from the play sings, “I know my sister, like I know my own mind. You will never find anyone as trusting or as kind. I love my sister more than anything in this life. I will choose her happiness over mine every time.”(The Reynolds Pamphlet) Eliza would marry Hamilton and become his champion but like Angelica, Eliza was not solely defined by her connections with men. Renee Elise Goldsberry, the actress who plays Angelica states:
I am proud of the impact of the women on the history of our country. The beauty of the biography by Ron Chernow and the beauty of the work that Lin has done in Alexander Hamilton in really celebrating the women and their impact on the men, and also on history, and the love they had for each other.”
Eliza Hamilton would have 8 children with Hamilton, endure the scandal of Hamilton’s torrid affair, and live to 97. After Hamilton’s death she became active in ensuring Hamilton’s memory by organizing his writings, one of which shows his authorship of George Washington’s Farewell Address. Her most important contribution was establishing the first private orphanage in New York City. Her endeavors can still be seen as a Social Services Organization helping families in NYC today. She helped to raise funds for the building of the Washington Monument. Her role in shaping the nation is one of the lasting things you hear about in the Hamilton Musical. Even this year’s Tony Awards ended with a performance of the Schuyler Sisters.
Reshaping the narrative is one of the hidden keys of the Hamilton Musical. Adding women back into the narrative interweaves with the anti-slavery narrative. John Laurens, Hamilton’s closest friend, was an ardent supporter of ending slavery, as shown in the play, “And but we will never be truly free until those in bondage have the same rights as you and me. You and I do or die, wait until I saddle in on a stallion with the first black battalion.” (My Shot)
Laurens was crucial in recruiting 3,000 black slaves for the Continental army. His untimely death in 1782 and his intense friendship with Hamilton (scholars have alluded to a possible homosexual nature) might have contributed to his absence in history books. The play, in contrast, celebrates a man who understood that true freedom, means freedom for ALL.
Professor George D. Massey from the University of South Carolina writes:
"Laurens speaks more clearly to us today than other men of the American Revolution whose names are far more familiar. Laurens believed liberty that rested on the sweat of slaves was not deserving of the name. To that extent, at least, his beliefs make him our contemporary, a man worthy of more attention than the footnote he has been in most accounts of the American Revolution."
Hamilton the Musical understands this and tells the story of his role in shaping America. In reminding the audience that at America’s earliest days, humanity was being fought for – in all its forms. More importantly it is a discussion and fight that is still needed today.
This musical has become a beacon of the progress we have made and the progress still needed. It is a beacon of what art can continually help bring us closer and closer to progress, equality, and freedom. It has satisfied a hole in which history lessons have been lacking. I end this post with a great video of the actresses who play the Schuyler Sisters singing/rapping Feminist quotes.
This blog was originally posted at feminismandreligion.com.