It’s May 12, 2009. President Obama has organized the first ever “An Evening Poetry, Music, and the Spoken Word” event at the White House, where poets, playwrights, actors and musicians packed the East Room to celebrate an array of American artists. At the end of the night, Lin-Manuel Miranda took the stage to perform a previously unheard song. “I’m actually working on a hip-hop album--a concept album--about the life of someone who embodies hip-hop,” he said. “Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton.” Laughter fills the room, and once the performance starts it is transformed to awe and applause. One can see what happens next on YouTube, where the performance’s video has garnered over two million views.
Seven years after Miranda’s performance at the White House, Hamilton has become the most coveted Broadway ticket--resell tickets range between $650 and $1,700 in Stubhub--, especially after receiving countless positive reviews and garnering a record-breaking 16 nominations for this year’s Tony Awards. The recognitions continue to add up for the show and its creator; among them are the 2016 Pulitzer Prize for a distinguished play, and the 2015 MacArthur Genius Grant. Using Ron Chernow’s 2004 Alexander Hamilton biography as its main historical source, the hip-hop musical brings to life the founding era of the United States. The show tells the story of “The ten-dollar founding father without a father” and follows him from his beginning as “a bastard, orphan, son of a whore and a Scotsman” in the Caribbean, through his days serving George Washington during the Revolutionary War, his political career and downfall, until his death in a duel with Vice-President Aaron Burr.
In this article I would like to address the issues of representation around the most talked-about musical in recent times, one of them being the choice of casting outside racial categories and the reaction this has generated. “This is a story about America then, told by America now,” Miranda explains, “and we want to eliminate any distance between a contemporary audience and this story.” This can be seen in different aspects in the show, as we will later explore. Also, it is impossible to talk about the show without addressing its popularity. Is the show's incommensurable success becoming its own worst enemy? Are we expecting too much from a piece of musical theater? Could it be that after decades of misrepresentation in the entertainment industry and the lack of colored bodies in leading roles this situation is expected to be corrected, all of a sudden, with one Broadway show?
If we understand that postmodern aesthetics have a layered set of meanings awaiting to be decoded, then Hamilton definitely functions as a postmodern piece of musical theater. On a first level reading, the show is straightforwardly telling us the story of Alexander Hamilton, as its name explicitly lets us know. But, a closer reading of the show as a media text reveals a meta quality to it, deeply rooted in two very different genres (or worlds): musical theater and hip-hop. This merging of such different worlds can be appreciated in the characters’ original casting notices. For example, Alexander Hamilton is described as “Eminem meets Sweeney Todd,” while George Washington is a combination of musician John Legend and Mufasa from The Lion King.
The use of not only hip-hop, but also pop music, R&B, and even a few pop culture references or homages widens the show’s appeal, making it approachable to audiences that are not usually familiar or interested in musical theater. These shout-outs serve, in part, as invitations, a way of letting people from diverse backgrounds know that the show is meant for them. But, they also function as a “way of saying that American history can be told and retold, claimed and reclaimed, even by people that don’t look like George Washington and Betsy Ross.” It is important to note that the grand majority of Broadway’s audience is white, and, due to the high ticket prices, Hamilton’s audience is no exception.
Even when the show has been described as “groundbreaking” in more reviews than I have been able to count, Hamilton has many elements of the musical theater canon that once again make it safe for traditional audiences to engage with. For example, right at the beginning of the first act, Hamilton embeds itself in the classical structure of musical theater with an “I want” song, one of those numbers in which the protagonist gets to share with the audience his/her deepest desires that will propel the plot. “My Shot” is in every sense of its words an “I want” song. As composer Steven Schwartz explains, “I have learned over the years that pretty much any successful musical you can name has an "I Want" song for its main character within the first fifteen or so minutes of the show.” By using tropes such as this one, Miranda uses conventional structure elements to tell the story he wants to tell, thus not alienating a more traditional audience with his use of more elements that are being considered as groundbreaking.
Yet, he also takes some of these tropes and twists them around to get tell the story he wants to tell. The musical theater canon offers many ways to depict the courtship between Elizabeth Schuyler and Alexander Hamilton. We have seen and heard the story time and time again: a poor, illegitimate, unsophisticated young man chases after the rich, beautiful, young girl. A grand dance is ensured. That is exactly what happens, as the song “A Winter’s Ball” explicitly states. But in Helpless Miranda infuses this trope with street style. “Lin uses the conventions of a pop song to help a 21st century audience understand 18th-century social distinctions." Following a tradition that started in the 90s of having a hip-hop artist sing a duet with an R&B singer--think about Melle Mel with Chaka Khan, Mary J. Blige and Method Man, Beyonce and Jay Z--, the song still follows the conventions of this subgenre, the performance follows the demands of musical theater: there’s a meeting, a courtship, a wedding, all in the 4 minutes that the song takes. The next song, Satisfied, rewinds the narratives to the first encounter between Angelica and Hamilton. This way, the show reminds us that history looks very different depending on who's telling it.
Another level of metatextuality lies in the casting choices, which has been discussed at length whenever the show is addressed. The show’s only white lead is England’s King George III. Its title character is played by either Lin-Manuel Miranda or Javier Muñoz, both actors of Puerto Rican descent. Other leads--Leslie Odom Jr. as Aaron Burr, Daveed Diggs as both the Marquis de Lafayette and Thomas Jefferson, Christopher Jackson as George Washington, Phillipa Soo as Elizabeth Schuyler, and Renée Elise Goldsberry as Angelica Schuyler--are all black or biracial. At its core, Hamilton is a white story entertainingly told that, even if it was not the creator’s main intention--when asked if he wanted to make a political statement by using a racially diverse cast, Lin-Manuel Miranda explained that since Hamilton was first a concept album he looked for people capable of having the vocal range the songs required--, makes a powerful statement about racial relations in the US. Not only is it a statement regarding access to these roles, it also claims this part of American history as their own in terms of representation.
These choices also create a postmodern narrative that lives unspoken in the play. When the viewer sees the founding fathers played by black men, the contradiction these colored bodies present is revealed. Men who owned slaves until they died, yet clearly carved a path for democracy in the United States are being played by black men. Actors who, had been born in another time, could have very well been enslaved by the founders. Though it may seem to be that way, the cast is not playing to be white, they are commenting on whiteness. They are also commenting on status, class, gender and opportunity in the US--both in the time of the founders and now.
In what probably is the strongest critique of the show, Rutgers Professor Lyra Monteiro argues that the main issue with Hamilton is its use of “Founders Chic” as a representational strategy. “Founders Chic” is a popular trend among historical writing that studies the most prominent members of the revolutionary generation of the United States, also known as the Founding Fathers, that tends to mythologize their figures and downplay their involvement in controversial issues, like slavery. As H. W. Brands from The Atlantic explains, “In revering the Founders we undervalue ourselves and sabotage our own efforts to make improvements--necessary improvements--in the republican experiment they began. Our love for the Founders leads us to abandon, and even to betray, the very principles they fought for." But although Hamilton might stem directly from this trend at some level Hamilton does what Brands is calling for. For example, in the song “Dear Theodosia” Burr and Hamilton are discussing the republican experiment they have just started and that they are both leaving as their legacy for their children. Yet, Burr is quick to acknowledge that in the process he--they--“will make a million mistakes.” Granted, it is a short line said by the show’s antagonist, yet it reveals a sliver of self-criticism from one of the leads.
Having said that, one of the most powerful discussions of slavery, and that would have probably helped create a more accurate depiction of the founding fathers, was cut from the show. The book on the making of the show includes the lyrics to the previously unreleased third Cabinet Battle, in which Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton rap against one another over the issue of slavery. The rap goes:
Jefferson: The constitution clearly states / That the states have to wait/ Until eighteen-oh-eight to debate / That's the price we paid / For the southern states to participate / In our little independence escapade / We made concessions to the the south to make them less afraid / You rake away our property? Secession talk will escalate / But for a second let us say that we can legislate / Unanimous emancipation, freedom reigns, and yes, it's great / We cannot cure prejudice or righteous, desperate hate / So back to Africa or do they get a separate state? / It's a sin, it's growing like a cancer / But we can't address the question if we do not have an answer.
Hamilton: Is it my turn? Good / Plantation states are packed with promise makers / Do you realize the precious time these legislators wasted? / Institutionalizing slavery only multiplied our troubles / Wait till the 1800's, and their population doubles / You all know / This is the stain on our soul and democracy / A land of the free? No, it's not, it's hypocrisy / To subjugate, dehumanize a race, call 'em property / And say that we are powerless to stop it, can you not foresee? / Sir, even you, have hundreds of slaves / Whose descendants will curse our names when we're safe in our graves / How will the south find labor for its business? / How will Thomas Jefferson find his next mistress?
(…) Madison: Hamilton, if we support emancipation / Every single slave owner will demand compensation / And as for slandering Jefferson with talk of mistresses / Do you really wanna-
Washington: I've heard enough, gentlemen. You can go. / Slavery's too volatile an issue. We won't get through it.
It is indeed unfortunate that this rap had to be left out. According to Miranda, due to the pacing of the show and how this third rap battle halted the narrative, it had to be left out. Because, as he explained, “None of them did anything about slavery. Even Hamilton who was an abolitionist didn’t put it above his financial plan.” Had the show’s criticism differed if this scene had been included? It is impossible to know, but it does show that regardless of the legacy the founding fathers, there were issues that they actively chose not to address. I do think that the claims that the show falls under the category of “Founders Chic” would not have gained as much steam as it has if this scene had been included because it shows how the founders chose to not tackle this particular issue, that is also part of their legacy.
Issues regarding cultural and historical memory are also relevant to the show’s narrative. As Monteiro addresses in her critique,
The actors consciously refer to the shaping of historical memory throughout the play, from early references to ‘‘when our children tell our story,’’ to a beautiful, moving scene in which Hamilton’s wife, Eliza, heartbroken at her husband’s betrayal, sings ‘‘I’m erasing myself from the narrative’’ as she burns her letters. The play’s final song—and final line—also drives home the importance of the creation of historical narratives: “Who Lives, Who Dies, Who Tells Your Story?
Monteiro forgot to include one of Hamilton’s most powerful lines from “The World Was Wide Enough,” one of the show’s last songs: “Legacy. What is a legacy? It’s planting seeds in a garden you never get to see.” Historical memory and the relationship the characters have with it is at the heart of this show. A recurring theme throughout Hamilton is the question of who gets to tell someone’s story who gets to tell the stories that get retold and become the basis of cultural and, this case, historical, memory. This is explicitly addressed in the lyrics throughout the show and subtly done with the change of narrators. According to Michael Rothberg, studies of cultural memory emphasize that memory "requires the active agency of agency and publics." He explains that "Such agency entails recognizing and revealing the production of memory as an ongoing process involving inscription and reinscription, coding and recoding." In other words, memory involves agency, as the multiple characters ponderings on how they hope to be remembered reflect.
As it has been said, since Monteiro's article came out Hamilton has undergone criticism for its historical inaccuracies, its failure to address slavery directly and its erasure of the role African-Americans played in the country's founding. In a New York Times article, Harvard history Professor Annette Gordon-Reed argues that the show has received "little serious criticism," yet "she love[s] the musical and listen[s] to the cast album every day." This debate, that struggles between the show’s popularity and success as a piece of musical theater with its historical misgivings, relates to what Marita Sturken addresses when discussing cultural memory and the way the past can be given meaning to. “Memory is crucial to the understanding of a culture precisely because it indicates collective desires, needs, and self-definitions," she explains. "We need to ask not whether a memory is true but rather what its telling reveals about how the past affects the present.” Even when Miranda has included Ron Chernow, the historian whose biography inspired the show, as a consultant in his team to maintain historical accuracy, he is quick to note that some of the show’s inaccuracies are for dramatic and narrative purposes.
Having said that, it is important to confront the show’s failure to address slavery directly and to represent it. In her critique, Monteiro questions the universal understanding of the show as racially progressive based solely in the casting choices, while at the same time wondering why no historical people of color fit in the show’s narrative. For her, Hamilton has erased the role African-Americans played in the country's founding. Considering that thanks to an agreement with the Rockefeller Foundation the show is now immersed in an educational initiative favoring underprivileged NYC kids, Monteiro poignantly asks: “Is this the history that we most want black and brown youth to connect with--one in which black lives so clearly do not matter?” But, is it so bad that the kids are using the show as a starting point to engage with history? Though fans have expressed their discomfort with Monteiro’s article and the critical responses that have originated from it, shouldn’t a great work of art demand criticism from those who engage with it?
With Hamilton, Miranda is offering a re-reading of the founding father myth, and, in the process, is making the history exciting and approachable--something that has been complimented by many and has unsettled others. Aja Romano considers that Hamilton functions as a postmodern metatextual piece of fan fiction. What Miranda is doing is what fans (especially science fiction fans) have done for decades: he has reclaimed the canon for the fan’s enjoyment. According to Romano, “Hamilton’s canon is history, and the fan, Miranda, is doing a lot more than simply adapting it. Like the best fanfic writers, he’s not just selectively retelling history--he’s transforming it.” Hamilton is not a pure work of fiction, or of fan fiction, for that matter. It could be thought of as fan non-fiction, “occupying that odd based-on-a-true-story space that we as a culture still don’t really know what to with.” Similar to the discussion around docudramas, where “fact and fiction, reenactment and fantasy” are combined, the line between the factual liberties the creators can take and sticking to the true story--or history, in this particular case-- is the basis of a heated debate, as has been discussed.
At the beginning I asked if critics are expecting too much from Hamilton itself and if its success is starting to become its worst enemy. The accolades the show has received, the way it has entered the realm of popular culture and the countless positive reviews, give a sensation that what we have at hand is an untouchable piece of art. Yet, the questions critics have raised are important to address and to consider when reviewing the different layers of meaning embedded in the show. While at no point Miranda’s intention has been to replace history, it has indeed entered the imaginary of many, as the spike in Google searches asking if Alexander Hamilton was white after the Grammy performance in February shows. The show has indeed opened up a discussing about the time period it is depicting and the complexities that “rise up” when representing this particular time in American history. But not only that, by reinforcing the idea that the show is telling the story of the founding of America with the sound and look of today, it is also commenting of issues that are still relevant today. Race, class, immigration, and government control are some of the issues that are represented in the show that are still being discussed today.