Racializing the American Revolution Review of the Broadway Musical Hamilton

Donatella Galella

The new musical Hamilton by composer-writer-star, Lin-Manuel Miranda, received rapturous raves as the savior of the musical art form with crossover potential. Based on Ron Chernow’s biography, Hamilton is a hip-hop, multiracial musical of the founding of the United States, specifically about its first Secretary of Treasury, Alexander Hamilton. The musical opened at the Public Theater in February 2015. It moved to the Richard Rodgers Theatre on Broadway this past summer. The current production is sold out for months. President Barack Obama saw the production, which will host a fundraiser for the Democratic Party on 2 November. But the musical also attracted positive attention from the right. That Lynne Cheney and Rupert Murdoch love Hamilton, we should pause and wonder why.

Artistically brilliant and apparently progressive, Hamilton largely upholds conservative political projects. I found myself profoundly moved by the hip-hop score, well-knit dramaturgy, dynamic staging, and cast that resembled me (Phillipa Soo!), New York City, and the United States. However, the musical also deeply troubled me. The multiracial cast paradoxically flattens difference as the story exaggerates the significance of abolitionism in the American Revolution. At the core, the musical tells a bootstrap narrative insisting that if immigrants and their descendents work hard and are worthy, they will succeed, much like Alexander Hamilton, or Lin-Manuel Miranda had. But allow me to rhapsodize upon Hamilton. The hip-hop-centered score draws from Tin Pan Alley, 60s British pop, R&B, and mega-musicals. References range from Rodgers and Hammerstein to Biggie Smalls. Miranda’s fluency with an array of popular musical genres and repeated motifs produces a compelling, complex, and refreshing score. His previous Broadway musicals, In the Heights and Bring It On, similarly incorporated popular musical styles with musical theatre construction. Miranda is one of few composers on Broadway whose work sounds like what one might hear on pop radio stations.

But In the Heights is by no means the first hip-hop musical. There are predecessors such as the short-lived Tupac-inspired musical, Holler If Ya Hear Me, and the ground-breaking musicalization of the violent histories of African-Americans, Bring in ‘da Noise/Bring in ‘da Funk. Still, Miranda’s score, with its cabinet meeting rap battles, Les Miserables-like drinking songs, and show-stopping numbers like “The Room Where It Happens,” that seamlessly integrate rap and musical composition while driving the story forward, is without question the most accomplished hip-hop musical ever written.

The storytelling of a tour de force scene early in the musical when the two central women fall madly in love with Hamilton at first sight emblematizes the best of Miranda’s dramaturgy, director Thomas Kail’s stage craftsmanship, and choreographer Andy Blankenbuehler’s narrative dance. In the first song, “Helpless,” Phillipa Soo as a deeply sympathetic Elizabeth Schuyler sings of feeling “Helpless” upon meeting Hamilton one night and their subsequent courtship. Soo’s repetitive “I do”’s in the pop song foreshadows their wedding. In the second song, “Satisfied,” Renée Elise Goldsberry as her assertive, clever sister Angelica Schuyler raps and remixes “Helpless,” revealing how she too has fallen in love with Hamilton but chose to support his romantic relationship with Elizabeth. The staging replays yet readjusts the previous courtship scenes. It uses backwards movement and sampling to reveal Angelica’s perspective. The rotating stage quickens the pace and suggests a circular structure to the musical, as the characters revisit history, how it is told, and by whom. The beauty of these scenes left me in tears.

Hamilton is shaped by the themes of “who lives, who dies, who tells your story.” Deeply concerned with his legacy, Hamilton ponders upon death so much “it feels more like a memory.” Aaron Burr, played with charm and gusto by Leslie Odom Jr., serves as the narrator consumed by Hamilton’s success and death by his hand. By having three duels structure the musical, Miranda builds in repetition and momentum for the ultimate fight between Hamilton and Burr, the chief way we tend to remember these founding fathers. One of Miranda’s chief projects with this musical is to expand upon that limited memory. He does so by honoring Hamilton and educating popular audiences about his history, especially to make the point that Hamilton was an immigrant of mixed-race background from the Caribbean. Futhermore, Miranda challenges whitened understandings of the history of the United States though he tells a top-down narrative that celebrates hard work and an innate ability to achieve success. Additionally, that approach obscures indigenous and enslaved people who did not triumph as Hamilton did. In some of the opening lyrics, we learn:

The ten-dollar founding father
without a father/
Got a lot farther by working a
lot harder/
By being a lot smarter/
By being a self-starter/
By fourteen, they placed him
in charge of a trading
charter.

It is no great mystery then that this is a story that speaks to the Cheneys and Murdochs of the world. The musical repeatedly encourages entrepreneurship, diligence, and the acts of writing and fighting in wars to “rise up” without acknowledging very real, material obstacles. I worry how this message justifies those with power as deserving, and those without as lazy. I am particularly concerned about how these justifications rationalize the oppression of immigrants, people-of-color, poor and working-class people, and women. Many people in the Unites States and likely in the audience of Hamilton truly believe that the “American dream” may be easily obtained through hard work and savvy, and the musical endorses this belief.

The multiracial cast paradoxically demonstrates fought-for progress and discourages further radical action. The performers are totally amazing, and I want to single out Daveed Diggs who portrays Lafayette and Jefferson with incredible charisma and hilarious repartees. Moreover, seeing people of color in leading and leadership roles is inspiring and life-affirming. Considering that artists of color occupy only twenty percent of roles on and off Broadway, and that those roles tend to be small and/or stereotypical, the creative team of Hamilton should be applauded. At the same time, given that Black, Latina/o, Asian, and mixed-race actors are playing almost exclusively elite White characters, the casting somewhat asks spectators to forget the salience of race and racism to the actual founding of the United States. The actors do not play slaves or indigenous people. Neither do they discuss settler colonialism. In Hamilton, the founding of the United States is the feat of great men.

The cast also includes a couple of White actors whose whiteness tends to go unremarked in reviews. The characters that we are supposed to dislike for their opposition to the colonists’ agitation are Samuel Seabury and King George, both played by white actors. On the one hand, this casting decision progressively overturns the typical move of racializing villains as being of color. On the other, it simplifies—even reverses—the racial politics of rebels versus the English crown and Tory sympathizers. The casting enables a sense of feel-good diversity and pride in the United States.
This troubles me because Hamilton goes to great lengths to portray Hamilton and the founding fathers, Thomas Jefferson aside, as passionate abolitionists who failed to free the slaves only due to bad luck. The musical implies that slavery continued post-Revolutionary War largely because John Laurens, a genuine radical abolitionist, died. Although Hamilton was indeed part of the New York Manumission Society, he had also traded in slaves. Okieriete Onaodowan plays Hercules Mulligan with machismo verve, eliding that his undercover intelligence came largely from one of his slaves. Finally, it was the English who promised freedom (though circumscribed) to Black slaves fighting on their side against the colonists.

I feel compelled to enumerate these points because Hamilton demands that we rejoice in the revolution as a multiracial triumph. This demand resonates with the ways people-of-color are interpolated into the United States national project upon certain conditions of assimilation, celebration, and exploitation. I would argue that we can indeed take pleasure in the seductive score, talented creative team, and virtuosic performers, though we must also critique the contours of this revolution. Let me be clear: the artistry and multiracial cast of Hamilton brilliantly stage an intricate, inclusive history of the founding fathers. At the same time, that artistry cannot be disconnected from the musical’s conservative political messages. Inclusion rests on not only the erasure of dispossessed and enslaved people-of-color as well as the fathers’ implication in institutionalizing slavery but also the celebration of bootstraps success and national patriotism. When Hamilton sings emphatically, “I am not throwing away my shot,” the musical makes it easy for us to forget who never had a shot to throw away.

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