Kendra James’s previous work for The Toast can be found here.
The first Republican Presidential debate for the 2016 presidential campaign aired while Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton, a musical about the life of Alexander Hamilton, celebrated its opening night on Broadway. While Bobby Jindal declared that “immigration without assimilation is invasion,” an opening night audience watched a musical about the Founding Fathers that rests on an ideal explicitly stated in the first act: “Immigrants / We get the job done.”
Hamilton opens with the same lines that Miranda performed as Aaron Burr, unfinished, for President Obama in 2009: “How does a bastard, orphan / son of a whore and a Scotsman / dropped into the middle of a / forgotten spot in the Caribbean / by Providence, impoverished, in squalor / grow up to be a hero and a scholar?” But instead of standing alone, on Broadway, Burr (Leslie Odom Jr.) is joined by Miranda and the rest of the cast. Imagine a stage filling slowly, populated by characters plucked directly from history: Aaron Burr, George Washington, Marquis Gilbert de Lafayette, Angelica and Elizabeth Schuyler, and others — all white in historical reality, but here imagined as people of color. Imagine a Broadway stage where the only white featured lead is King George III, the one common enemy of everyone onstage telling this story about the struggle to first found and then succeed in America. None of them are dressed as lions, and that you’re not sitting through yet another iteration of A Raisin in the Sun to find some diversity onstage — Hamilton is new, fresh and original and, despite the fact that it’s set over two hundred years ago, it sounds decidedly like today.
You could spend weeks trying to pick out every single hip-hop and musical theatre reference Miranda deploys while he’s weaving genres together to create Hamiton. Plenty of people spent their week doing just that when the cast album dropped early on NPR, asking about everything from a Parade homage to the meaning of a well-placed comma. There are enough influences and hat-tips that Miranda will be releasing his show notes in book form this March. Appropriate, given that an 800-page tome of a biography by Ron Chernow, Alexander Hamilton (2005), provided Miranda’s inspiration for the show in the first place.
Despite seeing the show in January and again February, it seemed wrong to me to write about it until now. The melodies, which repeat often, certainly stayed with me, but there was no way to catch every connection that makes Hamilton both musically and politically relevant in just two viewings. On the other hand, it takes only one listen to figure out that Donald Trump will not be one of the show’s numerous fawning audience members or backstage guests. In fact, I’m convinced that every time you listen to the cast recording straight through, one of Trump’s Horcruxes is destroyed. The pro-immigration message of Hamilton is at the forefront — with Hamilton, Miranda tells a story that not at all uncommon: a young immigrant arrives in America and makes his mark in American politics. It’s a story that Miranda saw firsthand growing up (Miranda’s father spoke little English when he left Puerto Rico at the age of 17; he is now a Democratic political consultant).
Democrat or Republican, it should be impossible to deny the impact immigrants have had and continue to have on the political landscape of America. Hamilton arrives in the midst of a conversation about immigration that too often devolves into an Us vs. Them narrative – a framework that seeks to deny and outright dehumanize the full American immigrant experience. In Miranda’s show, Alexander Hamilton constantly reminds us that he too is an immigrant, looking to have an impact in his adopted country. Here, the brilliance of the casting extends beyond the novelty of diversity. America is a nation of immigrants, and Hamilton begins at the start of the Revolution, not even 200 years after Jamestown was settled in 1607. Lifespans were shorter, but these were still recent immigrants living on stolen land. The cast of Black, Latina, and Asian American leads emphasizes not only the reality of who actually built and expanded America (“we all know who’s really doing the planting,” Hamilton spits at Jefferson during Act 2), but also how irrelevant the Founding Fathers’ whiteness is to their claim on the country. For in Miranda’s Hamilton, America is claimed not by white men, but by the people of color onstage: “I’m just like my country / I’m young, scrappy and hungry / and I’m not throwing away my shot.”
This is part musical, part protest music; characters rap their way through songs with themes and lines that wouldn’t be entirely out of place at a Black Lives Matter protest (“and though I’ll never be truly free / until those in bondage got the same rights as you and me”) or a Bernie Sanders rally (“They tax us unrelentlessly / Then King George turns around and has a spending spree”). Both lyrics come from “My Shot,” a song that turns into a rallying cry for protest and revolution: “Rise up / when you’re living on your knees / you rise up / tell your brother that he’s gotta / rise up / tell you sister that she’s gotta / rise up.” In 2015, it was hard for me to watch so many brown bodies play this scene out onstage and not immediately think of the images that came out of Ferguson.
If Alexander Hamilton is the show’s protester/agitator, then Aaron Burr — with his advice of “talk less / smile more” — is the show’s Respectability Politic. Burr’s lines are quieter, more spoken word than the driving raps performed by Hamilton and the other revolutionaries like Lafayette, Hannibal, and Laurens. In “Farmer Refuted,” Hamilton shouts down the Tory representative Seabury rather like Marissa Johnson and Mara Willaford with Bernie Sanders in Seattle, while Burr urges “let him be.” Burr’s philosophy is mapped out perfectly here: “Geniuses, lower your voices / You keep out of trouble and you double your choices / I’m with you but the situation is fraught / You’ve got to be carefully taught / If you talk you’re gonna get shot.” It’s a “you catch more flies with honey than vinegar” strategy that mirrors accusations from GOP candidates like Ben Carson that the Black Lives Matter movement is too “divisive.”
But it’s the urgency to force change – the kind of urgency that has prompted the BLM protests, and interrupted presidential campaign stops, and inspired constant chatter on social media platforms – that Miranda captures perfectly at the end of Act 1 in “Non-Stop.” I’ve listened to Hamilton around twenty times since last Monday, so it wasn’t a coincidence that I was listening to “Non-Stop” when Shaun King recently detailed the shooting of Jeremy Mcdole by Delaware police on Twitter. Everyday acts of injustice like this give Black Lives Matter (“Scratch that / this is not a moment, it’s the movement”) its urgency, which Miranda captures in lyrics coupled, in the case, with the kind of rhythm I distinctly remember kids beating out on tables in my high school’s cafeteria: “Why do you write like you’re running out of time? Why do you write like you’re running out of time? Write day and night like you’re running out of time? Ev’ry day you fight like you’re running out of time.”
It’s the same urgency I feel when I see, almost daily, new reports of police brutality towards people of color. I do feel like we might be running out of time whenever a GOP candidate is given a platform to say “I’m assuming that if you accept all the tenets of Islam you would have a very difficult time abiding under the Constitution of the United States” (Dr. Ben Carson), or “We’re rounding ’em [immigrants] up in a very humane way, in a very nice way” (Donald Trump). Mindsets like this create the atmosphere that necessitates the existence of BLM and humane immigration reform. Why do we write and fight like we’re running out of time? Because with every Sandra Bland, every family traumatically split by deportation, it seems like we are.
Hamilton isn’t the first show to employ a colorblind cast. It’s not even the first show on 46th Street to do it. The latest production of Les Miserables opened in 2014 before Hamilton moved into the theatre next door, and its cast of revolutionaries (which included leads of Hatian, Persian, and Maori descent) is diverse for a Broadway stage — but it its style and staging is still Eurocentric. Hamilton, in contrast, pairs its remarkable casting with a book and music that make it the “first authentic hip-hop show,” according to Questlove, who produced the cast album. There’s no mistaking the point of view Hamilton aims to capture; Miranda has brilliantly reframed the familiar American Founding Father narrative so that it not only focuses explicitly on the contributions of immigrants, but people of color as a whole.
One hopes all of this isn’t lost on the overwhelmingly white and wealthy people who make up the majority of Broadway audiences. At upwards of $300 a ticket, Hamilton sits in a strange space where it’s repping a group of people who can’t necessarily afford to come out and see it. Releasing the cast recording for free a week before it was available for purchase was far more accessibility than many Broadway shows would allow. But, as I realized after watching a friend leave the show crying because she was so affected by seeing so many people of color occupying a Broadway stage, the visuals of Hamilton are just as important as the music.
Lin-Manuel Miranda has done what many history curricula fail to do: allow young people of color to see themselves in history. To read Chernow’s biography after seeing Hamilton is the equivalent of starting Game of Thrones after watching five seasons of the show on HBO. Even knowing that the figures in history were actually white men, when I read the book, Leslie Odom Jr. is Aaron Burr; Lin-Manuel Miranda is Alexander Hamilton. To hear Renée Elise Goldsberry (Angelica Schuyler) tell it, the magic works on her six-year-old son just as well: “These characters are what he’s going to think of when he thinks about George Washington and Thomas Jefferson. He will be so surprised when someone hands him a book someday, and he sees pictures of them.”
Elasticity of imagination doesn’t change what I know – that the Founding Fathers are not infallible gods to be worshipped. But it does allow me, and hopefully younger students who hear or see this musical, to start drawing connections between Miranda’s revolutionary Hamilton and current events. While the free release of the cast recording and the daily $10 ticket lotto gets mad props from me, what I really hope is that every student who attends public middle and high school in the New York/New Jersey area can take a field trip to see this show, because the value of Hamilton as a teaching tool can’t be overstated. I happened to love American history in school, but as a black woman I was never encouraged to see myself as an active participant in it — at least not until they got to Rosa Parks. Asian Americans often don’t get a mention until the 1940s, or perhaps once America needs railroads if a teacher is particularly enterprising. Listening to Miranda go head to head with Daveed Diggs as Thomas Jefferson in a rap battle fight over the financial structure of the American government might grab the handful of students that a basic textbook missed, and watching Phillipa Soo – the daughter of a first-generation Chinese immigrant – star as Hamilton’s wife, Elizabeth, might court additional interest from some students of color.
The gambling sorts among us should count on Hamilton when it comes time for the office Tony Pool. It’s even better than what you’re hearing on the cast recording, and It’s going to win 99.9% of what it’s nominated for because, politics and timeliness aside, the show is a damned masterpiece. Yet even the gold statues won’t be the summation of the show’s success — for Hamilton’s true legacy will be measured by its influence. While it’s great that Ben Brantley loves Hamilton, the review that matters most will probably be a social media status of some sort, and it will come from a teenager of color with no prior interest in history or musical theatre who has just heard Hamilton for the first time. Maybe they will be the child of an immigrant, like Miranda, or maybe it will be a student from one of the most segregated school systems in the country. The review will go something like this: “!!!!!! Marquis de Laffayette spittin’ Nicki-Minaj-on-Monster level [fire emoji] [fire emoji] [fire emoji] on this track omggggggg
…but for real tho, did Hillary’s bae know about this Reynolds Pamphlet thing? bc I didn’t and it’s on Wiki”
And with that, Hamilton could lose every Tony it’s nominated for, and I’d still count it as a win.