The ‘Hamilton’ revolution
Jennifer Vosters | Wednesday, November 11, 2015
Don’t punch me, but I got to see “Hamilton” on Broadway over fall break.
My head is still spinning over my luck. As we watched history come to life onstage, the audience knew we too were a part of history, part of a seismic shift in the way we approach musical theatre and our own founding story. It was transformative, and I’m not hyperbolizing.
For those of you who don’t know what I’m talking about, you probably will soon: “Hamilton,” the new hip-hop musical biography of Alexander Hamilton, has been taking over national airwaves and social media for the last several weeks. This past weekend alone, writer, creator and star Lin-Manuel Miranda was featured on both “The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon” and “60 Minutes.” The musical been the buzz of New York City since before it opened at the Public Theatre in February, exploding to new heights when it transitioned to Broadway last summer. Even the most famous have become fans: Beyoncé and Jay-Z raved about it, and President Obama has seen it twice.
It’s the story of the orphaned immigrant genius who wrote himself out of poverty and obscurity to become one of the most influential men in American history, a story that today can only be told with the wit and grit of hip-hop, according to Miranda. And whether you like rap or not, the soundtrack is spectacular: brilliant lyrics, a story so compelling you can’t believe it’s true (it is) and a beat that’s downright dope.
But what struck me most about “Hamilton” is how it has made the past progressive. It has brought revolutionary America into contemporary America by portraying the people who created the country then with the people who create the country today.
Alexander Hamilton is played by Miranda, the son of Puerto Rican immigrants. The roles of Thomas Jefferson, Aaron Burr and James Madison — among others — are performed by black actors. Women and men are cast as Continental and British soldiers. And the stories of the women behind the Revolution — notably the Schuyler sisters, played by African and Asian American actors — are front and center, driving many of the show’s most dramatic moments, beautiful songs and blazing wordplay.
Today’s minorities, today’s immigrants and children of today’s Hamiltons are all reclaiming the founding story of America, a story from which they were excluded as it was written. The radical inclusivity of “Hamilton” is twofold. From a production standpoint, it brings in white actors and actors of color, male actors and female actors, to play the revolutionaries who established America – most of whom were white, many of whom were slave-owners and all of whom were male. From a story standpoint, it highlights the roles and the lives of women – Elizabeth Hamilton, Angelica Schuyler and Maria Reynolds – to bring back into the narrative voices that have faded from history books. It also foregrounds issues of slavery and immigration, bringing modern attention to questions that began at the nation’s founding and continue today.
I wrote in August about the need for more inclusion of women and people of color in theatre and film. There is still a pressing need. But shows like “Hamilton” — not that there are any others quite like it — are success stories that need to be celebrated. Lin-Manuel Miranda didn’t have to write a show about a group of people from vastly different cultural backgrounds to address this need. All he did was tell the story he wanted to tell – the life of Alexander Hamilton and the founding of America – without landlocking himself by seeking a particular “look,” drawing from a much wider talent pool by considering actors of all races, ethnicities and genders. In fact, the “look” of “Hamilton” is the absence of one: Everyone is invited and included. Everyone’s story is told.
“Hamilton” is crucially important because it is shattering our expectations not just of what Broadway musicals sound like, but of what they look like – and it works. It defies the fears of theatre and film creators who are afraid that casting actors of color won’t sell tickets; it’s leaving box office records in the dust, gathering an army of obsessed fans and spreading its message of unity and possibility to a country that needs it. And the producers of “Hamilton” know it; they’ve begun an initiative, supported by the Rockefeller Foundation, that will allow 20,000 high-schoolers from New York City to attend student-only workshops and productions of “Hamilton” for just $10 – the note with Hamilton’s face on it – to bring this new phase of the American stage to the next generation.
So jump on Spotify or iTunes and give the “Hamilton” soundtrack a listen. Celebrate the bright, brilliant future of an American theatre production that speaks to and about all Americans. Join the revolution.
The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.