The Hamilton Revolution – #minorityreport

In #minorityreport, Features, FILM, THEATRE & TV, HOME by Melanie Christie

#minorityreport is a feature in which people highlight and discuss the work of a minority person or community in the media. The idea being to highlight the voices of people, too often ignored.

hamilton nytimes cropped

I’m going to admit up front – this #minorityreport is a bit of a cheat. Normally, this feature aims to highlight the work of a minority person or community in the media that has often been overlooked, so that their voice may be heard rather than silenced. This article fits the mould in many ways – it does focus on minorities, and does emphasise the profound impact they have on popular culture, and in the creative sphere. So far, so conventional. However, to argue that the Broadway show I’m about to discuss can in anyway be ignored or silenced is not only completely laughable, but also entirely wrong. It is a musical with such fire, passion and creative flair that it is nigh on impossible to get a ticket. It has grossed more than $60 million at the box office, and has made stars of every member of the cast. Anybody who’s anybody wants to be seen at this show, and the number of celebrities who have gone to see it nightly is enough to make your eyes water.

If you’re not sure which show I’m talking about, I am of course talking about Hamilton.

Before I continue, I want to formally apologise to anyone who has been exposed to my Hamilton obsession over the past few months. The soundtrack has been playing on a constant loop on my Spotify and in my head, and as such has been my go to topic of conversation at almost every social function I’ve attended. In those desperately dark moments of dissertation despair, I would turn to the soundtrack like a safe haven, as if I could wrap myself up in the words in an attempt to escape the fact that I had 10,000 of my own to write (let it be said – if I had felt the same enthusiasm for doing my work as I have for learning the words of Hamilton, I would have been done months ago). As such, I have also approached the writing of this article with a fair bit of trepidation. Perhaps it’s just me, but sometimes writing about something you care about deeply is ten times harder than something you have no emotional connection to, because you can find yourself failing to do it justice. How can one possibly follow up this show’s ingenuity? How do I find the words to encapsulate why it is so important, not just artistically, but socially and culturally, for minority communities? I’m not particularly sure I can – but like Alexander Hamilton himself, I’m not going to throw away my shot.

For those who aren’t in the music theatre know-how, Hamilton tells the story of the Founding Fathers of America, focusing particularly on the life and actions of Alexander Hamilton, the country’s first Treasury Secretary. It shows his rise to power during the American Revolution, and his untimely demise at the hands of his political frenemy Aaron Burr (played by Leslie Odom Jr, the new musical love of my life).

It all sounds pretty straightforward as far as musicals go – however, there’s a twist. Almost all of its characters are played by people of colour, and the soundtrack consists of a mix of rap, R&B and hip-hop tunes. Political debates and cabinet meetings are fought through intense rap battles, and every major American political figure in the show is portrayed as non-white. For example, George Washington, the First President of the United States, is played by biracial actor Christopher Jackson. To say that this level of representation is radical would be an understatement. The language of the American Revolution is itself translated into the revolutionary hip-hop vernacular, and this in turn allows the cast to create a show that is not just creatively bold, but politically charged too. American history is completely reimagined, and yet at the same time the musical remains true to its historical roots by translating the excitement of the revolution into a mode that modern audiences will understand. To be quite frank, it’s nothing short of genius.

buzzfeed hamilton castThe multi-ethnic cast in all their splendour.

It is quite fitting, then, that the life story of a political genius should be put on the stage by a man who is himself something of a prodigy. The musical is the brainchild of Lin-Manuel Miranda, Tony-winning writer, composer and star of the Broadway sensation In the Heights. He first came up with the idea seven years ago whilst reading Ron Chernow’s 2004 biography of Hamilton’s life on holiday in Mexico. Immediately he was struck by the parallels that existed between Hamilton – an illegitimate immigrant from the West Indies who was able to escape his situation through the power of his rhetoric – and the hip-hop narrative, where disadvantaged and minority musicians have written their way out of desperate circumstances into success. He was surprised to find that no one had yet come up with the idea when he Googled ‘Alexander Hamilton hip-hop musical’, and so took it upon himself to realise this idea into vision.

The rest is history. Miranda spent a whole year working on the first song, which he would later perform in 2009 at the White House for President Barack Obama. The video of this encounter has now become somewhat iconic, given the musical’s ensuing success. The nervous titters emitted by the crowd, followed by their resounding adulation and applause, has set the par for the course. It’s one of those shows where you enter into it feeling a little apprehensive, and leave wondering why no one has ever done it before.

I could write pages and pages on Miranda’s musical and linguistic ingenuity, as well as the pitch perfect performances of each and every single cast member. However, the musical’s use of race, its celebration of hip-hop culture, and its commentary on immigration means that its importance transcends far beyond its musical flourish. Hamilton exists not just as a commemoration of American history, but as a celebration of the position of ethnic minorities and immigrants within this historical narrative. To put it simply, Miranda places minority voices back into the narrative, and by extension creates a space in which these voices can connect to their shared American heritage, regardless of race, ethnicity or background.

For one thing, he doesn’t shy away from the fact that racial diversity is the cornerstone of modern America, as the work strongly emphasises Hamilton’s immigrant roots. The character arrives in New York in 1773, a bright eyed teenager with almost nothing to his name, and through his intelligence and political drive he makes a life for himself in a newly independent America. The powerful pro-immigrant message of the show is neatly underlined in the first act by Hamilton and French nobleman Lafayette, who happily proclaim ‘Immigrants / We get the job done!’ Hamilton’s incredible life story as an immigrant resonates in many ways with Miranda’s own experience, as he himself comes from an immigrant family. His own father moved to America not knowing a word of English, and he rose to become a political advisor. To watch the video of Miranda’s first White House performance knowing this, and knowing the cultural impact Hamilton has had since, is nothing short of electrifying. There is something particularly heart throbbing and beautiful in seeing the son of an immigrant passionately rapping about another famous immigrant, and before the first black President in America’s history, who himself comes from an immigrant family.

hamilton nprThe cast of Hamilton celebrates winning the 2016 Grammy for Best Musical Theatre Album, whilst cast member Anthony Ramos proudly flies the Puerto Rican flag.

And this is where the magic of Hamilton lies. Not only does it use its primarily black and hispanic cast to remind theatre audiences that American history is not just the history of white people, it also celebrates the contribution that has been made by all who have been ignored and erased by white historiography. The multi-ethnic characters presented on stage remind us that immigrants are people, and that they have played an important role in the construction of America’s national identity – a timely reminder, when one considers that there’s the possibility of Obama being replaced by Donald ‘I’m going to build a wall’ Trump.

Miranda’s racially charged masterpiece also challenges the lack of diversity on stage today, as it is a truth universally acknowledged that the musical scene is saturated with white roles. Casting calls for leading roles are often primarily targeted towards caucasian actors, whilst minority characters and actors are side-lined. Miranda, a man of Puerto Rican descent, understood that there were only certain roles he would be able to fill as a music theatre actor, and so he harnessed this racial impetus to create musicals and roles in which he and other actors like him could truly shine. His writing of In the Heights, and now Hamilton, was a direct response to the lack of diversity being shown on stage. By having traditionally white parts played by people of colour, Miranda exposes not only how minorities have been oppressed and omitted in both historical and contemporary rhetoric, but also how easy it is to create greater opportunities for minority actors in the world of theatre, contrary to popular traditions. Hamilton can thus be viewed as part of a larger trend towards reflecting the world as it truly is, in all its diversity and variety. As Hamilton proclaims in the musical, ‘This is not a moment, it’s the movement’, and Miranda actively strives towards creating a more democratic and racially empowered voice for the actors and characters alike.

Miranda’s desire to reflect the realities of America today is a concern echoed by his fellow cast mates. Coming from a variety of musical backgrounds, each actor brings to their role a fresh perspective on what it means to be of minority status, both historically and in theatre. A number of the actors cast in Hamilton have also been quoted saying that for the first time they feel a sense of American national identity and pride, something that they previously felt they had been missing through their artistic, cultural and historical repression. Daveed Diggs has stressed how seeing a black man play George Washington has allowed him to feel patriotic for the first time in his life. Renée Elise Goldsberry has also emphasised how the diversity of the show allows for people to connect to the history of America in new and engaging ways, as whitewashed records have made minority communities feel as if they do not share the same American heritage:

Hamilton is a story about America, and the most beautiful thing about it is because its told by such a diverse cast with such diverse styles of music, we have the opportunity to reclaim a history that some of us don’t necessarily think is our own.

Thus, Miranda’s work and its cultural impact on Broadway audiences cannot be underestimated. Hamilton has the power to inspire national pride and a sense of American identity, and by reflecting the United States as they are today, it has also given minority communities the opportunity to engage with their place in America’s past. The show enables people of colour to put themselves back into a narrative from which they have previously been excluded, and thus reclaim their important and significant place in America’s legacy.

These issues of legacy and historical provenance are central to Hamilton, and this theme is crystallised perfectly in the concluding song of the musical, ‘Who Lives, Who Dies, Who Tells Your Story’, in which Alexander’s wife Eliza reflects on her life and her attempts to protect and commemorate her late husband’s memory. She devotes her life to chronicling his work, whilst simultaneously crafting her own legacy by speaking out against slavery and establishing the first private orphanage in New York City. However, she is also acutely aware that the narrative she has spun for herself may not be enough, and she may never be remembered for all the deeds that she has done beyond being Alexander’s wife.

In ending the show in this way, Miranda underlines how we have zero control over who tells our story when we die. We don’t get to decide the parts of our lives that make it to the highlights reel, we don’t pick and choose which of our actions will linger in the minds of the living, and despite our best efforts it is near impossible to forge for ourselves an unimpeachable legacy. We also can’t make sure that our subjective narratives are retold at all, and sometimes our individual experience gets lost in the history books. Hamilton is acutely aware of this, and it is precisely this issue that has allowed for minorities to be erased and ignored within these national narratives. Before this musical, I imagine there were plenty of people that didn’t realise Alexander Hamilton was an immigrant at all. I certainly didn’t. But by taking control of the narrative, and by allowing people of colour to retell the story of their shared country, Miranda thus creates an environment in which minorities at last have a voice. They are reminded that they are just as important as anyone else in the creation of the American nation, no matter what the words of history say.

The impact of Hamilton demands to be felt. It is engrossing, heart pounding, and, yes, revolutionary. Miranda’s take on Hamilton’s story, and his account of America’s creation, rejects the narrative viewed and controlled from a white perspective to instead show how our similarities as human beings are far more significant than our differences. The show’s appeal transcends all boundaries, and by blurring the racial distinctions that exist on stage and in history, Hamilton confronts us with the reality that we’re really not so different at all. Miranda’s hip-hop revolution empowers minorities to view themselves as significant and powerful, and for that, I imagine the real Alexander Hamilton would be very proud of his legacy indeed.

Melanie Christie

Mel C is the Deputy Editor of FILM, THEATRE & TV at PTL. She uses this fact as an excuse to devote her life to Netflix. When Mel actually leaves her flat, she studies English Literature and History chez Edinburgh. She enjoys long walks, good company, and has a profound weakness for chocolate, tea and coffee. Ply her with any of these things, and you will buy her friendship.

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