By Ben Damir
Most plays and musicals that explode from the theatrical world into broader American culture have not needed cultural or social relevance to succeed. Just look at the top grossing musicals and you’ll see – The Lion King, Wicked, The Phantom of the Opera – all decent shows, but each generally disconnected from the world at the time of their release. What made Lin-Manuel Miranda’s hit 2015 musical Hamilton so much more than any of these other shows was its emphasis on current racial issues. Highly publicized KKK rallies, black activist movements, and protests swamped the year of its release, giving Hamilton the perfect opportunity to discuss these weighty questions of race. It was catchy, well-written, beautifully choreographed, and as successful critically as it was socially and fiscally. Yet between the incomprehensible amount of money it made, its 16 Tony nominations, 11 wins, and Pulitzer, Hamilton’s greatest achievement came in the form of its racial implications and empowerments. Hamilton empowers people of color by disrupting norms regarding historical racial accuracy, by celebrating black bodies and legitimizing black culture to wider audiences, and by paving the way for a culture of equity rather than equality.
We all know those theatre-goers that get caught up on the littlest things. You try to talk about the meaning of the show, and they’re still stuck laughing about the time a cue was late or a microphone gave feedback. Hamilton’s success brought a similar group of individuals that could not seem to get over the casting of historically white figures as people of color. Now, I could argue all of the things that Hamilton gained by having a racially underrepresented cast (and indeed I will!), but first I’d like to reflect on the reverse. What did it miss out on by not having a white cast? Whiteness with a historically white group of people is the default, the assumption. But Hamilton proved that casting black actors to tell white people’s stories does not diminish those stories in the slightest. The narratives are true to history, and offer unique perspectives from a group of people whose perspectives have been ignored throughout history. Although the actions of the founding fathers may have caused centuries of harm to the actors and their families, they did not allow their hardships to flatly villainize anyone, but rather to consciously inform them. The actors ultimately played the founding fathers as human. Far from perfect, but not evil. They had flaws, they had triumphs, they had hopes, and families, and lives. The cast’s diversity opened up room for a plethora of character interpretations, and broke down a wall of racial casting that clearly did not need to exist to begin with, instead favoring race-conscious casting. Among the clearest examples of racially-conscious casting choices and subsequent character interpretations are Samuel Seabury and King George III, as played by Thayne Jasperson and Jonathan Groff respectively. These white actors enjoyed positions of power in their connection to British royalty, and cast the revolutionaries as the minority population- the underdogs. Audiences are encouraged to empathize with the underdog, particularly since these underdogs are widely considered national heroes. By casting the patriots as people of color, a connection is established between these two oppressed groups across history- American revolutionaries and people of color. Audiences of all ethnicities see a bit of themselves onstage and empathize with the characters, all while subconsciously supporting an interracialism that America frequently lacks.
Hamilton supported black culture in several ways, notably in its respect for black bodies and black art. Nowhere in the show are black bodies confined to the sidelines or played down in costuming and makeup, as can be found in dozens of shows where race is not central to the plot. The founding fathers may have actually worn powdered white wigs, but in Hamilton they make no attempt to cover their natural black hair. On several instances throughout the show, particularly during “Cabinet Battle #1,” Daveed Diggs, actor for Thomas Jefferson, even pats his hair playfully, using it to convey a sense of superiority. Moreover, the simple act of placing black bodies in fancy period costuming when they were barred from such sophistication during the actual period is an empowering and political action. These bodies are then prominently shown, front and center, throughout the show, emphasizing their actors’ positions of power and importance. American culture, and by extension American musicals, has had a history of downplaying or negatively associating black bodies (see also, tokenism and “King Kong” stereotypes), so these empowering notes on black bodies are refreshing and long overdue.
Another significant aspect of black culture that is recognized in the show is the use of hip hop and rap. Hamilton uses these genres for nearly every song throughout the show, serving the double purposes of bringing excitement to otherwise dry content and representing the diverse cast and cultures that make up the show. Let’s face it- people writing essays and going to meetings are not exciting topics for a musical (1776 proved that- sorry!), so incorporating high energy, fast-paced musical forms serves to liven up some potentially boring moments. The diverse casting is also represented and appreciated through the use of the historically black genres of rap and hip hop. These genres have long been scorned by white audiences, particularly older generations, of whom 61% said that “rap music is not real music” in a debate.org online poll. Hamilton did not single-handedly fix this close-minded perception of rap music, but it did open up the genre to a larger audience and prove that it is as legitimate as any other form of musical self-expression. Perhaps not everybody enjoyed the lyrical style and quick beats, but the show at least dispelled some racist notions that rap and hip hop were genres based in sex, drugs, and violence. By writing lyrically genius rap songs about many older Americans’ heroes, Lin-Manuel Miranda forced them to acknowledge that the genres were capable of legitimate music. Yet culture was not the only thing that Hamilton brought to the world- it paved the way for genuine racial equity.
Whenever I discuss the concept of equity, I ask people to envision a foot race, between a black man and a white man. In the first centuries of the race, the white man jogged steadily, while the black man was bound at the starting line by heavy chains. Eventually, some of the chains were removed, and every once in a while more chains would come off. Nevertheless, the chains were never fully gone, and the white man had already gotten a massive head start. Equality, as the current American system would have it, would be removing the black man’s chains and letting him run freely. Equity would be boosting the black man up to wherever the white man is, and allowing the two of them to continue running from an equal starting point. While both cases maintain that the black man’s chains should be removed, only the latter addresses how far ahead the white man got in his multi-century head start. Among Hamilton’s great achievements in racial justice was its equity-based casting call, which called for “NON-WHITE men and women…” The show’s artistic vision required that the actors be people of color, but the audition notice nevertheless stirred up controversy and prompted calls of reverse racism. There is not enough space in this essay to explain why reverse racism isn’t a real thing, so let it suffice to say that it isn’t. By supporting people of color in particular, Hamilton gave them power in an industry that has historically failed to adequately represent them time and time again (see The King and I and every other incorrectly cast character of color). It gave acknowledgement to the fact that color-blindness is not a real way to fix generational racism, poverty, and oppression, and that the only way to move to true equality is to help the marginalized get on equal footing with those in power. More than that, Hamilton was one of the clearest recent examples of equity and race-consciousness; since then, focus on equity has increased dramatically, even resulting in legislative measures to address racially-connected cycles of poverty, such as CA Prop 16 and Portland’s Racial Equity Steering Committee. I should specify that Hamilton did not invent the idea of equity or pioneer it, but its casting was a source of controversy that exposed a lot of people to it. More than that, the production put its money where its mouth is, and actively included marginalized groups to create a unique perspective and wildly successful production.
Perhaps Hamilton’s greatest achievement was making all of these intense social comments right underneath our noses. Audiences may sometimes have had to wrap their minds around black actors playing the founding fathers, or this or that regarding the casting calls, but after accepting those points, people loved the show. It’s been out for only 5 years and it’s already #7 in the list of highest grossing Broadway musicals, losing only to productions that have been running for significantly longer. I have no doubt that nearly all the readers of this essay could sing at least a few Hamilton songs all the way through, and am certain that more than a few could recite the entire show. So ultimately, Hamilton’s greatest successes in racial development and respect came from its great successes socially, critically, and financially, and vice versa. People loved seeing the show because it was beautiful and moving, and in that enjoyment gained some minor understanding of its racial points. It would have been easy to impart the show’s messages through a simple play or politically charged musical revue, but by thinly veiling them beneath the show’s catchiness and lovability, Hamilton reached untold audiences and imbued its messages with fun, grace, and charm.