To Be(long) or Not to Be(long): Fitting in through the Lens of Hamilton

Late in the summer of 2016, Lin Manuel Miranda shaped national conversation with his Broadway debut of Hamilton: An American Musical. Non-thespians were skeptical at first; but the musical quickly became popular in theatrical and non-theatrical circles alike. Unlike many other musicals of its time, Hamilton experienced a very long and noteworthy honeymoon phase. Spontaneous fangirling met formal accolades in the months and years following Hamilton’s release. However, the musical that was once considered a unifying force across political spectrums, genders, and races has since been met with intense criticisms that threaten to taint the legacy of the musical itself– an ironic twist given the musical’s primary themes. Pundits argue that Miranda’s rewriting of American history is problematic because it mischaracterizes the ethical foundations of white American history and dismisses the pivotal roles of people of color. But truth be told, nothing about Hamilton is uniquely problematic. Miranda tells the story of American history as it has always been told: as an outward presentation of diversity, inclusion, and opportunity underlined by racist and patriarchal systems that do not allow people of color to tell their own true stories. Using its cast’s racial composition as a starting point, Hamilton upholds some notions of belonging while dispelling others. The notions are continuously challenged and upheld through subtle and explicit details that support the complexities of the musical and of American history itself.

There exists an inherent bond between members of a traumatised group. Minorities in the United States share a history defined by their own oppression that ensures a basic level of community within groups. And increasingly commonly, minority groups share a knowledge of each others’ traumatic histories that establishes solidarity between groups. This solidarity has become increasingly evident in political discussions, communal relationships, and on the Broadway stage. Hamilton’s majority-minority cast existed as a community before they were united on the Broadway stage, and they will continue to exist as one long after. It is partially this pre-existing bond that makes Hamilton’s on stage relationships mesh so seamlessly. Requiring that lead roles be played by people of color creates a sentiment of belonging that is realized on and off stage.

It is important to note that while Hamilton consists of a mostly minority lead cast, the casting is not color blind as much as it is color conscious. On the broad scale, it is very intentional that Hamilton’s lead roles, aside from King George, are played by actors of color. However, in the more specific relationships between characters, there is no consideration for how race may or may not affect the dynamic between or authenticity of character relationships. For example, in the original Broadway cast, the Schuyler sisters are played by actresses who are of Black, Filippino, and white descent. Most of the family units throughout the musical consist of equally mismatched racial and ethnic pairings. Through this casting decision, Hamilton regards both its actors and characters as a collective unit that “belongs” together, and attempts to pass this phenomenon off as organic.  

Through musical composition, Miranda creates an in-group of “intellectuals”– for lack of a better term– that distinguishes the thought leaders of the late 18th and early 19th centuries from characters who were less involved in the foundation of U.S. politics. In Hamilton, intelligence is communicated through rap. Aaron Burr and Alexander Hamilton, who rap the most out of all of the characters, are consistently positioned as two cunning politicians on opposite sides of a heated, but well thought out, debate. Marquis de Lafayette, whose undeniable wit was integral to the Colonies’ success in the Revolutionary War, raps the fastest verses in Broadway’s history as a testament to his quick-mindedness. In act 2, Thomas Jefferson makes up for his absence in act 1 by dropping dramatic and fast-paced verses that challenge the audience’s ability to keep up. The lyrics, “If Washington isn’t gon’ listen to disciplined dissidents, this is the difference, this kid is out!”, remind the audience of Jefferson’s remarkable way with words. The ability of some characters to communicate with each other using quick verses, hip hop references, and second languages highlights that those characters share similar levels of cultural competence and intellectual understanding. 

Characters George Washington, Hercules Mulligan, and John Laurens also have their moments in the rapping spotlight, but rather notably, Angelica Schuyler is the only woman to grace the list of rappers throughout the musical. From her opening number to the final curtain call, Angelica’s intellect is undeniable. Though much of her aptitude is suggested through explicit lyrics (“I’m the oldest and the wittiest[…]” or “I’ve been reading Common Sense by Thomas Paine”), her performance during “Satisfied” assures audiences that she is on the same level, intellectually, as her male counterparts. On the opposite spectrum, it is worth noting that King George is the only main character who is not a woman that never raps on stage. In fact, all three of his numbers follow the same simple melody. Even King George’s lack of rapping suggests a perceived simple mindedness, which is subliminally suggested as a partial cause to his ultimate defeat in the Revolutionary War. In this way, Hamilton transcends assumed gender barriers by creating a semi-inclusive community of intellectuals, but still keeps some characters– and even audience members who struggle to keep up with fast-paced lyrics– from joining that intellectual community.

Furthermore, today’s political divisions are largely based on identity politics: alliances are formed based on community held assumptions about race, religion, and sexual identity. However, Hamilton’s construction and representation of political factions creates communities that supersede those identities. When considering race, act 1 of the musical largely focuses on the U.S. Colonies as a singular political entity as they fought against Great Britain. The only physical distinction between these two groups is their costuming. In regards to religion, though some allusions and direct references to a deity are sprinkled throughout the musical, there is not a unifying or divisive religious presence that affects the story’s overall development or notions of belonging. Like most Broadway musicals and recounts of American history, sexuality outside of the heteronormative spectrum is largely absent. Although there are some hypotheses of a possible bromance between John Laurens and Alexander Hamilton himself, the historical evidence is not strong enough, nor is the design of the characters’ relationship intentional enough, to confidently suggest that Hamilton challenges any norms related to sexuality. Hamilton’s characters are assumed to have a foundational sameness that allows the plot to focus on only the most important differences between characters– which in this case, is political affiliation. 

Even while phenotypical differences between the cast are ignored throughout the musical, the script– or lyrics– does include some nods to the historical reality that race was on the forefront of political debate during the nation’s founding. In an emotional recount of the Battle of Yorktown and those moments immediately following the British surrender, John Laurens narrates, “Black and white soldiers wonder alike if this really means freedom.” To which the beloved George Washignton dramatically replies, “Not. Yet.” The whole musical, but especially this moment, relies on a level of cognitive dissonance that the audience has the responsibility of rectifying. The real George Washington, who was a racist, slave-owning elite, is played by a teary-eyed Black man who expresses some sort of solemnity– or is it hopefulness?– about the fate of slavery in the United States. The duality of the George Washingtons, and of every character in Hamilton, exists to expel the notion that people of color are absent from the narrative of the birth of America. The musical itself is fixated on the belief that people of color belong in the American narrative. 

However, the progressiveness of using people of color to tell the same whitewashed version of American history in order to include them in the narrative is doubtful. It is true that Miranda created a sense of “belonging” for both actors and audiences who had never seen themselves in these stories before Hamilton. However, people of color should not have to “belong” in white history to be included in American history– they have stories of their own. In one perspective, using people of color to tell white history suggests that, outside of any patriotic narrative, people of color do not belong in American history. In Hamilton and in the real world alike, their presence only exists to further the goals of white supremacy. From this perspective, Hamilton is like diversity without inclusion: quotas are filled and boxes are checked, but nothing about power dynamics has been redressed nor have injustices been remedied. 

Hamilton is a story about belonging. It is about belonging in history, belonging in presence, and belonging in remembrance. As many questions as Hamilton answers about belonging, it also asks. Just as there is duality in each of Hamilton’s characters, there are valid merits and critiques of the work itself. It harms while it helps. It innovates while it sticks to the status quo. Hamilton created spaces for some groups to belong where they never had before; and we can only hope that it opened doors for those groups to belong in the real world– with the same passion and power and influence– just as they do on the Broadway stage. 

By Zoë Mulraine

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