By: Remi W.
A thoughtful and wise philosopher once said, “We’re all in this together, and it shows when we stand hand in hand…”(High School Musical 2006). But, are we really? Is standing hand in hand the only thing we need to do to unite as a country, as people? I would argue that it takes more than that, and the Broadway musical turned streaming sensation Hamilton, which is written by Lin Manuel-Miranda, would struggle to agree. If you’ve been living under a rock and have not heard, it comes as one of Lin’s major hit shows, directed by Thomas Kail; it tells the story of Alexander Hamilton, an immigrant from the Caribbean who made a name for himself in the US of A, and if you’ve ever heard of him, you know it went pretty well. Behind the scenes, Lin made sure that the musical included a cast of majority POC to represent what America really looks like and to allow these groups of people to feel seen, to feel united in our country. However, this musical neglects to recognize the suffering that Black people faced in the late 1700’s and beyond; its arrival and portrayal on Disney+ does little to fix this problem. Although more accessible, Hamilton as seen on Disney+ ignores the idea of the ensemble and with that further ignores the suffering of POC which completely eliminates any possibility of unity.
Alexander Hamilton does not make unity an easy task. The show starts with a song that involves every single character in the musical telling the origin story of Alexander Hamilton. A whole cast together for one song and some details of personal struggle make us feel as though we will relate to this; unfortunately, singing a song that only relates other characters to the title character of the show doesn’t feel much like community. Audience members do not even learn who most of the character’s names until a few songs later. “Me, I fought with him, me, I died for him, me, I trusted him, me, I loved him, and me, I’m the damn fool that shot him…” Manuel-Miranda writes, solely focused on Hamilton (or quite literally himself in the case of the streamable version on Disney+) and ignoring the possibility that other characters have reason for living that does not involve him. Not only did Eliza Schuyler, John Laurens, Aaron Burr, and countless others make (read: were forced to make) sacrifices for Alexander Hamilton to succeed, but he fought against them all the way until the end. Hamilton’s interaction with Aaron Burr dominates most of the plot. Constantly back and forth, especially in songs like “Your Obediant Servant,” “The Election of 1800,” and “Non-Stop,” these two never cease to find something to fight over, not to mention that they eventually duke it out in a duel, and Hamilton ends up dying. Burr clearly pushes Hamilton’s buttons and vice versa as we can see through the facial expressions of Lin and Leslie Odom, Jr. who plays Burr from the close ups granted to us through Disney+. He fights almost as much if not more with his own wife, Eliza, in songs like “That Would Be Enough,” “Take A Break,” and “Stay Alive-Reprise,” and let’s not forget about the cheating scandal. Eliza’s pain comes through the screen during Phillipa Soo’s rendition of “Burn,” and viewers can feel the heartache she so beautifully portrays as she burns her letters. Hamilton will go on to fight with Thomas Jefferson, George Washington, James Madison, Samuel Seaburry, Angelica Schuyler, and indirectly King George III (the list could go on, but for the sake of time, I will pause here). With a whole plot that involves one character fighting against the rest of the characters for various reasons, that task of building community or a sense of unity becomes much harder. Lin writes the characters completely centered around Alexander Hamilton which does not help to create the sense of togetherness that theatre goers look for in musicals.
As a future educator and a member of the Peabody College here at Vanderbilt, I have learned my fair share about white washed history; this musical only perpetuates it. Although Lin and casting directors Bethany Knox and Bernard Tesley made the conscious decision to cast many POC in roles where white people would usually stand to represent what America really looks like, he lost the sense of community by continuing the narrative of the white, rich, and snobby founding fathers. He continues to center the white voices of history by telling a story we all hear in high school and adding a few tweaks. Not only does this center white voices by telling exclusively their story, but it completely disregards the story of Black people at this time. At the end of the musical, George Washington, who is played by Christopher Jackson, solemnly hangs his head while Phillipa Soo sings “I speak out against slavery…” as if this erases the years of suffering endured by slaves due, in part, to people in Alexander Hamilton’s life, including George Washington. For the rest of the musical, the only person who speaks out against slavery is John Laurens, played by Anthony Ramos, who dies early and never gets to fulfill his wish of abolishing slavery. Lin writes Hamilton’s response to Laurens’ death and claims he needs to get to work in terms of slavery, but then mentions it only once after the fact. This mention of slavery comes in “Cabinet Battle #1” where Hamilton really only says it to get a dig in at Thomas Jefferson, one of his biggest foes. “Keep ranting, we know who’s really doing the planting…” writes Lin in an attempt to expose Jefferson for claiming that he does all the work in the South. This does not condemn slavery in any way, just stabs at Jefferson for stretching the truth. The ensemble members can be seen in “What’d I Miss” scrubbing the floors of Jefferson’s home in Montecello, and they come to attention when he enters the room. “Sally be a lamb, darling, won’t you open it,” he says to a presumed slave as he hands her a letter found in his office, referencing one of the most submissive animals known to man. And no one says anything about this being wrong. Intentional? Maybe not. Uncomfortable? Absolutely. When you ask “What is one thing that could unite Americans in 2020?” the answers that come to mind do not include slavery.
There is also a clear divide between the ensemble members (slaves) and the historically white founding fathers. The ensemble costumes are all white, shabby, and minimal, much like anyone who did not have money during these times while the upper class individuals have exquisite gowns and fancy suits. These costumes explicitly show viewers the difference in class status and further separates the characters from one another. Their costumes change to something more “suitable” in the song “A Winter’s Ball” as only those who had power and money (and we most likely white) were invited to this affair. Viewers can see this divide between characters, and it certainly does not foster any sense of community. Lin, director Thomas Kail, and costume designer Paul Tazewell made these lyric, blocking, and costuming decisions possibly hoping to bring the masses together over the abolition of slavery and came up short. Seeing slavery almost dismissed in this musical gives POC (or anyone who cares about POC) no reason to come together over this show, and once again, destroys the idea of unity.
The choreography of the show, created by Andy Blankenbuehler, mesmerizes audience members, and the precision in the movements amongst the ensemble members shows how united a country can be in the face of a revolution. Unfortunately, due to the filming and distribution of Hamilton on Disney+, the ensemble completely disappears from most shots. In favor of close up angles of the main characters and famous actors, ensemble choreography gets tossed to the side, which makes community seem useless and nonexistent. The only thing important to Disney+ is every action the main characters produce. Understandably, many non theatre goers would be confused to be watching a “movie” where the camera angles do not change and the actors seem a mile away. However, when you eliminate the ensemble, you eliminate the community. Each ensemble member has a role to play, whether assigned to them or by them. These roles allow us to feel as though we can interact with the set, the time period, and the story. They make audience members feel like part of the musical, and this makes the musical easier to enjoy. The Disney+ version of Hamilton completely disregards the need for these actors, and makes all their hard work purposeless. It makes viewers feel as if they should only care about the main characters and does little to bring them into the community on stage.
Aside from all of the things that the show itself does poorly, Disney+ does not make community among the American people any easier to achieve. If you can afford a subscription to Disney+, which is $6.99 per month, Hamilton streams at the click of a button. Most people who would benefit from seeing Hamilton may not be able to afford a subscription to Disney+, however, it eliminates the need to buy a ticket to Broadway or to a touring show which costs more than a whole years subscription. While it does unite people who are able to watch online or on a SmartTV, it does nothing to bring individuals into the theatre. If anything, it pushes people away from buying tickets to see shows, and away from the theatre community as a whole. Before it aired on Disney+, many people who never had the desire to step into a theatre had reason to go. Having to go to the theatre to see Hamilton brought theatre goers and non theatre goers together at last. With the pandemic, everyone now watches from the safety of their own home, but the streaming of the musical will change how we interact with others in the theatre forever. Non theatre goers will have no reason to step into a theatre no matter how amazing the musical because they can just wait for it to come out on some streaming platform. While this may have minimal impact, this only further tears the audience in two.
Hamilton has phenomenal music, actors, sets, costumes, and lyrics; even with all of those things, it still fails to bring Americans together. With its dismissal of slavery, its centering of white voices, and its arrival on Disney+ which ignores the ensemble and the need for in person theatre, it falls flat in its ability to be what the American people need for inspiration in this time of national divide. Not only does it fail to provide what we need to be inspired to come together, but it actively tears down the idea of unity. If you want a sing-a-long musical to enjoy on your Saturday night, this one was made for you. If you want something to make you feel better about the state of our country, this one you can skip.