When Centuries Collide: Hamilton in the 21st Century.

By: Tobi Akisanya

Alexander Hamilton, the founding father credited with creating America’s first national bank and authoring a great majority of the Federalist papers. He was outspoken, stubborn, passionate, and charming, not only in his writings, but in every aspect of his life. All of this I learned from my high school history class. The only images of power I knew were the founding fathers who were white, rich men, that is, until 2009 rolled around. While on vacation in 2009 with his wife after the success of his first Broadway hit musical In the Heights, Lin Manuel Miranda came across the 2004 biography “Alexander Hamilton” by historian Ross Chernow. Instead of just reading the novel, Miranda decided to run with his gift. What was a concept album, became mixtape, became an Off-Broadway production, became the 11 Tony Award winning musical Hamilton. Hamilton gave Broadway what it did not know it needed. By combining modern rap with musical theater, Hamilton was able to preserve American’s foundational story while simultaneously highlighting the people who make it what is today, people of color. Hamilton took the story of American and finally made it reflect the multi-cultural mosaic that the United States represents today. The carefully crafted relationships and dynamics between characters, the use of the stage as a space for profound and figurative movement, and the emphasis on race, gender, identity, and the American Dream, made it almost impossible for audience members- including those who were not interested in live theater before- fall in love Hamilton.

When Hamilton first hit the Broadway stage, I will be the first to admit that I was not a fan. For years and years, I had admired Lin Manuel Miranda’s work on In the Heights because, frankly, I found it more entertaining and fun. It was not until this year, when Disney+ released a filmed version of the Hamilton on its streaming service, that I actually gave the show a chance. Boy, was this musical just as entertaining and fun as any musical that I had ever watched. Initially I was captivated by each actor’s ability to portray their given character. The relationships created and broken throughout this show brought me through a whirlwind of emotions. I cried, laughed, winced, and gasped.  Whether it be the character’s identity or the identity of the actor shining through the performance of their character, I though the show was very telling of the so-called “American Dream.”

 It is obvious that a huge motif throughout the show is staying historically accurate but also staying culturally relevant. The use of color-conscious casting was a brilliant choice on behalf of the creative team. A cast comprised majority of people of color helped convey 200-year old story to a 21st century audience. George Washington, Aaron Burr, and Thomas Jefferson were not black, but Chris Jackson, Leslie Odom Jr., and Daveed Diggs- the men I believe were perfectly cast in these roles- were. Who was to say the founding the fathers had to be white? By exploring color- conscious casting, people who were not given a voice in the 1700s were able to tell their stories in Hamilton. It’s not about having people that look exactly like the characters they are portraying, it’s about prioritizing representation but in a way that audience members can still connect it to the original story.

 The fight for equality has always been a part of American culture. Immigrant ambition is expressed in “MyShot” the quintessential “I am” song. The cast members chanting “I am just like my country, I’m young scrapy and hungry,” are truly the image of our nation. They are not forced to mask who they are. They don the hairstyles and skin tones of minority culture. When Hamilton first appears on the stage in the opening number “Alexander Hamilton”, he emerges as an immigrant in new country. He has hope, fear, and desire in his eyes. We hear the other characters recount all that has happened in his past that has led him to that moment.  The audience is learning of his past as he relives it. Having a Latino man sing a song about the strength of immigrants, while many people who look like him are denied proper treatment by American immigration policies, creates a powerful image of resilience and hope.

The relationships Alexander Hamilton has with those around him drive the storyline. Almost every man Hamilton encounters throughout the show poses as a threat to him. George Washington carries the country on his back, but with the onset of the Revolutionary War he recruits a young Alexander Hamilton as his aid. Hamilton wishes to have not only the power that Washington has but also the revered status. Washington invest in Hamilton because he sees himself in him. Hamilton’s young brain bursting with ideas clashes Washington’s wisdom. Despite their differences they are able to form a close bond, however, this bond pits Hamilton against many of his future colleagues. Hamilton’s most gruesome dispute is with Aaron Burr. Aaron Burr feels as though he, as a born and bred American, should have a better opportunity to ascend into American politics. However, Hamilton, who was once his friend, outshines him in almost all of his ventures. Hamilton and Burr hate each other because they are each other’s biggest competition. Both Lin Manuel Miranda and Aaron Burr use their ability to command the stage in their quest to outsmart each other. Their identities as actors makes this dynamic even more interesting as aspects of their real life are on the table, Miranda as first-generation immigrant to Puerto Rican parents, and Odom Jr. as an African American.  Ultimately, Hamilton’s inability to fully trust those around him stems from his childhood. His vulnerable performance in “Hurricane” reveals that writing- his biggest weapon- was the only thing has been truly to rely on.  

Thanks to director Thomas Kail and choreographer Andy Blankenbuehler, the use of figurative actions in Hamilton creates images like no other for audience members. Because the set of the show is so minimalistic, people are used in place of objects. The focus is not to recreate the 1700s, instead the focus is to mimic qualities and actions as it pertains to the current generation and what is happening on stage. One of my favorite figurative elements throughout the entire is show is at the end “The World Was Wide Enough.” As Hamilton is fatally shot by Burr in their pre-arranged duel, Hamilton is transported across the river, not by an actual boat, but by two ensemble members. One each side of Hamilton’s body, as it is toppled over, two ensemble members row their arms creating a beautiful and lifelike image, a boat better than a physical boat. The image of two people of color holding the dying body of another man of color with such care evokes a sense of community and belonging and reinforces that people of color an integral part of the American story. These kinds of things do not need to be blatantly explained, they are just understood, making the storytelling even more innovative. This minimalistic approach to scenic design forces audience members to pay even closer attention to the subject matter. Throughout the show cast members are constantly pantomiming and dancing, giving a tangible image to the storytelling in the subtlest moments. Another one of my favorite figurative moments in Hamilton is the “The Bullet”, a character originated by Tony Nominated actress Arianna Debose. As characters come in contact with death, they come in contact with her, as she represents an actual bullet. By putting a person in place of an object it easy to realize that death taunts, flirts, and creeps up on those who least expect it, though it is inevitable.

In both the 2015 Original Broadway release and the Disney+ release this year, Hamilton truly captured sentiments of 21st century culture under a 1700s backdrop. Diversity and inclusion were a priority in this production. As a black woman myself, I can honestly say that I felt represented in by the individuals in this production. Once again, I am in awe of Lin Manuel Miranda’s ability to create something out of nothing and doing it in a way that resonates with humans of every color, creed, and background.

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