By: Cheyenne Figaro
I’ll be the first to admit that I never planned on watching the musical Hamilton. Something about its massive success made me think it’s too good to be true. It turns out I was right and wrong. Both on and off stage (and screen, more recently) Hamilton presents itself as a challenge to American social norms. The musical, brought to stage by composer/lyricist Lin-Manuel Miranda in 2015, is most famous for its color conscious casting of the founding fathers, and it’s clear from the start that race isn’t something to be ignored in the show, instead being amplified and celebrated. Surely, the musical could have been done with historical accuracy, but that would’ve meant an all white cast aside from any slaves or servants. For, too often period dramas take people of color out of the narrative completely unless they’re showing them in bondage or another traumatic circumstance. Hamilton serves to place people of color back where we belong: in the center of America’s history. However, revising history through a modern lens has its drawbacks. While Hamilton uplifts people of color through meaningful representation, it also undermines itself by ignoring the disadvantages of people of color not only during the colonial era, but also in modern day society. Furthermore, while the musical makes waves for racial progression, it makes a failed attempt at women’s empowerment which begs the question: if women don’t win in actual history or rewritten history, exactly when is our time to shine?
At its very essence Hamilton is an underdog story about “a bastard, orphan, son of a whore” who defied the odds in front of him to become a founding father. Hamilton is an immigrant and an orphan, but Miranda makes it known that he isn’t bound by those labels. In “My Shot”, he finds a community in the revolutionaries of New York City. They proclaim, “I am just like my country/I’m young, scrappy, and hungry,” and the words resonate not just because they hold true for the characters, but because they hold true for the cast. People of color can relate to having to fight against convention for a respectable place in this world. Mulligan wants a revolution for social mobility, Lafayette for a more stable society, and Laurens because he’d like to see the slaves freed from bondage. Especially in America, there is a universal experience amongst marginalized groups of desire for more. Desire for more rights, more opportunities, or just the desire for more visibility. Although the show is based on the lives of white, heterosexual men, their struggles and their visions take on a deeper meaning when applied to people of color, and this scene specifically conveys the idea of building a community out of a struggle, something that many people of color can relate to. Yet, past this proud display of diversity the musical does little to reflect BIPOC and women in America, at least not in America outside of the Hamilton universe.
A director of a show must know their audience to appeal to them, but unfortunately for this production, Miranda (Accidentally? Intentionally? Who knows) appeals to the more revisionist and idealist side of America. The show is the perfect gift for Americans who can confidently say that racism ended in 1964 when the Civil Rights Act was passed. They deny the effects of systemic racism and honestly believe that any person of color who is unsuccessful is unsuccessful because they didn’t apply themselves enough. Now Lin-Manuel Miranda, a proud Puerto Rican-American Democrat, doesn’t believe any of those things. So why does Hamilton enforce this idea over and over and over again? Hamilton’s immigrant status is brought up so many times as if equating it to being an immigrant today. Hamilton may have been an immigrant, but he was White and the country wasn’t even formed yet when he arrived, making his immigrant status marginal to the rest of his identity. Thus, he easily “Got a lot farther by working a lot harder/By being a lot smarter/By being a self-starter,” in ways that many people of color in real life have tried and failed to do. Miranda as Hamilton, Leslie Odom as Aaron Burr, and Daveed Diggs as Thomas Jefferson present an illusion of the man of color, who once educated, can get through any doors he sets his mind on. However, this illusion is so grandiose because the entire main cast is diverse, that it blinds the audience from reality. A person of color who has an unstable household, works multiple jobs, and lives in poverty will actually see the effects of these disparities in their life. Whether they have less access to quality education, or less time to pursue passions, they will not have the life of Alexander Hamilton who was put in charge of a trading charter at fourteen, and who gained access to the President of the United States because of his revolutionary ideas.
Contrary to the experience of POC in America, one can ignore mass incarceration, the school-to-prison pipeline, and other forms of systemic racism when watching Hamilton, because no people of color face challenges because of their race. The color-conscious casting created a color-blind musical which reinforces the idea that any immigrant or person of color who loves this country more than life, and who is willing to put endless amounts of work into contributing to American society will be exceptionally successful. The narrative pushed by the story is that “patriots” of any color belong in this country, and that’s a distasteful message to promote in 2020, a time riddled with valid social unrest. It was this narrative that made me the most uncomfortable because I should be allowed to be a Black woman in America who can criticize the country and still belong in it. The message appeases White Moderates and Conservatives while condemning the liberal person of color, a counterproductive move on Miranda’s part.
Furthermore, the success stories of POC are imaginary in the context of Hamilton, as the diversity of the cast is in place of the Whiteness of the real people, but even if they weren’t only a few POC would have reached success while the rest were slaves. For the musical all but ignores the fact that slavery was rampant during the time period, but then goes a stretch further to paint the main characters as abolitionists, when Hamilton himself owned slaves. In many scenes, the ensemble are definitely playing slaves or at least servants, wearing minimalist off white garments compared to the lavish coats and garments of the main cast. Yet, they’re hardly given a second thought and it begs the question: how was slavery erased in a musical set during slavery? Well, I guess Miranda couldn’t have the entire main cast look like the hypocrites their real-life counterparts were, the audience was supposed to believe in these characters after all.
Yet, at least Hamilton attempts impactful racial representation on the stage, for it certainly falls short in uplifting the women of the story. Although the Schuyler sisters play a pivotal role in the story, their characters can be broken down into two main tropes. Eliza is the good wife: white passing and compromising. Angelica is the modern-day woman: independent and headstrong. One would think from their introduction that the Schuyler sisters were included to bring a woman’s perspective to the show, but at times this feminist approach feels forced and most times it is non-existent. Much like he does with slavery, Miranda addresses misogyny in Hamilton by bringing it up once and brushing over it for the rest of the production. The lines, “We hold these truths to be self-evident/that all men are created equal/And when I meet Thomas Jefferson/I’m ‘a compel him to include women in the sequel!”, followed by a collective “Work!”, are meant to empower the women in the audience, to emphasize the fact that women have been and still are fundamental to the fabric of the country. The entire “Schuyler Sisters” number redefines the colonial woman as someone who was knowledgeable, who looked for a man who suited her desires, and who wouldn’t settle for just anyone. So color me surprised when Eliza and Angelica spend the rest of the musical doing just that, throwing empowerment to the wind. Unfortunately, but not surprisingly at this point, this is when the show gets a little racist.
Eliza, the white-passing sister, is of course Hamilton’s wife and mother to his child. Angelica, played by Renee Elise Goldsberry, entertains Alexander’s affection behind her sister’s back, perpetuating the stereotype of Black women being hypersexual and deceptive compared to White women, an idea built upon by his mistress Maria Reynolds. Even more offensive, Angelica spends half the musical stroking Alexander’s ego in letters and the other half picking up her sister after a tragedy. Where was her storyline? I’m aware she was a side character, but every other side character was alluded to having an important task at hand when off stage, while Angelica’s only purpose was to worry about Hamilton and Eliza. This heavily conveys the idea of black women having to bear the burdens of society without anyone supporting them. Hence, the feminist tone in “The Schuyler Sisters” looks extremely performative in comparison to the portrayal of women in the rest of the musical. Moreover, the jubilant “Work!” which is shouted throughout the number is almost a mockery of the BIPOC women who coined the term, since their representation dwindles from that moment on. Even in Hamilton, a show revising history, the women of color didn’t really belong, at least not in their own independent, nurturing spaces.
Aside from covert racism, Hamilton’s misogynistic angle is established through the absence of character development for the women leads. Eliza isn’t really given much character besides caring mother and loving wife, but this is exaggerated to the point where she decides to “[erase] herself from the narrative” when she finds out Hamilton cheated. Phillipa Soo does an amazing job portraying Eliza’s defiance through her tone during “Burn”, but even that performance begs the question: was it really defiant for a woman not to speak out against her husband in the 1700s? And was the audience supposed to be shocked when she took him back after their son died? I truthfully have so many questions on what Eliza’s character was meant to convey. For a musical that took so many other historical liberties, this portrayal of the textbook colonial woman was disappointing and offensive. It seems less like Eliza was erasing herself, and more like Miranda was erasing her from the storyline out of convenience to the plot. Eliza embodies the misogynistic ideals of colonial America that women are relevant only in the context of being someone’s wife or daughter. The script only revealed Eliza the mother and wife, and never gave insight into Eliza the person until the very end of the musical, and only after Hamilton dies. Audience members can’t name one thing Eliza did during the musical besides teach her son piano and return to Alexander after he cheated. Even Angelica, who is introduced as a character looking for a man with ideals and a vision, falls into the trap of Alexander’s “charm”, and then only shows up in the musical when their relationship is mentioned and when she comes to console her sister- both events revolving around Hamilton. What exactly is this musical saying about women? Honestly, I have no fucking clue. Because all that the audience gets in the two hour and forty minutes is that Eliza was a humble woman who served as Alexander’s doormat (Was her pain supposed to be empowering? Because a majority of her scenes were spent crying and not one minute of that made me think: Go Women!), while Angelica was a supportive and wise sister who was sometimes morally ambiguous, and in the end the two spent the years until their deaths working to preserve Alexander’s legacy, as well as the legacy of the other men he worked with. “Who Tells Your Story” becomes a rushed history lesson reminding that audience that Yes! Eliza did in fact have a life outside of Alexander. But this revelation is too little, too late, and Eliza never gets the relevance she deserves.
No questions asked, Hamilton deserves the accolades that it’s received for the outstanding acting, choreography, and lyrics of the musical. What’s clear throughout the entire production is that the cast performed with well intentions to instill pride in BIPOC across America, reminding them that they are a visible, integral part of America. The rapping and the grit of the characters reminded me of New York hip hop culture in a way that made me homesick. Nevertheless, the show falls short in its representation of women and BIPOC in so many ways and this deserves as much acknowledgement as the positives of the production. The truth of the matter is that one show can’t tackle everything, and no show is going to be perfect no matter much thought and intention is put into it. Miranda wants others to use Hamilton as a blueprint, but not the end all be all. Diversity in casting is important, but more important is the impact of this diversity on the messages conveyed in a production, and this is where future shows must expand past Hamilton’s limits to create a much more authentic representation of Americans and America itself.