The new musical “Hamilton,” written by and starring Lin-Manuel Miranda, deserves all of the fulsome, effulgent, even ecstatic praise it has received. It’s a hip-hop-flavored reinvigoration of Broadway traditions and a vertiginous 21st-century remapping of a crucial piece of Americana. And it’s fun, incredibly sung, and even more fantastically danced and staged. But today I want to talk about the part that most critics find hard to talk about – the show’s re-situation of racial identity into America’s foundational narrative. Of course there will be a movie based on “Hamilton” that will cast a considerable shadow over Hollywood, but at that point we will need to understand – to a greater extent than I’ve seen written – what that, ah, shade means.
Let’s be clear right away that “Hamilton” isn’t “color blind,” if that’s even possible for art. With all due respect to the “reverse Othello” (a term that’s a lot better than “negative-image Othello”) where Patrick Stewart played the Moor and the rest of the cast was black, “Hamilton” is a little more nuanced than that. Ben Brantley, writing in the New York Times, made it clear that the casting of blacks and Hispanics as our founding fathers is no mere stunt:
One of its greatest accomplishments is that it leaves no doubt that these scrappy, adrenaline-charged young folks, with their fast way with rhyme that gives order to chaos, have every right to be in charge of the story here. In temperament, they’re probably a lot closer to the real men who inspired this show than the stately figures of high school history books. Before they were founding fathers, these guys were rebellious sons, moving to a new, fierce, liberating beat that never seemed to let up.
Indeed, “Hamilton” doesn’t exactly transform American history into hip-hopstory as much as it reveals that our country’s founding was hip-hopstory all along. And unlike a hundred other Broadway hip-hop-flavored moments of the last thirty years, this isn’t white people busting a rhyme for a few lyrics almost as a joke, but instead Latinos and blacks stepping forward to claim history with many of the same rhythms, beats, and harmonies that they already used and use to claim their own identity in this century.
For example, when Miranda as Hamilton sings that King George
ain’t ever gonna set his descendants free
So there will be a revolution this century
And to me
He says in parentheses
Don’t be shocked when your history book mentions me.
I will lay down my life if it sets us free
You’ll see my ascendancy
…this is not the same as, say, setting The Sound of Music to a hip-hop beat and rapping “you are sixteen going on seventeen.” This is weaving the music and lyrics of the heart of hip-hop – like “don’t be shocked when your history book mentions me” – into the same narrative that produced the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence. And when the same song goes on to say, as you can buy on officially licensed “Hamilton” T-shirts,
Hey yo, just like my country, I’m young scrappy and hungry
Miranda is placing Latinos and blacks where they should have been all along in previous plays, movies, and TV shows about the Revolutionary War: at the center.
It’s important to stress that this isn’t simply color-blind, as though Miranda had remade The Patriot or John Adams and cast blacks in roles originally played by Mel Gibson, Heath Ledger, Paul Giamatti, and Laura Linney. No. This isn’t a simple game of substitution. When Miranda saves the three-hour production’s only high-five for a moment when Hamilton (played by Miranda) praises Lafayette and they both say “Immigrants: we get the job done,” they are not just persons of color playing roles written for a white person (like, say, Morgan Freeman in The Shawshank Redemption); Miranda is reminding us that the importance of immigrants to our American story is an importance that Latinos like Miranda cannot be separated from.
And so when, at another point, Hamilton finds three fellow young revolutionaries, played by blacks, and they sing,
Let’s raise a glass to the four of us
Tomorrow there’ll be more of us
This isn’t just “oh it’s cute they’re persons of color.” HELL NO. This is The Future is Brown. This is America’s Dream of Freedom and Equality Starts From a Reality of Diversity and Struggle.
It’s no accident that the two most prominent white men in the cast are, first, a loyalist, and second, the King of England. When the loyalist shows up on a soapbox to warn these rebels, his page-boy brown hair hits you like an ornate goblet of chablis: oh, right, white privilege. The play doesn’t need lyrics to communicate that white privilege is associated with British colonial presumptions; it’s obvious from casting and costumes. And when the blue-eyed, pasty-faced King shows up in full royal regalia, sure, maybe he’s a little too fey, but we recognize Jonathan Groff’s imperious nature as the same one that hubristic white men used, just in this century, to sell us subprime mortgages and send us to war against Iraq. (By the way, yes, there are one or two other whites amongst the chorus/dance troupe/ostensible revolutionaries.) In “Hamilton,” persons of color are deployed both as Real Americans and as metaphors for Americans vis-à-vis the British, and it’s a breathless, heady, urgent, mezclado that suggests thousands of new possibilities for reinvigorating other over-familiar narratives.
To turn the battle over Assumption into a rap battle between Hamilton and Jefferson – while somehow cramming in just about all of the economic and personal issues involved – was a stunner as outstanding as it was audacious. Even more spine-chilling, for me, was watching the brilliant Leslie Odom, Jr., as Aaron Burr while hearing his type of beautiful tenor that I’ve never heard from anyone but a black man. Odom as Burr sings (over zydeco-like claps and spare piano keys) “love doesn’t discriminate between the sinners and the saints” as he tries to come to terms his relative laziness and ambition without principle, as when he sings “I want to be in the room where it happens.” Burr repeatedly warns Hamilton to “talk less, smile more,” signifying a certain kind of go-along-to-get-along-ism in American life. On one hand, yes, obviously, Burr was white, and America is full of people of every color who are amoral, lazy sinners, but on the other hand, Odom’s edgy, confessional tenor (and the “black” music) somehow invoked certain meanings simultaneously for everyone and specifically for African-American men, carrying me to a tearful place I hadn’t known was there.
So “Hamilton” is really about two revolutions: one in the 18th century, and one in the 21st. One that founded our country, and a slightly less consequential one that dares to re-imagine our most cherished narratives and artistic forms in more inclusive terms. In the heart-rending soprano of Phillipa Soo as Eliza Schuyler Hamilton, “Look around, look around, at how lucky we are to be alive right now.”