In 2016, when Hamilton: An American Musical first opened on Broadway its pivotal innovation comprised telling the story of America’s founding fathers through performers of color. This musical became their ‘golden ticket’ into an industry living off of white main characters. The stage became a means for the America of now to retell an ancient America in a feat of cultural re-appropriation through art. But can the show’s casting choice stand the test of time as it traverses new social and political contexts?
A revolution was coming to musical theatre. In Hamilton: An American Musical the American Revolution stands as a backdrop to the retelling of the life of United States’ often forgotten founding father Alexander Hamilton. An orphan from the Caribbean who fought along with George Washington in the civil war, and followingly contributed to setting the legal and economic foundations of the US as a newly independent country. Working his way up from poverty, the character of Alexander Hamilton is reinterpreted by the show’s creator as an Eminem-like figure but, placed into the late 1700s. Originating from this was the choice that revolutionized the show’s text and its music: mixing musical theatre with hip hop and rap. In a mesh that should in theory not work as well as it does, the show’s writing acquires rejuvenating verbal dexterity and cleverness. It results from the introduced genre’s constant search for how many rhymes can fit into a line, and how astute these can be made. The successes of this combination were already borne by the draft of what would become the musical’s opening number, first performed in 2009 by the show’s creator Lin-Manuel Miranda. Nonetheless, taking center stage in the show’s revolutionary nature, ahead of the retelling of the war for independence, and above the choice of music, looms its “color-blind” casting choice.
The casting was “color-blind” or “non-traditional” meaning that the performers’ abilities to best interpret the characters were prioritized, regardless of the race and ethnicity of the character or performer. Consequently, the show had a widely diverse cast. In an attempt to maintain the show’s authenticity the following casting calls of its national and international productions would explicitly ask for “non-white” performers in all major roles. Where, for example, in 2020, a Māori actor was cast to play George Washington in the Australian reproduction of the show. The aim was to preserve the same heightened sense of cultural friction as in the original while continuing to provide a ‘golden ticket’ for Black, Hispanic, Asian, and Indigenous performers into an industry where specifically white main characters still have a stronghold. This way, the performance essentially becomes a richly layered web of double meanings analyzing a modern United States from the premises of its foundation. Diversity becomes a deliberate technique employed to highlight underlying conflicts in the present, increasing the relevance of the text’s references to today’s police brutality, immigration, and racial inequality.
However, the issue arising from the ‘color-blind’ selection approach is clear: performers of color on stage mask the reality of the erasure of Black and Indigenous people from the beginning of the US’ traditional historical narrative. The show favorably associates modern-day movements for Black equality with its characters, without relating their historical counterparts’ views on slavery. Washington’s teeth were slave’s teeth, and any of Alexander Hamilton’s objections against slavery had to be mitigated for him to define his authority in government. Effectively, the show and audience are entrapped into an ignorant romanticization of unprogressive figures, and this defines the weird duality determining the show’s successes and failures.
Is the musical Hamilton acting out of disingenuity or is it consciously steering its interpretation through the diversity on its stage? If we do take the show to be acting on a self-aware and intentional level, then diversity becomes a means to recognize groups of the American population as part of the national narrative they are traditionally extracted from. This way, it relays the changing meaning of ‘correct’ historical retelling in relation to a continuously evolving common national identity. But this is art asking for meaning from its audiences, and therefore deeply exposed to the social and political contexts in which it operates.
Hamilton is largely a fruit of the perceived democratic idealism and inclusivity of Obama’s years as President. It opened its doors for the first time in 2015: the last years of Obama’s second term. Then, a man’s fight to earn the place he desires, becomes a metaphor for a common struggle towards a better future, but a struggle that is already successfully underway. The show’s underlying praise to the system can be partly read as the belief that anybody could flourish by working within it. A ‘golden ticket’ will be awarded to those of enough virtue and hard work to deserve it.
In the post-Trump era, and with the popularization of the ‘Black Lives Matter’ movement, the musical cannot be interpreted within the same guidelines. Deep feelings of powerlessness and the attention drawn to systemic racism have stripped away at the belief in the system Hamilton partly praises. Now, the role of the musical must become that to decry its country’s social injustices. Its powerful stance consists of placing people of color in a sometimes-idolized revolution while challenging the inadmissible double-standard of how people of color protesting against oppression have been perceived as dangerous and extreme. It denotes how a system may have failed its people when a ‘golden ticket’ is required to get in. The basic inconsistency is: can such a deconstruction of the show survive when on one hand Hamilton will intrinsically always idolize the history of US’ foundation and its founders?
Pivotal to any great work of art is its ability to communicate to an audience, similarly fundamental is the plasticity and applicability of the work’s intention within an ever-changing social and cultural context. Hamilton: An American Musical arguably won its author the Pulitzer Prize for Drama because of its fulfillment of the first. The second, where the duality of the casting choice of Hamilton lies, will see its answer if the show withstands the test of time and what future audiences will leave the theatre (or Disney+, where a glossy composite recording of the show now resides) thinking.