Who tells your story?

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President Obama greets the cast and crew of "Hamilton" after seeing the musical with his daughters, July 2105. Credit: Executive Office of the President of the United States.

President Obama greets the cast and crew of “Hamilton” after seeing the musical with his daughters, July 2015.  Photo credit: Executive Office of the President of the United States

Lyra Monteiro is certainly right, when she notes in her review of Hamilton: An American Musical, that mainstream American culture has a lamentable tendency to embrace and retell certain stories about American history, including that of the founders, with greater frequency and enthusiasm than the many other stories that require more difficult reckonings with the past. But cultural change happens by reclaiming and reinventing old stories as well as by presenting new ones. Mainstream culture reflects mainstream political ideologies, which change incrementally rather than radically. Hamilton is undoubtedly a liberal, incremental piece of art rather than a radical one, which is exactly the kind of art you should expect to find in the deeply for-profit precincts of Broadway.

It is also true, as Monteiro writes, that “America ‘then’ did look like the people in this play, if you looked outside of the halls of government.” But Lin-Manuel Miranda did not set out to create a musical about “the presence and contributions of people of color in the Revolutionary era.” Instead, inspired by Ron Chernow’s Alexander Hamilton, he chose to write about a man who used his considerable intellect and drive to make himself indispensable within the halls of government.  This is the story of one man’s improbable journey from a childhood spent “impoverished, in squalor” to “a hero and a scholar.”

Hamilton is a story about the founders, yes, but it is equally one about immigrant strivers, writing one’s way up from the bottom, and how politics happen–stories that are by no means exclusively the province of white men. A lifelong hip hop fan, Miranda describes his eureka moment with Chernow’s biography, when he saw Hamilton’s story as the classic male hip hop narrative of raising yourself up from society’s lowest ranks by dint of your prowess with the pen: “And as I’m reading this, I’m thinking ‘This is Biggie, this is Tupac . . . this is hip-hop!’”

Lin-Manuel Miranda, Sept. 2015. Credit: MacArthur Fellows Images and Video.

Lin-Manuel Miranda, September 2015. Photo credit: MacArthur Fellows Images and Video

Miranda may have connected with an artifact of “founders chic,” but he uses the ingredients of his art–primarily black musical forms and his choice of performers–to bring people of color into the center of a story from which they have traditionally been excluded. Miranda chose hip hop to tell Hamilton’s story because the form’s density of words gave him the ability to pack more information into the show to encompass Hamilton’s eventful life.  Miranda also chose hip hop because that very density mirrored Hamilton’s own prodigious level of writing.

In a show whose narrative is framed by an examination of whose histories are told and by whom (and promoted by the tagline “Who Lives, Who Dies, Who Tells Your Story”), Miranda has intentionally (there’s nothing “color blind” about it) made people of color the narrators. This casting is not a choice to be taken for granted; while Broadway musicals have made progress in diverse casting, it is extremely rare to cast a show that is not about an African American, Latino, or Asian American with performers of color playing every leading role. It’s also misplaced to assume a politics around the identities of the particular actors playing Hamilton, Jefferson, Angelica, and Eliza. Hamilton’s creative team had to cast performers who had the chops to successfully perform Miranda’s dense, rhythmically complex raps along with a range of other musical styles. Miranda described the parts on an early casting call–he specified “non-white” actors for the principal roles and indicated each part’s vocal demands with a classic musical theater role paired to a contemporary black musician (Lafayette was “Lancelot meets Ludacris” and Eliza was “Alicia Keys meets Elphaba.”)

Hamilton’s founders, played in memorable fashion by these performers of color, are not the principled, righteous, bloodless men of the Enlightenment that most Americans encounter in their textbooks and on visits to historic sites. Instead they are flawed, scheming, and partisan. There is Daveed Diggs’s preening, hypocritical Thomas Jefferson; Renee Elise Goldsberry’s ferociously intelligent and politically astute Angelica Schuyler; and Leslie Odom, Jr.’s ambitious, ingratiating, chronically dissatisfied Aaron Burr (Christopher Jackson’s George Washington is the only founder with his reputation intact–steadfast and perceptive, he is the grown-up in the room.)

The show’s subplot dramatizes Hamilton’s personal story outside of his public roles, and Miranda fleshes out the female characters of Eliza and Angelica Schuyler and the very real ways that the era’s gender ideologies constrained their lives. Eliza may sing movingly about “removing [her]self from the narrative” as she grapples with her husband’s very public marital betrayal, but Miranda gives her the show’s last word–an accounting of what she accomplished after his death that makes a claim for the place of women in the narrative of the founding (while still making clear the gendered restraints that made women’s access to public life contingent on their husbands).

In the many interviews Miranda has done to promote Hamilton, he demonstrates a sure grasp of the history–he is mindful of the question of slavery and its place in his show. When asked in a New Yorker Festival interview about why he cut the rap battle about slavery, he explained:

It’s not like I hit empty trash on my computer and it’s gone forever. It exists. There was a whole third rap battle about the issue of slavery that didn’t make it into the final thing because, frankly, none of them did anything about slavery. Even Hamilton, who was an abolitionist and got the importation of slaves banned in New York through the Manumission Society, he didn’t put it above his financial plan. . . . And it was enormously cathartic to write it, because this was something you wrestle with when you write about these men, who wrote great things and also had this other legacy, lived within this system that was horrible and abusive, and it just brought the show to a screeching halt. And this is a show that really thrives on momentum because it’s sung through. . . . . So we’re gonna put that out, we’re making another mix tape, and I’m gonna put out the demo so you can hear it, but it didn’t work within the context of the show.

Miranda’s choice to cut the third rap battle was a creative one with ideological implications, as Monteiro correctly notes; it spared unflattering attention to Hamilton’s failure to take a stronger stand against slavery. But his answer also indicates that he knows that rap has a reason to be out in the world, and he will deliver it. It’s worth noting that the show’s original cast album has been enormously popular, providing Hamilton’s sung-through entirety to untold thousands who will never see it in person.

Instead of worrying about Hamilton’s success and enormous reach, I find in it cause for optimism. One show will never tell all of the stories that deserve to be told, but this show’s success in telling some old stories in new ways bodes well for the future. Hamilton’s critical, popular, and, above all, financial triumphs open the door for other talented musical theater artists who want to tell stories about people of color in unconventional ways.

~ Ellen Noonan is a historian, educator, and media producer at American Social History Project, CUNY (City University of New York). She is also the author of The Strange Career of Porgy and Bess: Race, Culture, and America’s Most Famous Opera (University of North Carolina Press, 2012).

Editor’s note: In “Race-Conscious Casting and the Erasure of the Black Past in Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton,” published in The Public Historian (38.1), Lyra Monteiro asks, “Is this the history that we most want black and brown youth to connect with–one in which black lives so clearly do not matter?” This is the first of four posts that will be published by The Public Historian responding to Monteiro’s review.

1 comment
  1. Debra Michlewitz says:

    To draw closer to our “more perfect union” it’s important that white citizens see Black American history including culture and slave narratives and Black codes as part of their “white” national history. Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton creates an opportunity for African-American citizens to see the real essential relevance of the history of a time and place that excluded them as nonetheless part of their story. We’re all in a better place because of Miranda’s miracle of a play. I echo Ellen Noonan’s optimism.

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