Broadway in 2015 still has a major deficit of diversity. As Alexis Soloski reported this month for the Guardian, the opening season has zero new or old plays by any women or people of color. In ongoing productions, many have only recently cast a non-white actor in their lead roles. Phantom of the Opera, open for over two decades, last year announced Norm Lewis would be the first black actor to play the titular character, and last month Kyle Jean-Baptiste stepped onto the stage of Les Misérables as the first black Jean Valjean on Broadway. He was also the youngest, a 21-year-old understudy, and tragically died from falling off a fire escape on August 29, just shortly after his last Valjean show on August 27.
Despite the heft of hype behind it, Hamilton, which opened on August 6 after a run earlier this year at the Public Theater, is essential in this regard, and in the larger future of the Broadway musical. Created by Lin-Manuel Miranda (In the Heights), the Manhattan-born son of Puerto Rican parents (he also plays the role of Alexander Hamilton), it’s a fresh, omnivorous celebration of two great American sonic traditions: hip-hop and musical theater. References to both Gilbert and Sullivan and the Notorious B.I.G. balance in the often rap-heavy numbers that fuse the emotional peaks allowed by music theater with the bombastic spirit of hip-hop. And from Hamilton to George Washington and all Founding Fathers in between, the cast is almost entirely non-white.
AndrewAndrew and Sam Cooper, in their piece “Ignoring Broadway Hype in Favor of Intimate Theater” on Hyperallergic last month, criticized Hamilton‘s “romanticizing the founding fathers” and its subsequent huge ticket sales, “aided by hypermasculine pyrotechnics and abetted by the New York Times.” They emphasized its high ticket prices, which are in the hundreds through third-party sites, comparing them to the The Flick, with tickets at $107. Like any wildly popular show in its debut month, it will cost you if you want to go immediately (I paid $87 to see Hamilton in previews in the rear mezzanine, and $178 to return in February and watch from the orchestra). AndrewAndrew and Cooper didn’t note that there is a daily $10 lottery that’s attended by Miranda himself — with street performances — so even people who don’t win can walk away with a special live experience. I can’t think of anyone in another medium, music, art theater, or otherwise, that has that kind of commitment to people who want to see their work.
True, Hamilton is not subtle, it is perhaps a little too enamored with the quick life heights romanticized by hip-hop, it has a dragging start in its second act, it can get repetitive with its refrains (I lost track of how many times Hamilton declared he was “not throwing away his shot”), but focusing on the cost, which is comparable to every show in the radius around Richard Rodgers Theatre on 46th Street, overlooks how vital the musical is to theater right now. Yes, there is a lot of testosterone in American Revolutionary history, and the musical adheres closely to that history as laid out in Ron Chernow’s Alexander Hamilton biography, but thankfully women are cast as full-fledged characters in the musical through the Schuyler sisters.
In the final scene, Eliza Hamilton, née Schuyler, and played by Philippa Soo, is the one who guides Hamilton’s post-dueling narrative into history, through her tireless research and by shoring up his legacy against detractors. One of the echoing refrains — “Who lives, who dies, who tells your story” — puts the whole history in her hands. As Michael Schulman wrote at The New Yorker, “by implicitly equating Eliza’s acts of narration with his own, he’s acknowledging the women who built the country alongside the men. You’re left wondering whether the ‘Hamilton’ of the title isn’t just Alexander, but Eliza, too.”
“I put myself back in the narrative,” Eliza affirms at the end, and it might as well be the tagline for the whole show. Born in the Caribbean, orphaned at a young age, Alexander Hamilton later became a writer, the right-hand man to George Washington, and a lasting influence (for better or worse, depending on your feelings about strong government) on our current economic system. His mythical aura is reinforced by his place on the $10 bill (at least for now). In the musical, his character repeatedly declares he’s “just like my country / I’m young, scrappy, and hungry,” and even centuries later, there’s an inclusive energy in his story.
Below, you can see some of that bristling out in Miranda’s performance at a 2009 White House event that evolved into the full-length musical. As he says, Hamilton’s story “embodies the word’s ability to make a difference.”
Hamilton is now on Broadway at the Richard Rodgers Theatre (226 West 36th Street, Manhattan).