Abra Heritage | Opinion and Debate Editor
Lin Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton took Broadway by storm in 2015 and has recently risen back into the limelight with its release onto the streaming service, Disney+. The musical follows the lives of several Founding Fathers of the United States, and has been praised for its inclusivity in telling the story of America’s political and economic creation. A diverse cast and a new direction of performance in Broadway through R&B and hip-hop gives Hamilton the allusion of revolutionary progression in the performing arts. While Hamilton has been immensely popular due to its inclusive cast, it has by no means been immune from criticism.
An immediate disclaimer: my mid-teens were consumed by being a Hamilton fan. I knew every word, dragged my family to see the musical at the West-End, and was completely naive to the problems of its casting and overarching messages. As a younger fan I was ignorant of the actual history of the Founding Fathers. The musical fails to show that the Schuyler family were slaveowners, that Hamilton bought and sold slaves, or that Jefferson was involved in rape allegations. It instead vilifies these characters over more trivial matters such as betrayed friendships and love affairs. Now place this alongside the fact that 77% of Broadway-goers are Caucasian (2017 Broadway League), and the problem becomes clearer. Failing to acknowledge the extreme authority these men held as a consequence of racial power dynamics to a predominantly white audience does not scream ‘progressive’. The progressive nature of the diverse casting suddenly becomes performative.
Of course, musicals are not written nor known for their historical teachings. Should we be criticising Manuel Miranda for the lack of historical accuracy in his lyrics? Or, instead, the white-washed education systems that have left us to rely on musical theatre for our lessons on racial inequality? Gordon-Reed, Professor of American Legal History at Harvard Law School, argues that ‘A Broadway show is not a documentary’. By this logic, perhaps Hamilton should be viewed more as a catalyst for further thought and academic exploration into the history of the Founding Fathers, rather than as the ‘be all and end all’ of the discussion. This is a tricky path to follow, however, as it massively blurs the boundaries of artistic freedom in the presentation of historical figures.
Despite its flaws in inaccurate representations of the Founding Fathers and the arguable romanticisation of such figures, Hamilton has changed the game of musical theatre, and this cannot be ignored. It has proved that other genres of music, beside prestigiously trained and notoriously white dominated musical theatre and classical voice, can make it onto Broadway. Perhaps most importantly, Hamilton placed emphasis on the need for diverse casts. The year after Hamilton’s debut on Broadway, half of the nominations for actors of colour for Broadway performance went to Hamilton actors.
Hamilton can be praised for the changes it made to the world of musical theatre and can also be criticized for its inaccurate representation of racial power dynamics. If you want to discover the atrocities and scandal behind different American Founding Fathers though, a Broadway Musical might not be the best place to go. Hamilton has sparked important dialogue regarding the history of the American Founding Fathers, which must now be discovered and taught in means other than rap battles.