- Hamilton: An American Musical dir. by Thomas Kail
“You coulda been anywhere in the world tonight, but you’re here with us in New York City. Are you ready for a cabinet meeting???” shouted George Washington (Christopher Jackson). With that invitation, a cluster of young audience members house right and the entire front row (filled every night by lottery for $10 a seat) jumped to their feet and began shouting and cheering on the first rap battle in the show. Hamilton’s novelty as a “hip-hop” musical inspired initial resounding praise from critics in the popular press, in turn provoking some pushback in more academic circles that questioned, for instance, the limited representations of women, the reinforcement of white men as history-makers, and high ticket prices aimed at bringing in primarily white elite audiences. Given this pushback from the progressive Left, it is easy to overlook the important work the musical is doing with its audiences. Hamilton: An American Musical reframes both the “American” and the “musical” of its title by giving voice and fully realized life to artists of color that have been historically excluded from, and representationally ridiculed on, American stages. It reeducates musical theatre audiences through an antiracist approach to casting, costumes, music, staging, and audience interaction that refuses to be assimilated into the predominantly white repertoire of musical theatre.
Hamilton reeducates audiences by suggesting that history is not made by historical figures, but instead by those who tell their stories. Historically, primarily white male authors and actors tell these stories in musical theatre. However, Lin-Manuel Miranda and his ensemble of leading actors of color use American history to tell the story of people of color in the present day, blurring the line between the actors and the historical figures they portray. Paul Tazewell’s costumes emphasize this porousness by having the actors from the neck down placed comfortably within their eighteenth-century context while keeping their faces and hair natural and current. In act 2, for instance, Washington wears his iconic black-velvet suit. Jackson’s young, handsome, and bald black head rather than Washington’s wigged white one challenges the audience’s familiarity with this costume and its famous wearer. Daveed Diggs’s full-Afroed Thomas Jefferson and Miranda’s long-haired, pony-tailed Hamilton echo this effect. The women leads sport similar minimalism with their hair half-loosely tied or pinned back and half-down with subtle makeup. The actor never disappears behind a mask or wig of whiteness. As a result, Hamilton refuses the legacy of blackface minstrelsy by presenting minimally made-up actors of color living quite comfortably within white characters, while refusing assimilation. During a time that Atlantic contributor Derek Thompson recently called the “twilight of white America,” Hamilton suggests to its elite, primarily white audience that it will be people of color who may tell their story in the future.
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Furthermore, Hamilton recalibrates the audience’s cultural assumptions about white and black characters in musical theatre. The show’s music and the actors’ physicality highlight the cultural and racial specificity of its performers while emphasizing their ability to verbally and physically code-switch in order to trouble racial stereotypes. Actors who play more than one role reiterate this double coding in performance. Okieriete Onaodowan plays a physically and verbally explosive Hercules Mulligan, with skullcap and trench coat in act 1, punctuating his hardcore raps with physical punches, jumps, and stomps. However, in act 2 Onaodowan morphs into a physically and verbally precise, restrained, and sharp-witted James Madison. A similar switch happens with Diggs’s subdued though verbally dexterous Lafayette in act 1 to his brash, snarkily [End Page 457] malicious Jefferson in act 2. By contrast, white actors play comic, one-dimensional characters portrayed as the bumbling villains in this history, including Charles Lee, Samuel Seabury, and most notably King George (Jonathan Groff). Groff’s portrayal is the most parodic of...