By: Mary Kate Dorr – A&E Editor
Lin-Manuel Miranda set out to tell the story of how Alexander Hamilton made his mark on history, and, in the process, made a mark for himself as well. Since its premier in August, “Hamilton” has come crashing into the Broadway scene with an unprecedented brilliance leaving audiences, myself included, stunned. The musical is catalyzed by Hamilton’s hunger to influence America through leadership in the American Revolution and his ultimate rise as a political and fiscal genius. Modernized by hip-hop verse, Hamilton’s story is told against a backdrop of war, scandal and passion. Miranda ultimately gives a voice to one of our most often silenced, however prominent, founding fathers.
Miranda familiarized himself with Hamilton years ago on a vacation meant to recover from his 2008 Tony Award-winning musical “In the Heights.” He picked up Ron Chernow’s 2004 biography “Alexander Hamilton,” in which the prose of Hamilton’s story struck Miranda as essentially hip-hop. Consequently, one of America’s most significant political figures was revived for the Broadway stage.
Portrayed by Miranda, Alexander Hamilton’s vision for himself and America is evident from the moment he steps on stage. However, the first words uttered in the show come from his antagonist, Aaron Burr, portrayed by Leslie Odom Jr.
“How does a bastard, orphan, son of a whore and a/Scotsman, dropped in the middle of a/Forgotten spot in the Caribbean by providence/Impoverished, in squalor/Grow up to be a hero and a scholar?” The next two acts are dedicated to answering this very question.
In this opening number titled “Alexander Hamilton,” Burr is joined by elite political figures including George Washington, James Madison and Thomas Jefferson, as well as the Schuyler sisters. It is in this initial number that audiences notice a historical discrepancy: the cast is racially diverse. Alexander Hamilton is Latino, George Washington is black and no two Schuyler sisters are of the same ethnicity. In fact, the only white male actor is Jonathan Groff, who takes on the oddly hysterical role of King George III.
In a country known to be founded by white males, this is an attempt to rewrite history and present America for what it truly is: a melting pot. This is a groundbreaking vision for theater casting and production—and a notable reason as to why the musical has received high critical acclaim. In a story that historically stars white men, Miranda presents a racially diverse cast while simultaneously highlighting the role of women in Hamilton’s journey to the history books. This is a small, yet remarkable, step in ending the deficit of diversity in the arts.
The story itself is one that textbooks have unfortunately minimalized to a great extent. Alexander Hamilton, the author of the Federalist papers, a member of Continental Congress and the first secretary of treasury, was once a 19-year-old kid with virtually nothing to his name other than the age-old determination to find success in America. One of the show’s initial numbers, “My Shot,” finds Hamilton grilling future political rival Burr for a means to receive a speedy, yet thorough, education. Just like his country, Hamilton is “young, scrappy and hungry” and eager to earn an education and participate in the American Revolution. His dreams soon become a reality as he works alongside George Washington, portrayed by Christopher Jackson, and their relationship manifests the skill that eventually paves Hamilton’s path to greatness.
His personal relationships develop alongside his career, outlining the influence his wife, Eliza Schuyler, portrayed by Phillipa Soo, and her sister, Angelica Schuyler, portrayed by Renée Elise Goldsberry, had on Hamilton in his heyday. The women offer the young politician unfaltering support and fierce loyalty, but as passion, scandal and heartbreak enter their family, the sisters find themselves forced to make a choice between the man they love and the lives they deserve.
Too often, history glazes over the role women played in the early years of our country’s growth. However, Miranda not only emphasizes the influence of the Schuyler sisters but also their struggle, integrity and eventual success as women in early America. The Schuyler sisters steal the show with numbers such as “Helpless” and “Satisfied,” both of which reveal the true nature of the sisters’ relationships with Hamilton. The sisters are forces to be reckoned with and pillars of their community, emulating the confidence and command of the political elite.
It is this command, this power, that is so sought after by the politicians from number to number. “History Has Its Eyes on You,” “The Room Where It Happens” and “The World Was Wide Enough” emphasize the struggle of power between the early leaders of our nation—and, more importantly, their craving to develop a free and honest country. Freedom is not only the foundation of America, but it is at the root of this musical as each politician fights to better a country whose freedom they were willing to die for.
“Hamilton” is a work of excellence, one of brilliance and pure genius. It is brimming with passion. It hooks you and destroys you. It is unique to any production the stage has ever seen. Miranda tells history with a thorough honesty, taking into account all perspectives and details; he rewrites every textbook to leave no voice unheard.
There is a haunting sense of equality in this production, something so rarely seen in history. There is no discrimination between gender, race or even political party. Each side to every story and every conflict is presented. Sides are not taken. Even after fatally shooting Hamilton in the final event of their historic rivalry, Aaron Burr speaks out. Our leaders are presented without bias and the story of the birth of our nation is told, shedding light on both the good and the bad.
As the curtain falls on this chapter of history, the cast steps forward, together. Hamilton and George Washington link arms with the chorus members. The Schuyler sisters grab the hands of each dancer. No leading star takes a bow independently. The cast is not presented in order of prominence; the roles are equal. They come together and bow once, together: a perfect union.
Photo courtesy of Vogue.