Spoiler Alert: The following article contains spoilers for the plot of Hamilton: An American Musical
Musical theatre enthusiast or not, you’ve probably heard the name ‘Hamilton’ bounce around your social media feeds. Hamilton: An American Musical has become a near global phenomenon, from its first preview Off-Broadway in 2015 to its recent premier on the streaming platform Disney+ on 3rd July 2020. Hamilton chronicles the life of former Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton, his role in the American Revolution and America’s subsequent independence. Its musical style is a melting pot of hip hop, RnB, jazz and classical musical theatre that appeals to musical theatre and rap music lovers alike.
One shining feature of Hamilton is it’s casting choices, namely having almost all of the actors be POC. This decision has been continually praised since the musical’s release, its creators describing the musical as ‘the story of America then, told by America now’. The professional recording of the musical, later coined the Hamilfilm, was scheduled to be released later this year. However, as COVID-19 took centre stage in all of our lives, the decision was made to release the Hamilfilm early on Disney+ in July.
Whilst the plot of the musical largely follows the titular character Alexander Hamilton, we also meet key players in the American Revolution, including familiar names like Thomas Jefferson and George Washington, as well as lesser known figures like Aaron Burr and Eliza Schuyler. In the Hamilfilm, we are treated to incredible performances, most notably Leslie Odom Jr’s tragic portrayal of Aaron Burr and Daveed Diggs’ charismatic performance as Thomas Jefferson.
Despite Hamilton having been an ongoing success since its first show, a new wave of excitement, and criticisms, have surged following the musical’s release on Disney+. One of the most significant criticisms the musical has faced is its omission of slavery and glorification of the founding fathers of America. The plot of the musical spans the latter half of the 18th century and moves into the early 19th century, where slavery was still prominent and a key human rights issue in America. Viewers have criticised the musical's lack of discussion of an issue that was affecting so many lives during this time;the story instead choosing to focus on America’s glory in winning the revolution and the early formation of the country’s government.
The few mentionings of slavery do come from John Laurens, who was a close friend of Hamilton’s and fought in the Revolutionary War. In the song ‘My Shot’, Laurens sings ‘but we'll never be truly free/ Until those in bondage have the same rights as you and me’ and in ‘Yorktown (The World Turn Upside Down)’, Laurens sings ‘We'll never be free until we end slavery!’ John Laurens is remembered for his anti-slavery statements, advocating for the recruitment of black soldiers and promising them freedom in return for their service. Despite these mentionings, after Lauren’s death at the end of Act 1, the topic of slavery is rarely mentioned again.
This discussion continues in Act 2 with the introduction of the flamboyant Thomas Jefferson, who would later become known as the third president of the United States of America. Whilst Laurens’ anti-slavery lyrics felt lack-luster, it is the portrayal of Jefferson that caused a stir with viewers. Thomas Jefferson was an infamous Virginian slave owner, having owned over 600 slaves in his lifetime. Despite these shocking figures, many fans will admit that Daveed’s performance as Jefferson was a highlight of the show. In his introductory number ‘What’d I Miss’, Jefferson sings ‘Haven't even put my bags down yet Sally be a lamb, darlin' won't cha open it?’ in a nonchalant lyric. The ‘Sally’ Jefferson is referring to is actually Sally Hemings, a slave owned by Jefferson, who supposedly birthed six of his children. Many have criticised the musical’s omission of slavery and it is blatantly clear in this brief mention of Hemings, as the rest of the song instead focuses on Jefferson and his achievements. The last time slavery is mentioned in the musical is by Eliza Schuyler in the finale song ‘Who Lives, Who Dies, Who Tells Your Story’, where she sings ‘I speak out against slavery’. By the end, we are left with a strange feeling, where slavery isn’t completely ignored in the story, but doesn’t feel justly represented either.
In a recent Zoom interview with the cast, a fan on Twitter asks creator of the musical, Lin Manuel Miranda, ‘If you had finished writing #Hamilton after viewing the events that have unfolded in the US in 2020 so far, would you have written it any differently?’. Though it is not explicitly said, it’s assumed this fan is addressing where the musical fits in with the Black Lives Matter movement. Miranda is not shy to respond honestly, stating the musical’s text hasn’t changed since 2015 and yet ‘it feels like it changes because the world around it changes.’ He discusses the different reactions the musical received between Obama versus Trump’s presidency, e.g. the line ‘immigrants, we get the job done’, getting a louder reaction in Trump’s presidency as immigration becomes a more prominent topic. Miranda expresses his humbling at seeing Hamilton lyrics at Black Lives Matter protests, but stresses that the movement is struggling with the origins of the US, ‘how it is based on ideals that we fell short of the moment we wrote them down.’ It seems Miranda recognises the hypocrisy that the musical’s story falls victim to: preaching the freedom that came with revolution, but not recognising that this did not mean freedom for all races.
Miranda goes on to say ‘I am well aware that every single one of these characters...are complicit in the original sin of slavery, whose legacies are still being felt to this day.’ He closes off his response by reinstating the key takeaway from the show, that ‘you don’t get to control how you’re remembered...the show doesn’t escape that fate either.’ Overall, as audience members we can recognise how the world has changed around a musical that has remained immutable since its debut in 2015, realising the brutal truth in the flaws of these figures and how some of this truth was wrongfully omitted for the sake of entertainment. Would the show still be as successful if it has focused more on slavery? Many of us would hope so, but sadly this question will remain unanswered.
Despite the musical’s content having not changed, one thing that can change and has is Miranda’s activism. In the wake of the Black Lives Movement, Miranda has used the popularity of Hamilton to host a virtual fundraiser event #Ham4Change. The fundraiser consisted of three digital events ‘to raise funds for organisations working to end systemic racism’ . These organisations include BEAM: Black Emotional and Mental Health Collective and Color of Change .The copy on the website describes the event as featuring ‘an exclusive livestream with appearances by various members of the original cast of Hamilton and special guests.’ Whilst it is important to recognise the faults in Hamilton the Musical, Miranda has used his platform to raise awareness for the Black Lives Matter movement, using the original POC Broadway cast as representatives of marginalised groups suffering during this human rights crisis. At its core, today Hamilton can be viewed as a celebration of the talent of POC in America and how the diverse population of America today can reshape and claim back it’s country’s checkered history.