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Spring 2023

Olivia Skinner, "The Blindness and Consciousness of Color in Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton" [Article]

   “We hold these truths to be self-evident that all men are created equal.” From the Declaration of Independence of the United States, directly to the Broadway stage, these truths can be seen as the cast of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton make their way to the spotlight. A world-wide debate regarding this cast has re-introduced the idea of what it means to be considered “equal.” Hamilton: An American Musical is a “story of America then, told by America now,” portraying the life story of founding father Alexander Hamilton, through the means of song and dance (Delman). In the original cast, Alexander Hamilton is played by Lin Manuel Miranda himself, who is of Puerto Rican descent (Murray). Various other Founding Fathers, including George Washington (Christopher Jackson), Thomas Jefferson (Daveed Diggs), James Madison (Okieriete Onaodowan), and Aaron Burr (Leslie Odom Jr.). As well as other key players in the Revolutionary War, such as Marquis de Lafayette (Daveed Diggs), Hercules Mulligan (Okieriete Onaodowan), and John Laurens (Anthony Ramos) are all played by people of color, namely of African American and Hispanic descent.The only white characters in the entire cast are King George (Jonathan Groff) and several members of the background ensemble (Mackelden). The cast was handpicked by Miranda himself, but the reasons for his choices have introduced a widespread controversy:  raising the question of whether the cast was chosen in a color-blind sense, or  if it was  chosen color-conscious, color-blind casting is “where characters for a performed work (theater, TV, film) are cast without regard to race, gender, age, etc.” (“Colorblind casting”), while color-conscious casting is done with the specific intention of including people of color in the cast in a symbolic or metaphorical way to add to the meaning of the story as a whole. Replacing a character of one race with an actor of another is often referred to as “race substitution,” and the race substitution of Hamilton has sparked debate not just regarding its color-blindness or color-consciousness, but also if the substitution was necessary to the telling of Alexander Hamilton’s story (Wills). The following essay argues that the cast of Hamilton was deliberately chosen in a color-conscious way to add a complication to the themes of the musical of inclusivity, to portray the demographic melodies of American history against the story of “America then.”
   Lin-Manuel Miranda, is a  writer, composer, actor, and director who has been involved in many  films and TV shows: Tick, tick... BOOM!, Vivo, In the Heights, DuckTales, Bojack Horseman, Brooklyn Nine-Nine, Mary Poppins Returns, Moana, and most recently, Disney’s Encanto (“Lin-Manuel Miranda”). He began his work on Hamilton in 2009, after President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama invited him to participate in an “evening of live performances centered on the American experience” (Mead). Miranda had just starred in In the Heights on Broadway, a musical about the diverse Latin-American culture in Washington Heights, and the Obamas were expecting him to perform something similar to a musical number from the show. However, Miranda proposed something different – a few months earlier he and his girlfriend had been in Mexico on vacation, and to keep himself entertained at the poolside, he began to read a book “that he had bought on impulse: Ron Chernow’s eight hundred-page biography of Alexander Hamilton” (Mead). Chernow’s biography of Hamilton was published in 2005 as a “riveting story of a man who overcame all odds to shape, inspire, and scandalize the newborn America” (“Alexander Hamilton”). Inspired by this book, Miranda began to work on a musical number about Alexander Hamilton for the Obamas’ performance evening. The song was such a success that he  began to write what would become Hamilton. . After 6 years in the making, Hamilton premiered in July of 2015, and officially opened on Broadway’s stage on August 6th (“Hamilton: An American Musical”).
   The casting requirements of Hamilton, at least for the 2016 Chicago production, can be found at Backstage cast listing. Allbut one of the principal roles, that of King George, include the phrase “non-white” (“Hamilton”). These are the descriptions for Hamilton, Washington, and King George: 

Alexander Hamilton: Male, 30-39 

non-white, an earnest, ambitious hothead, a man possessed. Speaks his mind, no matter the cost. Must be able to rap very well. Eminem meets Sweeney Todd; tenor-baritone; principal. 

Ethnicity: All Ethnicities 

George Washington: Male, 30-49 

non-white, sings and raps in equal measure, authoritative, regal, aloof, aware of his place in history at all times. John Legend meets Mufasa; tenor/baritone; principal.
Ethnicity: All Ethnicities 

King George: Male, 30-49 

the King of England. Entitled, pouty nihilist. Sees the American Colonies as a delude former lover, who will come crawling back. Rufus Wainwright meets King Herod in JCS; tenor, British accent; principal.
Ethnicity: White/European Descent

   Although these casting descriptors are for the Chicago production, and not the Broadway production, the casting call was released at the same time (July 2016) by the same production company.The Chicago production and the New York production likely feature the exact same requirements.  This casting call reveals that Lin-Manuel Miranda’s decision to feature a cast primarily of people of color was deliberate and shared by the musica’s producers. The actors chosen to play the founding fathers were mostly of African American and Hispanic descent, even when the casting call only specified “non white” – the only member of the original cast of Asian descent was Hamilton’s wife, Elizabeth “Eliza” Schuyler, played by Phillipa Soo (Mackelden). Actors and actresses of African American andHispanic descent were consciously chosen to  symbolize the resilience of  enslaved peoples, both Indigenous Americans and African Americans, during the Revolutionary Era.Some claim that having people of color as the founding fathers also serves as a way to represent the people of color whose contributions to the foundation of the country were largely ignored: black and brown persons have lived in America for the same length of time, if not longer, than their white counterparts. Historically, their views and contributions have been pushed aside and overridden by those of white persons.he show’s cast, many of whose own ancestors were given no credit for their part in building the United States, depict the equally valuable stories that were overshadowed by a white-dominant narrative. A diverse and inclusive history, featuring the stories and contributions of people of color, aid in obtaining “a fuller picture of the country in which we all live” (Krajnyak). Only in fairly recent times have the contributions of people of color in the construction of the United States of America been acknowledged and appreciated. For hundreds of years, the credit of the foundations of America have only been given to the white men –namely, the founding fathers – while the literal, physical work performed by the enslaved peoples to establish a successful economy and culture were disregarded. 
   The glorification of the Founding Fathers is another significant piece to the controversy of Hamilton as a whole. Some critics argue that by having an entire musical dedicated to the Founding Fathers who mostly owned slaves and exploited people of color, the musical is thus glorifying these white men and claiming that they are inherently blameless. Lyra D. Monteiro  argues, for instance, that “the play is nonetheless yet another rendition of the ‘exclusive past,’ with its focus on the deeds of ‘great white men’and its silencing of the presence and contributions of people of color in the Revolutionary era” ( Monteiro 90). The conversation of slavery is not left out of the production of Hamilton entirely – in fact, there are several songs where slavery is directly mentioned and criticized. The closing song,, Who Lives, Who Dies, Who Tells Your Story?, features the entire cast and ensemble singing about the recently deceased Alexander Hamilton, as well as how his wife, Elizabeth Schuyler, has continued to carry on his legacy after his early passing. When singing about George Washington, she sings: “I raised funds in D.C. for the Washington Monument,” to which Washington echoes, “She tells my story!” Eliza then comments, “I speak out against slavery, you [Alexander Hamilton] could’ve done so much more if you only had time” (Miranda, “Who Lives...”). George Washington’s character, in all productions of the musical, knowingly and shamefully nods following Eliza’s comment that was directed at him, and backs away into the ensemble, symbolizing his personal acknowledgement of the shame of slavery. Though slavery was a significant piece of American history, it is largely not mentioned in the musical Hamilton; since Hamilton himself did not own slaves as an adult, and died during his beginnings of the fight against slavery, an explicit discussion of slavery is inherently left out. Substituting people of color as these founding fathers, metaphorically draws into the conversation, and criticizes them for claiming that the people of color portraying them could be considered less than human. The color-conscious casting of Hamilton serves as a means to finally include these people of color in the halls of government they had been ostracized from for decades. If we begin to exclude people of color from representing the people who had been ostracizing them, it proves that there has been no learning or advancement from a history of exclusion and othering.
   Though the casting was done to promote the message and theme of inclusivity, both physically on the stage and metaphorically in a society, some critics argue that only including actors and actresses of color has a racist undertone.Monteiro, claims that the casting portrays a sense of Revolutionary American history in which black and brown persons had no significant role (“Lyra D. Monteiro”): “This idea that the musical “looks like America now” in contrast to “then,” however, is misleading and actively erases the presence and role of black and brown people in Revolutionary America, as well as before and since. America “then” did look like the people in this play, if you looked outside the halls of government. This has never been a white nation” (Monteiro 93). Monteiro is correct in her statement that America has never been a white nation, since it was built from the work and resilience of people of color.However, her claim that the slogan “A story of America then, told by America now” erases the significance of people of color in the foundations of American history misses the mark of the significance of their place in Hamilton: An American Musical. “Then” refers to the Revolutionary era of American history, the time in which contributions of black and brown persons were taken advantage of and accredited to white landowners. Alexander Hamilton himself is known as one of the only Founding Fathers to be openly critical of slavery, regardless of the pressures from his fellow Founding Fathers or his in-laws, the Schuylers, all of which owned slaves (Klein). Having a cast of people of color in this modern era serves as a representation that directly juxtaposes the “white” history of America, when people of color were not even considered people, and when white men ruled the country. Portraying the Founding Fathers as people of color serves as a physical representation of the work of an inclusiveAmerica in which people of color are included inside and outside the halls of government. 
   The controversy of Hamilton, regarding its inclusion of people of color, has not just struck the common theater critic, but has also made its way beyond the curtains of theater and among the conversations of both fans and non-fans alike. For purposes of obtaining responses to the controversy from a vast variety of people, I conducted a survey entitled “Hamilton and Race” via Google Forms. The survey was sent to friends, family members, and other peers via text message and various social media platforms. With 58 responses, all consented to the use of their responses in this paper from the first question, “Do you consent to the use of your responses being mentioned in a research paper? (You will remain entirely anonymous),” with all responses selecting “Yes.” The more content-based questions ranged from multiple choice to free-response. Of all 58 participants, the majority (39) were female, followed by male (17), then other (2). Most of the participants ranged from 18-25 years old (40), with some being over the age of 25 (17), then one (1) being under the age of 18.
   From the question, “How familiar are you with the Broadway show Hamilton? Pick the best that describes you,” these were the results from multiple choice: I am a die-hard fan (8), I am very familiar with it (17), I am sort of familiar with it (13), I know what it is but don’t know much about it (17), I have no idea what that is (3). The bulk of the respondents were at least familiar with the musical; I used the term “Broadway show” in my question in case people were familiar with the concept, but did not know if it was a musical. A more credible survey would likely need to include a higher percentage of those who know nothing about the musical, but for the purposes of this research, only three (3) were entirely unfamiliar with the musical. However, this wide array of familiarity with Hamilton led to more responses in similarity than originally predicted.
    The next question is as follows: “Do you think the actors/actresses chosen to play the characters of Hamilton (the Founding Fathers, their wives, etc.) were well cast?” These were the responses from multiple choices: Absolutely yes (12), Yes (16), Sort of yes (8), Neutral (20), Sort of no (1), No (1), Absolutely no (0). This question was included as a means to allow the participant to envision the cast of Hamilton, and what they personally consider to be a “well cast” musical. There is nothing specified with race in order to have a less persuaded, less biased group of responses that could potentially consider their races in a question of if the musical was well cast or not.
   The following question introduces the idea of race into the survey: “Do you think the race of the actors/actresses of Hamilton has a significant impact on how the story is relayed to the audience?” All 58 participants responded to the multiple choice: Absolutely yes (6), Yes (13), Sort of yes (13), Neutral (13), Sort of no (4), No (6), Absolutely no (3). This question was immediately followed by a free response, “In as many or as little words as you like, explain your answer to the question above.” Unfortunately, only 42 of the 58 participants responded to the open-ended question, with some of the responses being a few words, while others were paragraphs. Some of the most thorough and lengthy responses include: 

“I think most people would have assumed that seeing as many of the actors are people of color, they would have been treated differently than the people they played since they’re white. I’m sure there was an appreciation for the opportunity for more POCs to be present in media/theatre, but some are opposed to the fact that it’s not “historically accurate” but then again it’s a musical so it doesn’t need to be?? A lot of POCs in the arts were ecstatic to see a presence of people like them in a historical piece, which is rare!”

“Hamilton was a modern take on Alexander Hamilton’s story. The rap and singing combines with the diverse cast to create a new and fresh lens to tell the story of a founding father in a relatable way, that kids and adults both enjoy.”

“Hamilton's cast had mostly minorities cast for the major roles, which depicted the Founding Fathers as people of color. While I love the irony of that, it still irks me in a sense because these Founding Fathers persecuted the very races that these people are. In fact, the score and writing seems to glorify the actions colonialism in America, which did create the country we live in today, but that does not make it any more controversial.”

   Although there was such a wide variety of responses ranging in length, specificity, and agreement, the general consensus among the respondents was that the races of the cast members did have a significant effect on the musical. The effect was focused on the diversity of the musical, and how that diversity has a significant role towards what America is defined as now, compared to then. “Don’t be shocked when the history book mentions me,” exclaims Alexander Hamilton in the song My Shot (Miranda, “My Shot”). For centuries, the history books have only mentioned the infamous white men of the past; there is almost no mention of people of color, unless describing the Slave Trade from Africa, or Harriet Tubman. Though Alexander Hamilton sings this line to proclaim his significance in the Revolutionary War, it also breaks the fourth wall by telling the audience that Lin-Manuel Miranda, who is playing Alexander Hamilton, will be mentioned in these history books.Miranda is speaking for the people of color who, for centuries, were cast aside and forgotten to be mentioned.
   The next question on the survey, also multiple choice, had an almost even split between two of the answer choices: “Do you think solely casting people of color in Hamilton for a majority of the primary roles is beneficial, harmful, or has no effect?” All participants responded to the question: Beneficial (21), Harmful (3), No effect (11), I’m not sure (23). The responses “I’m not sure” and “Beneficial” had the most responses at an almost even rate. 
   The last question, also with a free response following, was: “Do you believe the casting of Hamilton is color-blind or color-conscious?” Only 57 of the 58 participants responded to the multiple choice: Color-blind (4), Color-conscious (28), Both (8), Neither (5), I’m not sure what these words mean (12). An overwhelming 28 people, or 49.1%, selected “Color-conscious,” making nearly half of the respondents claiming that Hamilton is a color-conscious work. The theatrical definitions for color-blind and color-conscious were intentionally excluded from the survey in order to allow the participants to respond to the best of their own previous knowledge. Including a definition could lead to a misinterpretation, misunderstanding, or further confusion. Regardless of a lack of inclusion of these definitions, the majority of the participants had already previously experienced the concept of a color-conscious or a color-blind cast, and responded. Only 37 of the participants answered the free response that followed, with the responses once again ranging in length and specificity. These are a few of the first few responses: 

“I feel that it was color-conscious because it managed to portray America’s racist beginnings with actors of color. It changed the narrative and had a huge impact on society at the time, at least in my opinion.”

“...All in all, I believe that this production has definitely altered the way our country views race and provides an educational aspect since we can relate what is stated in the show to real life politics today. “

“There is no such thing as color blind. To eliminate racism we have to consciously create opportunity for marginalized groups.”

   The participants of the survey, in the free-response, generally agreed that Hamilton is a color- consciousness worked to highlight the sub-themes of slavery and othering. Its provocation of cognitive dissonance  in viewers was intended to stress the importance of portraying people of color in positions of government and power.
   Hamilton: An American Musical has captured the hearts and spirits of millions of people across the world, and most importantly, the American citizens themselves. Having a musical that explains the life, successes, failures, flaws, work, and death of Alexander Hamilton helps not just to share his story, but the stories of those who followed in his footsteps and aided him in establishing America as a capable and new nation. Lin-Manuel Miranda chose to feature people of color as a direct means to share a uniquely American story: the story of the enslaved persons who worked for the very people which America claims as its creators, who did not consider these enslaved people as a significant part of the nation. America “then” was built by the work of enslaved African Americans and Indigenous peoples from the North, South, and Central Americas. America “now” still has a way to go with its inclusion of people of color in the conversation. Hamilton serves as a means to personify the Founding Fathers as the people they so blatantly took advantage of, by directly placing them in their positions of power. Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton was cast consciously and deliberately to include people of color to display the resilience and significance of black and brown persons in the creation of the Land of the Free.

 

Works Cited 
 

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Mead, Rebecca. “All About the Hamiltons.” The New Yorker, 9 February 2015, https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2015/02/09/hamiltons. 

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Miranda, Lin-Manuel. “Who Lives, Who Dies, Who Tells Your Story?” Genius, 25 September 2015, https://genius.com/Original-broadway-cast-of-hamilton-who-lives-who-dies-who tells-your-story-lyrics. 

Monteiro, Lyra D., et al. “Race-Conscious Casting and the Erasure of the Black Past in Lin Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton.” The Public Historian, vol. 38, no. 1, [National Council on Public History, University of California Press], 2016, pp. 89–98, https://www.jstor.org/stable/26420757. 

Murray, Lorraine. “Lin-Manuel Miranda.” Britannica, Last Updated 9 February 2022, https://www.britannica.com/biography/Lin-Manuel-Miranda.
 
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