The audience watches as Hamilton (Lin-Manual Miranda) takes Eliza’s (Phillipa Soo) hand and leads her into the spotlight. The camera pans to Eliza’s face as her eyes fill with tears. Taking in the legacy that she helped create, Eliza lets out a heartbreaking gasp, and the screen goes black.
Eliza, the resilient wife of Hamilton, is the primary reason why “Hamilton” the Broadway musical was created. “Hamilton” tells the life story of one of America’s founding fathers, Alexander Hamilton. Throughout his life, Hamilton strove to create a legacy that would outlast him. After his death, Eliza continued to tell his story and share his accomplishments, creating the legacy around which the Broadway show “Hamilton” revolves.
Allyson Hobbs, associate professor of U.S. History and director of the African and African-American Studies program, discussed the impacts of “Hamilton” in her July 9 lecture “Who Lives, Who Dies, Who Tells Your Story: Hamilton and the Re-staging of America’s Past,” offered by the Stanford Summer Session as part of their ongoing speaker series. She explained that the main argument of the play is that American history is an open book, and Hamilton’s ability to write himself into the narrative is a prime example of this.
Hamilton embodies liberal ideas, specifically progressive, interracial and multicultural patriotism. Hobbs said that “self making and nation building, for Hamilton, were aspects of a single project.”
Hobb’s lecture occurred only a week after the filmed version of “Hamilton” came out.
The movie premiered on Disney Plus on Friday, July 3.“Hamilton” was written by the talented Lin Manuel-Miranda, and directed by Thomas Krail. The casting, storytelling and acting in this show are phenomenal, creating a masterpiece.
“The close-ups and camera movements in the film version enhance the charisma of the performers, adding a dimension that compensates for the loss of electricity of the live theatrical experience,” Hobbs said in her lecture.
The casting within this show, both the live and filmed versions, is incredible. The way that each cast member portrays their characters is irreplaceable, making the audience forget that these characters are historical figures. Each actor embodies their character in every way. Normally, Broadway tends to stick with racial stereotypes when casting. However, Miranda completely defies this construct with his diverse cast. Ignoring that most of the historical figures in this show were white, “Hamilton” shows that race does not need to be a critical part of casting.
However, some critics argue no amount of diverse casting can erase the exclusion of people of color. While Black and brown people play the characters in Hamilton, they do not get to share the history of people of color during the American Revolution. In fact, this diverse casting could distort historical figures and their legacies, dismissing the negative aspects of their history.
For example, Hobbs suggests that in scenes where Daveed Diggs portrays Thomas Jefferson, “the actor’s Blackness visually distances his performance of racism from Jefferson’s whiteness. [This] enabl[es] a largely white audience to forget the degree in which they are implicated in the violent anti-Black history in the United States.”
Hobbs made it clear that while it was on Broadway, “Hamilton” was significantly critiqued by historians and scholars.
“Despite the exquisite choreography, the enthralling story, the exceptionally talented cast, there are still faults to be found,” Hobbs said in her lecture. “Its hero and its message are essentially ambivalent about slavery and racial equality.”
The founding fathers are painted as inspirational and kind; however, their wrongdoings are barely, if at all, present within the show. “Hamilton” excludes the narratives of people of color that helped with the revolution. Slavery and racism are glossed over by the historical figures, letting the audience forget the long and devastating history America has with slavery.
Furthermore, many of Hamilton’s significant beliefs are ignored. Hobbs cites Hamilton’s marriage into a slave-owning family as an example. Miranda chose to portray Hamilton as someone who is anti-slavery, but his actions signal otherwise. Hobbs explained that while Hamilton is portrayed as an outsider, “in reality, [he] faced none of the discrimiation wielded against immigrants.”
Hobbs also noted that the show has been criticized for its portrayal of female characters.
“Some critics argue that the female characters simply do not get enough stage time, and when they do appear on stage their desires, hopes, fears, plans and narratives exist only in relation to Alexander, the man at the center of the musical,” she said.
One such occurrence is Angelica Schulyer’s feminist revision to the Declaration of Independence in “The Schulyer Sisters.” The lyrics read, “When I meet Thomas Jefferson, I’m going to compel him to include women in the sequel.” The line is followed by, “look around, look around, at how lucky we are to be alive right now.” Hobbs believes that this line brushes off the show’s most feminist critique of the revolution.
While I understand these critiques, I believe that Hamilton also displays many feminist moments. At the very end of the show, Miranda makes it abundantly clear that Hamilton’s legacy is a result of Eliza Hamilton. She is a strong woman figure, who stands up for herself when her husband cheats on her and continues on after the death of her son and husband.
The meaning of “Hamilton” has transformed since it first came out because the way Americans talk about history and its implications has changed.
Social media posts directed at Miranda attempted to hold the musical accountable by calling out this inequality. In response Miranda tweeted, “All the criticisms are valid. The sheer tonnage of complexities & failings of these people I couldn’t get. Or wrestled with but cut. I took 6 years and fit as much as I could in a 2.5 hour musical. Did my best. It’s all fair game.” As an audience we should treasure the Broadway masterpiece that is “Hamilton,” but the show’s creator agrees that it is also crucial for us to remember the flaws in the founding fathers of our country.
Hobbs explained that while “Hamilton” is not flawless, it is still a work of art. She stated, “Hamilton reminds us… that America is unfinished, it is an ongoing project that our democracy is contradictory and fragile.”
This article has been updated to reflect that Allyson Hobbs’ lecture on July 9 was offered by the Stanford Summer Session as part of their ongoing speaker series.
Contact Sonali Muthukrishnan at sonali.muthukrishnan ‘at’ gmail.com.