Guest Blog by Stacy Wolf (FS2)
Yes, I loved Hamilton. From the moments the lights come up, it’s electric, exhilarating, pulsing, infectious. It’s fast, kinetic, beautifully designed, superbly performed. The performance grabs you and holds you for 2½ hours. I got to see it first at the Public last year (as it turns out, the same performance that the Clintons attended, which provided layers of irony and heightened awareness for the entire audience, as we watched a former and possibly future President watch actors playing past presidents and politicians).
I saw it again Broadway in November with my students and some colleagues among a packed house of thrilled young people. It’s amazing to see so many young people of color in a Broadway theatre—that fact alone is enough to warrant this musical’s blockbuster success. Even though our seats were near the back of the Richard Rodgers Theatre, we could see perfectly and had a great view of the powerful lighting design and fluid set changes. Lesson to all: if you can get tickets, you can sit in the very back and still love this show. (The audience demographics have shifted, it seems, because it’s the hottest and most expensive ticket in town. During a recent talk at Princeton, Claudia Rankine observed that when she saw the show, most of the audience was white and older.)
So many words have been spilled on this musical, and such valuable commentary has been published—most recently James McMaster’s astute “Why Hamilton is Not the Revolution You Think it Is” on HowlRound—in addition to the flood of crucial fans’ cheers for the show. I’m adding my thoughts to the mix to expand the discussion and to demonstrate how we can love musicals that also trouble us. Last month at BroadwayCon (another incredible and inspirational theatre event), I moderated a lively panel titled “Is Your Fave Problematic?” The audience was eager to talk about shows that they love but that represent women or people of color in unflattering or stereotypical ways. A takeaway of that session was that we have to keep talking and embrace ambivalence and contradiction in our spectatorship and fandom. This piece is meant to gesture in that direction.
So: what about Hamilton’s women?
Let me say first that Lin-Manuel Miranda’s idea to transform Ron Chernow’s biography of Alexander Hamilton was nothing short of brilliant. By casting the U.S.’s founding fathers as hip-hop singing men of color, the show radically revises our perspective on the very meaning of this country’s origins. It’s not surprising that New York City public high school students are attending the show to learn U.S. history and that history teachers across the U.S are using the musical’s cast album as a textbook of sorts.
In addition to the eponymous character currently played with infinite charisma by the author (though he’ll soon be replaced by Javier Muñoz , his current understudy who performs each Sunday), Hamilton’s fellow-travelers are precisely drawn and charmingly embodied by Leslie Odom, Jr. as Hamilton’s archenemy and eventual killer, Aaron Burr, Daveed Diggs as a Frenchified Thomas Jefferson, Jonathan Groff as 1970s crooner King George (a role created by and wearing the ghost of Brian d’Arcy James), and Christopher Jackson as a reasonable and strict George Washington.
Within the hip hop rhythms, Miranda assigns each character a catchy lyric or musical motif so that when each returns, the audience immediately understands who he is and how he fits into the story. For example, King George’s thrice reprised melody in “What Comes Next?,” “You’ll Be Back,” and “I Know Him” brings down the house with its lilting, bubble gum pop tune, its series of “da da da da da,” and its irresistibly droll lyrics, like “Cuz when push comes to shove, / I will kill your friends and family to remind you of my love” and his wide-eyed surprise that George Washington will not rule the USA forever.
Repeated (nay, obsessive) listenings to the cast album has heightened my appreciation for the sharp, precise, evocative, always super-intelligent, and piercingly funny lyrics and the musical themes that give the piece an ensured unity. This cast album, which combines contemporary music and linguistic vernacular with musical theatre’s age-old conventions to tell what might be imagined as a staid history lesson, gives back in a big way. I witnessed some cast members’ impressive freestyling at BroadwayCon on January 22 (again, to a packed, screaming, and ecstatic audience), but this show draws as much on musical theatre’s key elements of catchy phrasing, repeated choruses, and meaningful lyrics as it does on hip hop.
The strength of the cast album and its wildly successful reception harkens back to a mid-20th century era when fans across the U.S who would be unlikely ever to experience a musical on Broadway could nonetheless participate in this form of popular culture by purchasing and listening to the cast album, an experience familiar to millions of baby boomers. I’ve heard more than a few of my students singing songs from Hamilton, though they haven’t (yet) seen the show. Though the producers have already set a September 27, 2016 opening date for a Chicago production and are looking towards productions in London’s West End and in other U.S. cities, this musically-varied, melodically-catchy, harmonically-rich, and lyrically sharp cast album is unbelievably satisfying as a stand-alone experience.
At this point, it’s hard to separate the power of the production itself from the audience’s adoring reception. At the performance I attended, lengthy applause followed Miranda’s cannily understated entrance after a long description of his character at the beginning of the show. Burr narrates, “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?” which leads to his account of the elders’ advice to the youth, “’Get your education, don’t forget from whence / you came, and / the world’s gonna know your name. What’s your name, man?’” and he answers quietly, “Alexander Hamilton,” and the audience goes crazy.
Another huge round of appreciative shouts followed Hamilton and Lafayette’s line late in Act 1: “Immigrants: / We get the job done” before the victorious Battle of Yorktown. Listening to this response reminded me of how I felt when I saw In the Heights numerous times (which was created by the same team of Miranda, director Thomas Kail, choreographer Andy Blankenbuehler, and orchestrator and musical director Alex Lacamoire): this is the very transformation of Broadway. Like In the Heights, Hamilton retains an awareness that it’s telling a story—and a new one at that—and using seductive aliveness of theatre.
On a remarkably simple and beautiful wood-evoking set of levels and stairs (designed by David Korins), the ensemble, which is on stage for most of the show, either on the floor or on the levels and catwalks above, plays a range of characters. Costumed in a muted palette with bright accents, they’re observers and participants, and they comment on the action in big, richly harmonized sound. Their choreography, sometimes in unison but more typically in individualized gestures and patterns, creates a sense of movement, of time passing, of specific settings and events.
Minimal set pieces—a table, a stool, a chair—indicate location, but place and the atmosphere are created by Howell Binkley’s lighting design. The lights define space, frequently casting shadows on the floor to indicate the size of a room and the time of day with gobos making pictures that tell the audience where we are. The lights also direct our view in a mass of moving bodies, and the cues are fast and furious and frequently coordinate with the music’s beat for emphasis.
Experiencing Hamilton—the show, the cast album, and the near hysterical adoration that’s accompanied its arrival to the musical theatre scene—calls up the ambivalence so familiar to the feminist spectator-critic. It also inspires that “am I crazy?” and “here I go: the killjoy” feeling. Of course, Hamilton can’t do everything that every musical theatre fan and theatre-goer wants: no show can. But still, I was enormously disappointed in the role of women play in Hamilton.
There, I said it.
The musical features three women: the two eldest Schuyler sisters (the youngest sister, Peggy, only appears in the opening number when the sisters are introduced (“and Peggy!” she chimes in) and in a few other group songs) and Maria, the seductress. The sisters are introduced in a catchy song with tight harmony reminiscent of the Pointer Sisters. Though the ensemble describes them as desirable because their father is rich, once they sing for themselves, they’re a force, delighted to be living in New York City: “Look around, look around at how / Lucky we are to be alive right now! / History is happening in Manhattan and we / just happen to be in the greatest city in the / world!”
Angelica, played by the sensational Renée Elise Goldsberry, who won both the Lucille Lortel and Drama Desk Awards for her performance, is the eldest and is smart, as she sings, “I’m lookin’ for a / mind at work!” Intellectual and ambitious, she sings, “I’ve been reading Common Sense by Thomas / Paine. / So men say that I’m intense or I’m insane. / You want a revolution? I want a revelation / So listen to my declaration.” She’s also self-aware: “’We hold these truths to be self-evident / That all men are created equal.’ / And when I meet Thomas Jefferson, / I’m ‘a compel him to include women in the / sequel!” Here the musical lets the audience know that it knows what it’s doing with gender. This show is too smart not to know. In an interview with Rebecca Mead, Miranda said that Angelica is the smartest character in the show.
Angelica is not only intelligent, she’s also savvy. As Michael Schulman writes in The New Yorker, “Angelica and Alexander are equals in wit, but not in status, and she is well aware of her station and its demands.” Schulman quotes the lyrics: “I’m a girl in a world in which / My only job is to marry rich. / My father has no sons so I’m the one / Who has to social-climb for one.” Although she is immediately attracted to Alexander, so is her sister, and Angelica knows that she needs to marry someone wealthy, which she eventually does. Still, she remains intellectually and emotionally attached to Alexander, since both of them “will never be satisfied.”
Angelica becomes Hamilton’s soulmate and though her first song suggests she’ll be an active participant in the country’s formation, she does nothing but pine for Alexander after arranging the match between him and her beautiful and vacuous sister, Eliza. At one point, she urges him to negotiate with Jefferson, again hinting at her backstage power to influence politics.
In spite of Goldsberry’s extraordinary performance, Angelica simply doesn’t have much to do in the musical. In the end, she plays the role of the muse, the supportive sister, the intellectual equal of Hamilton who plays no overt role in the country’s formation. In other words, she is introduced as a remarkable, powerful and potentially ground-breaking character but ultimately occupies a familiar gender stereotype.
Eliza, played by the equally fantastic Phillipa Soo, for her part, is seemingly not very bright: in their first number, when they’re out in the city and her sister revels the political foment of the time, Eliza sings, “Angelica, remind me what we’re looking for . . .” When she meets Alexander, she’s “helpless” with desire, “Down for the count, / And I’m drownin’ / in ‘em.”
Nonetheless, she is beautiful and a loving wife who raises their son to speak French and play the piano. She also pesters Hamilton about paying attention to his son; she harangues him to leave work to “take the summer off and go upstate” with the family. For her, what they have “would be enough” (her musical theme)—the exact opposite of Alexander and Angelica’s temperaments. Even when Angelica returns from London to spend the summer with her family, and Eliza reminds him that John Adams spends time with his family, Hamilton demurs and quips, “John Adams doesn’t / have a real job anyway.”
Later in Act 2, Eliza becomes the sympathetic, long-suffering wife when she finds out about Hamilton’s affair with Maria Reynolds that summer. She is humiliated by the announcement of his extended tryst, recounting that she “thought you were mine” even though Angelica once told her, “Be careful with that one, Love. / He will do what it takes to survive.”
After their son’s death in a duel (because Alexander nobly advises the boy not to kill his opponent but instead shoot at the sky—which he himself does in the fatal duel with Burr), Eliza forgives Alexander (as the Company sings beautifully, “Forgiveness. Can you imagine?” and they move uptown. There she lives peacefully, while he, ever restless, walks the city until he supports Jefferson’s bid for president. This is the last straw for his lifetime enemy Burr, who challenges him to the duel that ends Hamilton’s life. For most of the musical, then, Eliza represents a stereotypical loyal wife.
Maria Reynolds (the excellent Jasmine Cephas Jones, who also plays the small role of Peggy Schuyler), the other woman in the musical and in his life, seduces Hamilton in a gorgeous, bluesy number. Her sole purpose in the show is to get Hamilton into her bed through a performance of her helplessness. (Schulman observes that she “isn’t much more than an archetypal femme fatale—sort of a sultry Rihanna type.”) Like Angelica and Eliza, Maria only exists and functions in the musical in relation to him.
Unfortunately (for Hamilton and for the musical’s gender politics), it’s this matrimonial betrayal that brings Hamilton down. Even though all of the other men—Jefferson, Lafayette, Mulligan, and of course, Burr—hate him personally and politically, they can’t get rid of him until they follow the money trail of his affair.
Hamilton’s dedication to his professional persona and his charming innocence blind him to the implications of the relationship. He even documents the whole encounter, so he thinks, to save his political reputation. Though the musical focuses on this misstep and his naiveté in believing that confessing the affair keeps him politically clean, this major plot device—Hamilton’s destruction —is caused by a woman. Again, this narrative is far too culturally familiar.
The musical offers these power dynamics—both diegetically and performatively—in a nuanced and complex way. Because the show is told from Hamilton’s point of view, even though the other men hate him, the musical sides with him. He’s charming and likeable and politically brave. Though he talks too much and “writes like he’s running out of time,” he’s passionate and opinionated and fully committed to the creation of this new country. From a historical distance, then, he seems perfectly reasonable. He’s ambitious and a workaholic but those traits seem appropriate and admirable given the high stakes of the moment. He’s more sympathetic than the other men, partly because he has more stage time and he’s a fully developed character.
Hamilton is intellectually sharp and politically determined, able to withstand every pressure except the sexual appeal of a woman. His downfall is his weakness for a woman’s seductive power, the weakness of sexual desire, which the musical portrays as understandable: he’s alone in the city; he’s exhausted; he knows he should “say no to this.” We feel bad that he couldn’t resist her. The music is irresistible to the audience, as we witness her pressing him, professing her desire and her need, her helplessness. As The New Yorker’s Schulman writes, “While the show doesn’t let Hamilton off the hook, he comes across more as a dupe than as an adulterer.” But then, the show doesn’t even give Maria the power of a villain, as she is ultimately the pawn in her husband’s blackmail scheme.
In the end, then, the three women in the musical occupy the most conventional and stereotypical roles—muse, wife, whore—which is all the more troubling since Hamilton goes such a long way to dismantle stereotypes of race and masculinity. In his review in The New Yorker, Hilton Als called the musical a “bromance” and found the female characters to be “plot point in silk.” (I agree with this point but disagree that In the Heights has the same problem. Usnavi is that musical’s host and narrator but Nina’s story is well-developed and central to the show.) To be sure, the show is well aware of its gender problems, which it tries to resolve historiographically. When Hamilton’s affair is uncovered, Eliza sings, “I’m erasing myself from the narrative. / Let future historians wonder / How Eliza reacted when you broke her heart,” wresting her point of view into her own hands.
At the end of the show, Eliza decides to “put myself back in the narrative” and offers an account of her life, which continued for 50 years after Hamilton’s death. She becomes an activist, “speak[ing] out against slavery” and founding “the first private orphanage in New York City.” She and Angelica gather Hamilton’s letters, and “I try to make sense of your thousands of pages of writing,” in order to write his story, to write this story.
The supremely intelligent and self-reflexive musical ends with a commentary on the very writing of history, underlining the importance of the author. “Who lives, who dies, who tells your story?” repeats the Company. In the end, Hamilton reveals, all of this exists because of Eliza (and Angelica), her efforts, and her own ability to write and to tell his life’s narrative. She is the author.
The musical’s last number is quiet and choir-like, crammed with information that surprises an audience accustomed for the past 2½ hours to seeing the women on the sidelines. On the one hand, it’s a profound gesture of respect towards Eliza. But theatrically, it’s too little too late. After a musical packed with non-stop movement, dramatic intensity, strong melodies, and galvanizing rhythms, it’s narrowly focused and understated. Though appropriate for the show’s conclusion, it can’t rescue Eliza or women in the musical from their inconsequential role.
This conclusion is not unlike the set pieces at the end of Shakespeare’s plays, like Puck’s “If we shadows have offended, / Think but this, and all is mended” in A Midsummer Night’s Dream or Rosalind’s assertion that “good plays prove the better by the help of good epilogues” in As You Like It. It asks the audience to reflect back on what’s preceded it. We can think about the story and its significance differently but it doesn’t change how we’ve felt during the past few hours in the theatre.
Miranda has stated that he welcomes cross-gender casting when the rights are released for amateur productions, especially high school shows when “no one’s voice is set.” He said, “I’m totally open to women playing founding fathers once this goes into the world. I can’t wait to see kick-ass women Jeffersons and kickass women Hamiltons once this gets to schools.” A gone-viral YouTube clip of #Ham4Ham 1/3/16 with The Ladies of Hamilton features the women actors impersonating the male characters outside the theatre. I think girls in these roles would be sensational and would foreground how little the female characters get to do and how they function in the musical. Like Angelica Schuyler, I’m excited about the sequel.
In the end, for FS2, the issue ultimately isn’t what Hamilton does or doesn’t do. As I said, no musical can do everything and what this show has achieved aesthetically, politically, and demographically is extraordinary and deserves loud praise. I LOVE HAMILTON. But I’m disappointed that there hasn’t been more critical discussion of the role of women in the show.
Finally, it’s fascinating that three of the bravest, smartest, and most entertaining (I mean that in a good way) musicals of the year are single sex-focused: Hamilton, Fun Home, and The Color Purple. Might the presumptive heterosexual narrative of musical theatre have run its course?
Selected additional sources websites consulted:
Ben Brantley, “The Same Founding Father’s Newer Vibe,” New York Times, December 1, 2015, p.C3.
Suzie Evans, “The Room Where It Happens” (Interview with Lin-Manuel Miranda), American Theatre, September 15, 2016, pp.24-31+.
Joanne Kaufman, “A Night Out With Ren Renée Elise Goldsberry of ‘Hamilton,’” New York Times, October 9, 2015.
Claire Lampen, “’Hamilton’ Musical Is Doing a National Tour—Here’s What We Know about Cities and Tickets, Arts.Mic, December 9, 2015.
Ellen Malpert-Greaux, “Birth of a Nation: Colonial Lighting,” Live Design, October 6, 2015.
Charles McNulty, “Critic’s Notebook: ‘Hamilton’s’ revolutionary power is in its hip-hop musical numbers,” Los Angeles Times, November 4, 2015.
Theater People Podcast with Renée Elise Goldsberry (Episode 56), January 4, 2016.
Sierra Tishgart, “Brian d’Arcy James, Jonathan Groff, and Andrew Rannells on Playing Hamilton Fan Favorite King George II,” Vulture, January 14, 2016.
Anthony Tommasini and Jon Caramanica, “Exploring ‘Hamilton’ and Hip-Hop Steeped in Heritage, New York Times, August 27, 2015.