Nothing puts a spin on red hat-style sentiment quite like Hamilton. Lin-Manuel Miranda’s blockbuster, quintessentially American musical performs in Seattle through September 11 at The Paramount Theatre.
[‘Hamilton’] makes it all right to feel good about America.
— Audience member, as quoted in Vox
Hamilton is the modern all-American musical, and in some ways it’s not even close. With music and delivery straight out of present-day popular culture, it hypes the Founding Fathers, the Constitution, and various others of their written works, whether people know them or not (how many have really dug in with a good read of the Federalist Papers and their detractors, the Anti-Federalists?); drops in still-iconic American places (how many have wandered the grounds at Jefferson’s homestead, Monticello, on one of those D.C.-area tours?); and champions America’s sweet victory against a pompous, smug, and far-removed British reign.
Meanwhile, it glosses over the deep, unatoned-for scars on which the country was founded, including near-annihilation of indigenous populations (while proclaiming the right to freedom from oppressive and unjust rule); “compromises” that legitimized and perpetuated slavery (while lionizing the signers of that founding document); and disenfranchisement of anyone outside the White, male, land-owning class (while praising equality and freedom of opportunity).
In short, it sounds like exactly the sort of history lesson that modern liberals would mobilize against.
But Hamilton turns the tables by centering (on stage) those whose voices have been minimized in the much-told history of who built America. Well, some of those voices anyway. By filling the roles of the Founding Fathers with actors who are predominantly Black and Latino, and telling America’s founding through modern beats of hip-hop influenced popular music, Hamilton looks subversive, re-envisioning the founding and therefore positioning itself as progressive.
It’s centering the voices of the historically (and still) marginalized. Isn’t it?
Look, I’m not about to be the White Guy excoriating artistry centering Not-White Artists, and wildly successful, money-making artistry at that. But I will say that if this White Guy were to cook up a piece of propaganda making America palatable to demographics frequently uncomfortable with America’s history — and the continued glorification, uncritical celebration, and White-washing of it — it’d be hard to think up a more effective artistic tool than Hamilton.
Someone hire Lin-Manuel Miranda as campaign manager. He might be the cleverest political strategist of them all.
In its boundless hype, Hamilton is the great uniter. Even if America’s history doesn’t deserve that sort of celebration. Even when America would benefit from a much more searching criticism of the compromises it was, and has been, willing to make under its banner of freedom.
Plenty of scholars and commentators have made related points much better than I will, and I’ll let them speak for themselves. Among the recommended reads for delving deeper into Hamilton: Prof. Lyra D. Monteiro in Medium (critiquing the false dichotomy in which “Hamilton was either liberatory and revolutionary and racially subversive, OR it was evil and bad and should never have been written much less performed much less lauded”), and reviewing the musical in The Public Historian, an academic journal (“The play can thus be seen as insidiously invested in trumpeting the deeds of wealthy white men, at the expense of everyone else, despite its multiracial casting”); Aja Romano in Vox (“It encourages us to wonder whether Miranda and his creative team even considered how Black history factors into telling Hamilton’s story”); Lily Janiak in Datebook (quoting numerous artists and educators on critiques and impacts of Hamilton, and observing “It’s relatively easy to criticize Hamilton when criticizing it suddenly becomes more popular. It’s a lot harder to take on a whole legacy of all-white plays or to envision and put into practice where theater should go from Hamilton”); David Crow in Den of Geek (quoting Hamilton cast members examining critiques, e.g., Leslie Odom, Jr.: “This is the beginning of a conversation, and I can’t wait to see the show that it inspires”); Hua Hsu in The New Yorker (discussing the development of Ishmael Reed’s critique-in-a-play, The Haunting of Lin-Manuel Miranda); Emily St. James in Vox (“It’s not an accurate record of these people’s lives. It’s a rumination”).
The list goes on. And for all that paragraph is absurdly long, this is interesting, digestible, engagement-worthy stuff.
Now, on with the show.
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Hamilton has leaned into its blockbuster status (and exclusive performance rights, which a church in Texas reportedly ignored this month), not only by streaming to the home-viewing masses through Disney+ but by touring relentlessly. The show has three concurrent touring casts comprising its present North American Tour — up and down both coasts and in Middle America — with dates lined up for a year out. (The Seattle performances feature the “And Peggy” touring cast.) Even still, it remains a hot ticket. Here in Seattle, Hamilton’s August 4 opening night house at The Paramount Theatre, where it performs through September 11, was a packed and giddy one.
It’d be tough to dream up a place that’s better suited to see Hamilton than The Paramount. The theatre’s classical grandeur neatly, and unobtrusively, accents the show’s themes and costuming. As with almost anything at The Paramount, the space keeps an intimate feel and gorgeous sound even with its large capacity. Obviously, closer is better; and while those seats come at a premium, there are some to be had along the margins of the main floor that keep you close to the action.
From its extensive touring, Hamilton is by this point a well-oiled machine while still able to attract excellent talent. Throughout the (enormous) cast, choreography was tight and exchanges, in speech or in song, all done with precision. It’s so precise and rehearsed, in fact, that it can feel more akin to an aerial show than traditional theatre.
It’s hard to fault a stellar cast in a smooth show. Among the standouts, Victoria Ann Scovens (Eliza Hamilton), Maria Harmon (Angelica Schuyler), and Rebecca E. Covington (Peggy Schuyler/Maria Reynolds), collectively comprising a close-knit trio of Schuyler sisters with gorgeous voices, brought depth and vigor to roles pushed out to the margins; Paris Nix delivered a bit of Busta Rhymes inflection and a boatload of swagger as the Frenchman Marquis de Lafayette and Francophile Thomas Jefferson; and Rick Negron’s King George, at once proper and uproarious, brought a welcome breath of over-the-top satire. (This is perhaps where the show feels most pointed today. The haughtiness so objectionable to the Founders as an overseas power reigning over American affairs looks an awful lot like a dig on American ruling classes now — the classes the Founders would themselves no doubt be a part of. And the question of what new rulers will do with power, once they finally get it, is a persistent and pressing one, whether with individuals or with political parties.)
Hamilton‘s novelty includes Founders sparring through rap battles, most notable in the second half. The show has some catchy songs, including ones that have permeated their way into popular parlance even among non theatre-goers. (And really, how often can a musical say that?) Of those, “My Shot” and “The Room Where It Happens” are exemplars. There are also plenty of tracks — particularly ones centered on the title character’s search for, and then propensity to cheat on, his wife — that could be lopped off (and mercifully pare back the nearly three-hour runtime) without harming the flow.
Even on the face of the show, without critically examining its underlying history and cultural impact, Hamilton has some issues. It’s painfully obvious, for example, that the show was written by a man. (Indeed, virtually every aspect of Hamilton, from ideation to orchestration to design, is male-dominated.) Women as envisioned in Hamilton are largely props, to be whined to and cheated on. The one saving grace is the final scene, which pushes Eliza, Hamilton’s wife, into center-stage prominence. But is it of her own accord, or simply to tell his story?
Same goes for the costume design. Paul Tazewell’s Tony Award win for the costumes in Hamilton is on display in many of the show’s wearable centerpieces — the leading characters’ (read: men’s) costumes are undeniably gorgeous. But the central women’s costumes look like an afterthought alongside the men’s, and the female ensemble members’ costumes are so ugly they border on disrespectful. (Seriously, why do the female ensemble members’ ill-fitting getups make them look like colonial insects in G-strings with tights? Who let this happen?)
Thematically and in production, it’s not subtle where the attention lies.
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Hamilton deserves its prominence as a clever, novel work. It’s cool to have a quintessentially American musical, and particularly one that centers People of Color on stage and pushes back against America’s ingrained obsession with Whiteness.
But as Hamilton itself reminds, dissent is at the core of America’s bones. Popularity and prominence — both of the show and the country — should be invitations for reflection and critique, not an insulation from it.
Part of Hamilton’s greatness is that it provides ample fodder for both. And to his credit, the show’s creator appears to be welcoming it.
To be able to really dig into the Hamilton critiques with feeling rather than distant removal, the show is a must-see (preferably with the immediacy of a live show, as it was intended). In my view, the ruminating for days thus far afterwards — and what’s sure to be longer — is more impactful than the three hours of show time itself. It explains why some might see it again and again, even when they have no trouble finding fault with it.
Hamilton runs through 9/11 at The Paramount Theatre in Downtown Seattle. Tickets are $74+, here. Accessibility notes: main restrooms downstairs and upstairs are gendered and multi-stall, with gender-neutral, single-stall restroom on the main floor. Theatre and some common areas are wheelchair accessible. ASL-interpreted performances on 8/14 matinee, 8/17 evening, 8/27 evening, and 9/3 matinee (view ASL performances and tickets here); open captioned performance 9/3 evening (view open captioned performance and tickets here).
Financial accessibility note: All current Hamilton performances offer a “HAM4HAM” ticket lottery for $10 tickets to every show. (The witty promotion title refers to Alexander Hamilton appearing on the $10 bill — a Hamilton to see Hamilton.) You may view lottery info and enter here.
Chase D. Anderson is Editor & Producer of NWTheatre.org.