Diversity: What’s the State of Our Nation?

I know I’m not the first person to wax poetically about Hamilton, nor will I be the last. Hamilton has done what no other show has done before. While listening to the album, you realize just how strong the show is, how wonderful each and every song is, and how crucial to the plot every word is. (To the critics who say the show is too long, try cramming 800 pages of a historical book into a two-hour show and see how much you miss.) No one is talking about the casting when listening to the album, but the witty lyrics and amazing melodies sung by people who have phenomenal voices. And isn’t that what musical theater should be about? The best voices to sing a song rather than the look of an actor?

While watching a show on network TV at 2 AM, I was happy to see Jonathan Groff getting interviewed. It’s rare to see your favorite Broadway stars make an interview that’s not on a theater-related channel or PBS, so I was very excited. That was until the (white) interviewer told Groff that Hamilton was telling the story “wrong” when he explained the multi-racial casting. Sure, Groff laughed it off and the interviewer was trying to be “funny,” but this is what’s wrong in society. Obviously, there weren’t rap battles in the White House and the Schuyler Sisters didn’t belt like Destiny’s Child down the streets of Manhattan, but no historical show gets every word right. These were the pre-internet days, when conversations happened, weren’t recorded, and died! To suggest that Hamilton is not accurate because of the casting is a very hurtful and hateful statement in 2015.

Unfortunately, it is still rare for actors of color to get any sort of prominent role in any medium. Sure, there are your color-specific shows, like The Color Purple, Show Boat, Porgy and Bess, Ragtime, Caroline or Change, In the Heights, Miss Saigon, South Pacific, Pacific Overtures, Flower Drum Song, and The King and I, but how many modern musicals create leading roles for people of color for a non-specific group? If/Then, which was my favorite show of the 2013-2014 season, and one of the few shows that take place now, did a FANTASTIC job with its rainbow casting both in terms of race and LBGTQ-status. But besides a random outlier that’s a show not about Japanese-Americans during World War II, a group of female slaves in Uganda, or Gloria Estefan, how many shows are out there now that celebrate people of color? And how many of these shows become commercial successes?

Outside of Audra McDonald, people of color in the theater scene are going to have a hard time finder work, let alone a juicy role. And here comes Lin-Manuel Miranda, who dares to make a show about the Founding Fathers while weaving in hip hip, and it’s a revelation! The social commentary on the show has made it to main-stream media. It’s a show that takes place at the end of the 18th century, but is so relevant to now. And one ill-informed white woman who want to make a joke, shuts down the whole beauty and brains of the show just like that.

It’s partially Hollywood’s fault, for casting people that look the way they want them to, rather than casting the best actor for a role. Or for having people of color play roles with the whitest names imaginable, because God forbid they change a character’s last name to something ethnic. What white people fail to understand is what it’s like to grow up in a world where you’re not represented. To turn on the TV and to never see anyone that looks like you. To only see one person in a movie that somewhat resembles your family in the background of a crowded scene. I am not just a person of color, but a woman of color. And that color happens to be yellow, a color that Hollywood forgets about except when they need someone to deliver Chinese food with a heavy accent to the main characters. So to see a show like Hamilton, not just on the New York stage, but taking the theater scene by storm, and pop culture at large, grabbing the national spotlight is incredible. To see a sisterhood of Phillipa Soo, Renee Elise Goldsberry, and Jasmine Cephas Jones is nothing short of incredible. For a show to not just have a token minority character, but to turn it on it’s head and to have the token white character be King George III, who is so far removed from what the revolutionists are trying to accomplish, is a revelation. For there to be a rainbow of blacks, browns, and yellows is phenomenal. It shouldn’t be earth-shattering in 2015, but it is.

It is my hope that Hamilton inspires casting directors to continue to create shows that call for people of color. Or take a page from the Shondaland playbook, create juicy roles for every character, see every actor who wants to audition, and end up with a beautiful rainbow of actors, each of whom is capable to killing it at awards season. Viola Davis has said that Annalise Keating in How to Get Away with Murder was not written black, but she made her black because Viola Davis is black. And here she is, making history as the first African-American women to win the Emmy for Best Actress in a show that is filled with gutsy performances. Her Emmy speech said it all: give performers/women of color an opportunity, and they can succeed.

What’s really exciting about Hamilton and its casting is thinking about the crop of superstars whose careers will be launched because of this show. Think of the fresh faces that will play Alexander Hamilton, Thomas Jefferson, George Washington, Eliza Hamilton, Angelica Schuyler, and Maria Reynolds. Think about all the brown, black, and yellow faces who could never picture themselves on a Broadway stage before. Think about all the young kids who, for the first time, will see people that look like them and hear people that sound like them on making art. Even Daveed Diggs admitted he gave up his Broadway dream, thinking there wasn’t a place for him.

I’m sure all actors are thrilled to be in any job they get, and extra when they are cast in a good project. But you can just tell how grateful every actor is to be a part of this show. You know that these actors would be relegated to a boring tertiary character on any tv show, and here they are playing some of the most creatively fulfilling roles, especially those that get to double.

I wrote the above back in December, and never actually posted it. Now, with the addition of #OscarsSoWhite and the so-called Hamilton casting controversy, there’s even more to talk about. I see casting breakdowns every day at work, and most say “Caucasian” when there’s nothing in the script that makes it necessary for the character to be portrayed by a white person. Or there will be a single reference to pretty blue or green eyes, which excludes most people of color. White actors have every opportunity in the world. We let the first year that there were no actors of color nominees go. But when it happened for a second year in a row? That’s when the conversation really took charge. That’s when we started talking about the systemic racism of Hollywood. Barely a month later, and white people are outraged that the Hamilton casting notice asked for non-whites? When the tagline of the show is to show America then with the face of America now? There are plenty of other opportunities for white actors. Let us have this one show. And please let the commercial and critical success of Hamilton prove to Hollywood for once and for all that you don’t need a white lead to have a success. People of color can drive stories too, and sometimes, the stories are even better because of it.

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How does Hamilton go on and on and grow into more of a phenomenon?

Warning: As everyone seems to have memorized the cast album, I’m going to assume that there are no spoilers, but read at your own risk.

As the Schuyler sisters sing, “How lucky we are to be alive right now.” And how lucky I am that my parents chose to live in the suburbs of New York City and to have a mother who insisted on taking me to Broadway musicals as a child. I was lucky enough to see Hamilton at the Public Theater last year, and I was finally able to see it on Broadway 362 days later (but who’s counting?). It was worth the wait.

When I first saw the show at the Public, there was nothing out about it besides glowing reviews and the opening number that Lin-Manuel Miranda performed at the White House. I had no idea what to expect and my mind was absolutely blown. It’s much different seeing a show a second time when you know what’s going to transpire on that stage and after listening to the cast album ♪NON-STOP♪ for six months. This time, I was able to take in the smaller nuances, to see how much the cast plays with each other in quieter moments, and to pay attention to how certain characters were reacting while on the second level. The interplay between the Schuyler Sisters has really grown, and it’s beautiful to see a strong group of powerful women completely owning it on stage. The love is so apparent between them in the little moments of “The Schuyler Sisters,” “Helpless,” and “Satisfied.” Seeing the whole bridal party walk down the aisle at Alexander and Eliza’s wedding is so charming, especially Okieriete Onaodowan as a flower girl. I also loved the quiet loving moments between Phillipa Soo and, as a superb 9-year-old Philip, Anthony Ramos, during “Take a Break.”

I do not think there will ever be anything as magical as seeing Hamilton for the first time. I know I have a lot of life yet to live, but I doubt anything will ever top that first time, in theater or in life. The second time was still absolutely amazing and while I tried to sear everything to memory, I find myself failing. To start with, I actually prefer the staging at the Public. That’s not to take anything away from the Broadway production because it’s still fantastic, but the stage at the Richard Rodgers Theater is so much more expansive and this is just me being super nit-picky. The brilliant choreography from Andy Blankenbuehler was one of the standouts after my Public viewing, but I felt that its impact was lessened on the larger stage. David Korins’ set is still amazing, but I felt like there was more interplay between the levels at the Public, but that could be a result of having a more limited sightline in comparison to a smaller stage. The idea of the ensemble bringing in set pieces and props as a metaphor to building a nation was much more apparent on a smaller stage. Regardless, it was still brilliant, it just seemed to get overshadowed a bit on a larger stage. It’s hard to know where to look when you have such an expansive stage filled with some of the most talented individuals around!

There were definitely some difference in the staging, and I thought they further incorporated the turntable to great effect. I loved the additional costumes they added from the Public, and really loved the new staging of “The World Was Wide Enough.” They also changed the end with a very small stage direction, but I think it drastically changes the tone of the show. And they added exit music which was FANTASTIC and I wish it was on the album. Exit music is seriously one of my favorite things in the world. Alex Lacamoire has been busy with Dear Evan Hansen so I missed seeing his curly ‘fro sticking up from the pit, but alas.

Howell Binkley’s lighting design is SO BRILLIANT. I’m actually quite obsessed with the light programming and thought it fit every number perfectly. The lighting had it’s own choreography and matched the dancing and music so well. It captured every nuance and mood perfectly and felt so organic to the rest of the piece. It hit every beat and really accented the end of every song. The lighting in this story really elevated the material, and I would be shocked if Binkley doesn’t win a Tony Award for this show. (Can you tell that I love musical theater?) The lighting and movement really come together during the duels in some of the most beautiful stagings I have ever seen. Thomas Kail is a genius. It should not take this long to mention him, but he has staged this production to (near) perfection.

Three of my favorite In the Heights-ers were out (Miranda, Chris Jackson, and Seth Stewart) but I got a heads up about them, so I had time to prepare. I was actually excited to see what Jon Rua would do as Hamilton, and he was absolutely fantastic! It helps knowing that I’ve already seen Miranda as Hamilton, so I was excited to see what another actor (and one who decidedly hasn’t lived in the Hamilton research world as much as Miranda has) would bring to the role. I’ve listened to the cast album so many times that it lives in my head, so hearing new voices definitely broke up the album in my head and forced me to really listen. I thought Rua brought a great dryness and cheekiness to his Hamilton, who was less combative and more emotional. He was endlessly endearing, and I particularly loved his versions of “Hurricane,””It’s Quiet Uptown,” and “The World Was Wide Enough” (*silently weeps just thinking about it*). He has a really silky and soulful singing voice on top of great rap skills, and I just really loved his performance as Hamilton. Also, it doesn’t hurt that he has an amazing non-Hamilton haircut which just somehow makes everything even more wonderful! He was very emotional at the end, even after Jonathan Groff’s plea to donate to BCEFA, and it’s just really beautiful to see someone who’s so overcome by the magnitude of the opportunity and just being grateful. I feel honored that I got to see Rua perform as Hamilton, and I hope that he’ll have a shot to perform as him 8 times a week if he decides to stay with the show. I’m trying to remember everything he’s done and as much as I want to listen to the cast album, I’m trying to sear his performance to memory. I don’t want to lose his voice in my head! As much as I would love to have a recording to Rua’s performance, part of the beauty of live theater is you have to experience it as it happens. Let’s hope my memory can hold up!

Now that they’re on a bigger stage knowing they have a massive hit on their hands, the role of Thomas Jefferson and King George III have both become much more interactive and playful with the audience. Daveed Diggs is amazing as a brash and cocky Jefferson, hamming it up to the full extent, playing to the audience with every line and some great prancing. Jonathan Groff does the most in just three scenes, bringing down the house with some much needed comedy. I expect Tony nominations for both of them, as well as for Ramos, who manages to break my heart as two separate characters. He is so much more expressive live than in the cast album, and he’s truly in the moment every second he’s on stage. He’s great at riling up Hamilton as John Laurens, and is especially great playing a shy and petulant 9 year old. And in his smaller, quieter moments, he brings such weight to emotionally devastate me. I also love his little movement to transition from Laurens to Philip during “The World Was Wide Enough.” It’s the little things that really make this musical soar. Leslie Odom, Jr’s performance as Aaron Burr was the one that stuck out the most to me after seeing it at the Public. He still manages to break my heart during “The Election of 1800” with his face full of hopeful anticipation. It’s a shame that Odom, Jr and Miranda will split votes in the inevitable Best Actor race, but what a star turn for Odom, Jr! I’m still obsessed with Onaodowan’s performance as Hercules Mulligan, and had forgotten how frail he makes his James Madison. His two roles could not be more different. Austin Smith has a deep, booming voice which is great for portraying the powerful General and ultimate President, George Washington. His riffs at the end of “One Last Time” really brought down the house. Sing!

As for the fabulous women, Phillipa Soo is as fantastic as ever and continued to break my heart. Renee Elise Goldsberry (my pick for Best Featured Actress) sounds like a dream and is able to bring the sass and the heart. Jasmine Cephas Jones is great as the spoil-sport Peggy and so sultry as Maria Reynolds. Can everyone be Tony nominated? ♪Please?♪ (Madison voice) It is no small feat to make a show about the Founding Fathers into a feminist show, but somehow it works. All three ladies truly shine and are worthy of Tony nominations. Work!

The ensemble members are all phenomenal, it was great seeing Gregory Haney on stage again (bring back all the Bring It On cast members! p.s. I miss Ariana Debose as the bullet). And a quick shout-out to Paul Tazewell for fantastic costumes and for showing off everyone’s guns! Also, the idea to make Jefferson wear purple as a nod to Prince is ingenious!

There is nothing like a great night at the theater. From the moment the lights went down, you could feel the audience lean forward in their seats in eager anticipation. It is rare for show to be universally praised by everyone and still somehow exceed expectations. I’m already waiting for my April 2017 tickets in my now yearly birthday/treat yo’self tradition. I’ll leave with this: I absolutely love Hamilton. I want to live in the Richard Rodgers Theater and watch the show every day. Please do not bootleg the show. Please do not beg for a movie version. No amount of film will ever truly capture the full magic of the show. See it live. Go to the theater. I know it’s expensive and it’s going to be a wait, but ♪wait for it wait for it wait♪. Believe me, it is well worth the wait!