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.