As hard as it is to believe, one of most important and popular hip-hop albums of 2015 was a Broadway cast album about founding father and first Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton. But writer/composer/actor Lin-Manuel Miranda’s revolutionary musical “Hamilton” shows that it’s not only possible to tell American history as a hip-hop narrative, it is essential.
Broadway isn’t known for its diversity or accessibility; tickets are expensive and it presents primarily white narratives to cater to a largely older, rich, white audience who were perfectly happy with the way things used to be, thank you very much. Maybe that’s why we’re still calling it The Great White Way.
“Hamilton,” on the other hand, doesn’t have to cater to anyone because — if the sheer volume of glowing reviews are any indication — it appeals to everyone. As Miranda said on the PBS NewsHour, one of the show’s primary goals is to eliminate any distance between the audience and the story, to make the story of America’s first treasury secretary as vibrant and exciting as possible to a modern audience.
Five months after its release, the cast album remains in iTunes’ top 20 albums, and it just won a Grammy. This is because, unlike most Broadway cast albums, it sounds like what we hear everyday on the radio: hip-hop and R&B.
Crucially, much of the cast, including all of the founding fathers, are actors of color. This comes both organically from the music, as hip-hop and R&B are traditionally Black musical forms, and from the show’s commitment to framing the story in a modern context.
“Let’s not pretend this is a textbook,” Miranda said. “Let’s make the founders of our country look like what our country looks like now.”
“Hamilton’s” true importance is greater than the theater world. By placing American history in a modern context, it opens up the story of the American Revolution to new audiences through hip-hop; a modern political, musical language that a contemporary audience can appreciate and understand.
In history books and congressional rhetoric, the founding fathers are these deified white men, infallible and wise beyond any modern comparison. But in “Hamilton,” they’re people we know, they’re Kendrick and Kanye, rapping about the same problems we have today, like whether we should have more or less government, whether we’ll be best remembered by our families or our accomplishments, whether the answers are ever so black and white.
All of this leads to this beautiful, American idea at the heart of the musical. It’s something I feel that Washington, Broadway, Hollywood and countless other American institutions have neglected to communicate: No matter who you are, where you came from, what color your skin is, where you are or where you started, this is your history and you have a stake in it. This idea earns the show its full title, “Hamilton: An American Musical.”
Gregory Feiner is a sophomore theater major. He can be reached at [email protected]