Four years after the now familiar opening thumps of Hamilton were first heard, the White House has met the Mouse-House; Disney+ allows subscribers to stream the original Broadway production of the show at home. The zeitgeist seems enamoured with a second wave (thankfully not that kind – not yet, anyway) of Hamil-hatred and Hamil-mania, (Disney+ seeing a 72% download increase), Oxford included. Newspapers, including this one, have seen (or surrendered to, depending on your view of musical theatre fans) abundant revolutionary content. In the midst of a global reckoning on race and a terrifying attack on trans rights led by someone who near-enough raised many readers of ‘the franchise that must not be named’, these are naturally the perspectives with which we are most disposed to examine our cultural output, our media.
Hamilton was heralded as an extraordinary feat in its treatment of race when it debuted. The colour-blind cast it became well known for (historically, virtually every character was white) thrived on its ability, as creator and star Lin-Manuel Miranda put it, to voice “a tale of America then, told by America now”, and casting calls encourage particularly BAME performers to apply.
The show is a landmark in the size and number of roles it makes available to actors of all ethnic and artistic backgrounds; rap artist Daveed Diggs (originally the Marquis De Lafayette/Thomas Jefferson) had never been in a musical before and Jasmine Cephas Jones (Peggy Schuyler/Maria Reynolds) was previously struggling for roles in reaction to her vocal style (she’ll be back later).
However, there are flaws which ought to have been obvious at the time; its treatment of slavery, portraying Hamilton’s character as free from this particular sin, accusing Jefferson of delivering “a civics lesson from a slaver,” has come under justifiable fire of late. We had, perhaps, become lackadaisical: Obama was ending an eight-year term, we could gesture to Black History Month as a sign of our progression, and Leslie Odom Jr. won the Tony for his role as Aaron Burr (alongside Hamilton’s record breaking 15 other nominations). But signs were there – Trump was rising, Brexit starting – and we were too busy back-patting to notice. Well, now we’ve been forced to face up to these misrepresentations and educate ourselves for the better.
However, despite the recent criticism of race in the musical, what seemed to me uncontroversial until reading an article on Hamilton’s relationship with Maria Reynolds (from Cherwell, 16th July 2020), was its discussion of sex. A piece itself quoted there, ‘How the Women of Hamilton are changing Broadway’, is one of a multitude concerning the major roles played by two of the Schuyler sisters, rightly praised for complex characterisation. Jasmine Cephas Jones originated the smaller but significant role of Maria Reynolds, whose sexuality is brought into contention with comparisons to the proposed ‘acceptable’ forms of femininity expressed by Angelica and Eliza Schuyler.
To read the show as if its perspective vilifies Maria’s sexuality seems to me to give both too much credit to Alexander Hamilton and far too little to an audience. First, Hamilton corrupts his wife’s lovingly “Helpless” devotion to him, not Maria: he introduces the unsettling repetition of the earlier song. Further, watching him berate someone (“Stop crying, goddammit, get up!”) whom he knows doesn’t have “the means to go on”, whom he puts in his debt, and reduces to helplessness, does nothing but grow our sympathy for her while diminishing any respect for him. It would be a strange thing indeed were that sympathy equated with the denigration of her sexuality. The criticism seems plainly and very justly levelled at Hamilton’s promiscuity. Even Burr, our narrator, preferred to “let him [Hamilton] tell” this story, emphasising where the guilt lies.
It only seems possible to read the situation as a censure of Maria’s sexuality presupposing this as an ‘invalid’ form of femininity. This, too, would be curious when the justification Hamilton gives for his exploitation of this vulnerable person is his “longing for Angelica / Missing my wife / That’s when Miss Maria Reynolds walked into my life.” In the same breath, he acknowledges not only the loving wife to whom he will soon betray his faith, but also the surreptitious (and perhaps more insidious) connection with Angelica.
This is not to say, by any means, that Angelica is – or should be – condemned, but merely to demonstrate that to point to Maria as the example of sexual or feminine ‘deviance’ is to treat our characters inconsistently. The last thing we see of Maria Reynolds is, in fact, her witness to Hamilton’s public declaration of their affair. Front of stage, watching her read the pamphlet bearing her name, watching paper shower the stage, our compassion is for her, not the man who used the information as political insulation. Our abiding image is not the femme fatale but one of numberless, silenced women wronged by our history.
The innumerability of these figures is painfully apparent. Many have commented that the life of virtually every character in Hamilton could fill a musical of their own; underlying this criticism of Maria’s treatment seems to be an understandable desperation to fill out every story. I for one would kill to see the sequel song in which we witness Maria’s divorce from her husband, apparently her attorney put on quite a show (his name was Aaron Burr – I’ve definitely heard of him somewhere…). But we must then ask ourselves what Hamilton is as opposed to what we demand of it. There is no single right answer to this. However, it is undeniably theatre, entertainment, art, and many other things besides. It is not documentary.
What happened to Hercules Mulligan? Or Angelica’s husband, John Church? Theodosia Burr is her father’s last “thought before the slaughter” – her tragic demise is left unmentioned. You will find any number of articles called things like ’10 Hamilton Historical Hiccups’ or ‘The things Lin-Manuel Miranda ignored’ each of which details the moments where Hamilton deviates from the history books (excluding, of course, each time they break into song, dance, or soliloquy – or all of the above). A prominent example is his meeting with the Schuyler sisters; Angelica was already married when she met her dearest (or is it ‘her, dearest’?) Alexander. However, the narrative of her sacrifice for her sister’s happiness and the uncomfortable resolution that comes from it are not served by this fact.
To make Hamilton as engaging artistically and dramatically as is possible, things change. Though do not mistake this for a disavowal of Hamilton’s historical potency; the ‘EduHam’ initiative (in which school students were invited to research and workshop their own historical theatre piece with help from Hamilton creatives) demonstrates the production’s commitment to developing youth interest in history. This is compiled with, and intensified by, a ticket lottery and promotional street performances; “The plan is,” as Hamilton says, “to fan this spark into a flame.”
Whichever way I mix the metaphor, Hamilton has burst many sparks into a blaze. Reigniting youth interest in history is something nothing else has really done. Nevertheless, one show cannot be all things to all people at all times. Of course, we must hold our culture to account, we must call out the hidden assumptions and injustices with which we ourselves are inundated, and the art we create with all our imperfections. But how are we ever to be, well, ‘Satisfied’? Four years ago, Hamilton’s success in role-creation and access to theatre and to history was a resounding achievement. That will not change. As new productions hopefully rise up to continue the work that was done, we can look back at this as an early but powerful stride forward.
We cannot say that it’s perfect – what is? However, that this show is the focus of strident demand for fulfilment of every one of its atypical storylines seems an apt comment on the dearth of such characters in the theatre and access to them. There are so many potential stories about characters like those identified in Hamilton. They need writing, but Maria is not the problem. We must challenge our biases, as we have started to when examining race. These are not limited, though, to the prejudices of our artists: we must interrogate ourselves as audiences as well. Bringing as many diverse groups together to see Hamilton, with an historically divergent cast, works as an attempt to take us outside our own assumptions.
The show is not necessarily problematised by the rapid rotation of its roster of characters, nor by its exclusion of certain facts altogether, like futures of its smaller roles. ‘Hamilton’ itself may refer not only to Alexander but to Eliza also. This is their story and thus they, and those closest to them, are focal. In the end, it may be apposite that any forename was omitted: it seems more her story than his. Certainly, Eliza tells it and, by doing so, encourages us to discover more about those on the periphery of the show’s narrative. We can tell their stories.