I'm a Motown baby. I loved the musical Ain't Too Proud about the Temptations. The familiar beat, the Detroit community where they grew up— it all inspired me. A group of teenagers teamed with a dynamo producer, Berry Gordy, mined the music of African American life and circulated it all over the country. I never thought I could like another kind of show more.
Yet Hamilton, a musical built around rap and R & B (sprinkled with the sound of Broadway show tunes and pop), expanded me in a new way, taking me to places that classic Motown funk couldn't go.
First, the music. One of the biggest pleasures was hearing the sharp, witty genre of rap, mashed up with so many other musical styles. Listening to the original cast album four times, in addition to directly experiencing the show last week, I'm blown away by the musical form that Ta-Nehisi Coates and a host of other authors have raved about, describing their coming-of-age music. The clever rhymes, the pounding drive, the sound of the street. The vigor of youth. The energy! It's infectious. At forty-six songs long, the brilliant "lattice-work of musical themes (or leitmotifs)" as critic Howard Ho wrote, worked its magic on me.
The hip-hop genre perfectly fits the plot of young upstarts revolting against their colonial masters: "I am young, scrappy and hungry, just like my country," Alexander Hamilton sings/raps. The music is fierce, fast, and funny, just like the protagonists. And the linguistic agility of African American speech—what we used to call Ebonics—is on full display here, formalized in the structure of hip hop, infused by a Puerto Rican sensibility.
Then there's the breadth of the tale, a history of "the American experiment." How prescient Lin –Manual Miranda was when he wrote this show a decade ago. Here we are now facing a constitutional crisis, wondering whether our democracy will survive a tyrant. Miranda's reminder of our original democratic impetus is timely.
Even though enfranchisement initially applied to only a few (property-owning white men), the non-monarchist dream was extraordinary in its time. As King George sings in the play, when informed that President Washington planned to step down, "I wasn't aware that was something a person could do." I left the theatre cherishing our democracy more than ever. And appreciating the extraordinary contributions of immigrants like the Caribbean-born Alexander Hamilton, whom John Adams called the "Creole bastard."
While all this—the music and the democratic reminder--was both enjoyable and educational, another feature worth noting is that thirty-seven actors of colors got roles in a major play. Researching, I discovered that in addition to the current London and New York productions, touring casts will perform Hamilton in thirty-two U.S. cities within the coming year. That will open over a thousand roles for actors of color! And adding in the orchestra and crewmembers, who hopefully are diverse, the play makes a huge contribution to theatrical employment for men and women long excluded.
So yes, I am a fan.
But one element of HAMILTON troubled me. While Miranda transgressed wonderfully in casting actors of color for historically white roles (Thomas Jefferson, George Washington, Aaron Burr, Lafayette, and the rest of the crew), the gifted female actors/singers were primarily reduced to their theme song, "Helpless," meaning, basically, "The sight of you reduces me to jelly, that's how in love I am with you, Alexander Hamilton." While love is a primal and admirable force, the show failed the Bechdel test: Alison Bechdel's rule that a work of fiction have at least two women who talk to each other about something other than a man.
It's always informative to examine the lenses each of us use. Miranda, who could so brilliantly imagine a direct musical attack on the white-male Founding heritage, could evidently not envision a woman with equal agency. Why not cast, say, a female George Washington, appearing in her full female self, even as she played our first president? The African American and Latinx actors in the play did not "act white," which happens sometimes in so-called color-blind casting. They fully inhabited these historical white male roles with their entire African American and Latinx selves, using traditional idiom.
What if, in gender-blind casting, a woman played one of the founders? (As in the current Broadway King Lear cast, with Glenda Jackson in the title role.) What if there had been two such women? Or three or four?
You might object that since women actually were excluded from political centrality at that time, this wouldn't be historically accurate. They had no chance to make and move history, except in the oblique ways women have always exerted power.
But neither did men of color have opportunity as central historical actors. Enslaved or curtailed in myriad real-life ways, what a stroke of genius it was for Miranda to imagine them inhabiting these roles, delivering their lines in the musical style of their contemporary culture. Such creativity thrust the play into the stratosphere.
How wonderful it would have been if Miranda could have stretched even further, extending this innovative casting to include women in roles of agency. While Hamilton's widow Eliza gets her due at the end of the play, taking on the task of ensuring his legacy, wouldn't it have been amazing if Alexander, her husband, had been unconventionally cast, providing an extraordinary leading role to a woman of color? Or if George Washington—I can imagine it—had been played by a woman?
I trust that a genius like Miranda can keep stretching. I hope that his next theatrical production will include women in powerful, central roles. Maybe one will play a president, preparing us for life to imitate art.
Dr. Joan Steinau Lester is the author of five books, including the essay collection The Future of White Men and Other Diversity Dilemmas, her biography of Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton, Fire in My Soul, and the novel Black, White Other.