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“Providential and timely”

A scene from Hamilton. (Lin-Manuel Miranda and Nevis Productions)

Arts

“Providential and timely”

A cast member of Hamilton says the groundbreaking musical is fit for our cultural moment

The hit musical Hamilton promotes inclusivity, democracy, and the power of youth to change the world. But to get tickets to its original Broadway run in 2015, you had to have money and connections. The hip-hop musical about Founding Father Alexander Hamilton sold out New York’s Richard Rodgers Theatre just about every night its first year, and the cost of a seat on the secondary market averaged $350, according to Forbes

But now, thanks to Disney+, anyone with an internet-connected device can get an inexpensive front-row seat to see Hamilton. A performance featuring much of the show’s original Broadway cast debuted on the streaming platform on July 3.

The musical drew its popularity not just from the story but also the way it told it. Latino, African American, Asian American, and other ethnic minority actors played every role in the show except the villain, King George III.

“The cultural conversation that surrounded the show was important in terms of representation for people who look like me, who are told there are only certain types of roles you should play,” said Austin Smith, an African American and a member of the show’s original Broadway cast. Smith spent about a year in Hamilton as an ensemble member and understudy for the major roles of Aaron Burr and George Washington.

Lin-Manuel Miranda, the creator and star of the original Broadway show, based the musical on a biography of Hamilton by Ron Chernow. Miranda’s adaptation does not gloss over the flaws of the Founding Fathers, including Hamilton’s infidelity, Burr’s egotism, or Thomas Jefferson’s defense of slavery. He makes it clear all of them could have achieved much more had they not succumbed to the temptation of sin along the way. (Hamilton is rated PG-13 for language and sexual references.) 

Yet Hamilton stays unashamedly patriotic, celebrating the strengths of the U.S. political system despite the flaws of the people who built it. It does that by emphasizing the creativity that followed the United States’ overthrow of British colonial rule. While the first act gives summaries and recaps of impor­tant Revolutionary War battles, the second act spends entire musical numbers on single Cabinet meetings at which Hamilton, Jefferson, and James Madison debated things like the central banking system or the best response to the French Revolution.

Smith is the son of a Baptist minister in Chicago and the grandson of a civil rights pioneer, J.C. Smith, an activist in the Montgomery, Ala., bus boycott of 1955. He called Hamilton’s release in the middle of nationwide revolts against police brutality and white supremacy a “providential, timely coincidence,” saying he thought it could “offer some sense of hope, as well, that revolution is fruitful, and the status quo is not always great for everybody.”

As a cast member, Smith’s advice to viewers was to watch it more than once—something the musical’s patrons on Broadway couldn’t easily do, but thanks to streaming and the internet, fans at home can.

—A version of this story appeared in the July 7 Muse roundup at wng.org

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