Muse Reporting on the arts and culture

Hamilton on screen: “Providential and timely”

Culture | A cast member shares the significance of the groundbreaking musical
by Lynde Langdon
Posted 7/07/20, 04:22 pm

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—or divine intervention. The hip-hop musical about Founding Father Alexander Hamilton sold out New York’s Richard Rodgers Theater 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 a device that has an internet connection 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 Friday.

“For something that has been such an exclusive and elite experience to be democratized on a platform that’s only $6.99 a month, I think there’s something really amazing about that,” said Austin Smith, a member of the show’s original Broadway cast who spent about a year in Hamilton as an ensemble member and understudy for the major roles of Aaron Burr and George Washington. Smith witnessed first-hand how Hamilton inspired and challenged its audiences with a message just as relevant today as it was at the birth of the nation.

The production 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 … and you shouldn’t want more than that,” said Smith, who is African American. “There are going to be kids all over the country who look like me and look like my castmates who will see themselves in a way that maybe they haven’t before, and I think that’s important.”

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 that each of them could have achieved much more had they not succumbed to the temptation of sin along the way. 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 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.”

Hamilton is rated PG-13 for language and sexual references. Its dancing, while not as explicit as most hip-hop music videos, is more suggestive than the average Disney show. 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.

Associated Press/Photo by Michael Wyke (file) Associated Press/Photo by Michael Wyke (file) Houston Rockets forward Robert Covington (right) tries to steal the ball from Minnesota Timberwolves guard D’Angelo Russell during a game on March 10 in Houston.

Socially convenient justice

The NBA has decided that when games resume at Disney’s ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex near Orlando, Fla., later this month, it will allow players to promote social justice during the game—sort of.

Under an agreement between the players’ union and the league, social messages from an approved list can appear on jerseys in place of players’ names.

ESPN on Friday gained access to a list of the approved slogans: Black Lives Matter, Say Their Names, Vote, I Can’t Breathe, Justice, Peace, Equality, Freedom, Enough, Power to the People, Justice Now, Say Her Name, Sí Se Puede (Yes We Can), Liberation, See Us, Hear Us, Respect Us, Love Us, Listen, Listen to Us, Stand Up, Ally, Anti-Racist, I Am a Man, Speak Up, How Many More, Group Economics, Education Reform, and Mentor.

The list doesn’t contain any references to Hong Kong, the focus of a protest movement within the NBA last year. In October 2019, Houston Rockets General Manager Daryl Morey set off a firestorm when he offered support for pro-democracy protesters in the territory controlled by the Chinese government by tweeting: “Fight for freedom, stand with Hong Kong.” The league’s Chinese sponsors cut ties, and Chinese state-run TV stopped airing games. China accounted for at least 10 percent of the NBA’s revenue, CNN reported. League Commissioner Adam Silver and Los Angeles Lakers star LeBron James attempted to distance the league from Morey’s comment, and Morey deleted the tweet and apologized.

Historically, the NBA has avoided controversy. In 2014, Silver complained about players wearing “I Can’t Breathe” T-shirts during pregame warmups to protest the death of Eric Garner in New York City when a police officer placed him in a chokehold during an arrest. The league still requires players to stand for the national anthem, though that might change soon.

Last week in Hong Kong, however, the Chinese government enacted stricter laws against pro-democracy protesters, furthering brutality and oppression against those who criticize communism and promote freedom. But the NBA and other major corporations continue to play it safe, unwilling to risk profits in China. —Collin Garbarino

Associated Press/Photo by Michael Wyke (file) Associated Press/Photo by Michael Wyke (file) Kanye West

Entertainment notes

  • Rapper Kanye West appears to be serious about running for president, but he hadn’t filed any paperwork with the Federal Election Commission when he announced his bid on Saturday. West, an outspoken Christian, previously supported President Donald Trump. He made headlines again on Monday because his fashion company, Yeezy, received a multimillion-dollar loan from the federal Payment Protection Program, according to data released by the U.S. Treasury Department.
  • Former NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick might soon work with Disney on a documentary about his life. His sideline protest against police brutality in 2016 was an early milestone in the Black Lives Matter movement and a flashpoint in the national debate over racism and patriotism. On Saturday, he posted a video to social media of actor James Earl Jones reading Frederick Douglass’ famous speech, “What, to the Slave, is the Fourth of July?” with the caption, “We reject your celebration of white supremacy & look forward to liberation for all.” Kaepernick and Disney also said they plan to work together to showcase minority directors, writers, and producers.
  • Sponsors and retailers are upping the pressure on the NFL’s Washington Redskins to change the team’s name. FedEx, which owns the naming rights to the stadium where the team plays, asked the franchise last week to drop the moniker, which many view as a slur against Native Americans. Nike stopped carrying team merchandise in its online stores, and Target and Walmart appeared to follow suit this week. Owner Dan Snyder said on Friday the team would review its name. —L.L.
Lynde Langdon

Lynde is a WORLD Digital’s managing editor and reports on popular and fine arts. She lives in Wichita, Kan., with her husband and two daughters. Follow Lynde on Twitter @lmlangdon.

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  • OldMike
    Posted: Tue, 07/14/2020 01:42 am

    Of course the NBA isn't allowing any mention of the repression of HongKong on players uniforms. (Or tweets or Facebook or in any public manner I'm sure). That China revenue is important, and principles are only important if they don't harm the bottom line. And I sure don't see "All Lives Matter" in their "approved shirt slogans."  

  • John
    Posted: Sat, 07/25/2020 06:42 pm

    If the Supreme Court decision in the Bakke case is any guide, then the hiring decisions made in the Hamilton musical might be considered legal and acceptable at first blush.  But despite the long usage of affirmative action in many situations, it is troubling to see skin color discrimination celebrated in this context.  The overt, publicly celebrated casting decisions keep nagging at me - is affirmative action a form of racism?  While the Supreme Court tried to answer this question in 1978, they stated that a quota would be impermissible in formulating affirmative action policies.  Yet in Hamilton, it appears from most news articles that the quota concept was embraced.   Are we to congratulate the casting agents on their racially informed decisions?  Or is there thin ice here that should be avoided?

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