The bright lights of Broadway marquees are a New York City landmark and epitomize success in the world of musical theatre. The Great White Way began as a small theater on Nassau Street in 1750. Now, it features an expanse of shows and generates billions of dollars in revenue each year. In the 2015-16 season, attendance of Broadway shows topped that of all ten New York/New Jersey professional sports teams combined (Statistics 1). Founded at a time when slavery was not yet abolished, Broadway began as a white establishment, both onstage and in the audience. Even modern Broadway faces a misrepresentation of racial minorities. African Americans fill just 16% of roles offered on Broadway and Hispanics and Asian-Americans each fill 3% (Lack 1). However, a revolutionary new show is changing the face of Broadway. It tells the story of the America’s fight for freedom and its early years as a nation. Hamilton is the most popular show in New York, with tickets being both rare and extremely expensive. It features a 46-song soundtrack with influences from a variety of musical genres. It relates the story of America’s fight for independence, but manages to avoid being dry and purely academic. The most revolutionary part of Hamilton, though, is not the war it portrays. When looking at the original Broadway cast, one may notice something a bit out of the ordinary; it is almost 100% non-white, with the only exception being the actor that plays King George III. Given Broadway’s racial history, the diversity seen in Hamilton is surprising in the best way. Hamilton is currently the most diverse Broadway show because it embodies the modern America, utilizes non-traditional music styles, and places people of color in traditionally white roles.
In recent years, American citizens have become more and more concerned with racial issues in entertainment, with campaigns such as #OscarsSoWhite sweeping the nation. This concern with misrepresentation in the media comes with an increase in the diversity of the country’s population itself. In recent years, the population of Caucasians has been growing at a relatively slow rate, surpassed by population growth of African Americans and Asians/Pacific Islanders (Hobbs 1). Lin Manuel-Miranda, creator and star of Hamilton, recognizes this change in the diversity of America. He did not cast his actors by accident. “The cast looks like America now,” he says (Fecker 1). It’s true. The original Broadway cast of Hamilton resembles a condensed version of the ethnicity of an entire nation. It blends modern diversity with America’s traditionally white history. Aside from managing to represent the people of its nation, it also embodies the racial variety of its own hometown, New York City.
New York City is famous for being a melting pot of the people of America. With a population of more than 8 million people, the city is bound to include a wide range of diversities (Estimates 1). In fact, a whopping 28.6% of the city’s inhabitants are Hispanic, and 25.5% are black (Profiles 1). However, Broadway, a New York City institution from the very beginning, rarely ever reflects this diversity in its actors. In the 2014-15 season, Caucasian actors received 70% of the roles offered in some of Broadway’s biggest theaters (Viagas 1). This, of course, seems disproportional, when only 44% of New York City’s entire population is Caucasian. The cast of Hamilton, though, offers its roles to people of all ethnic backgrounds, most of whom happen to be Black, Hispanic, or Asian American. Hamilton, housed in the Richard Rodgers Theater in the heart of Manhattan, epitomizes the diversity of the people that surround it every single day. Not only does its cast represent the minorities of its nation, but it also puts the diversity of its own birthplace on display.
Some of the impressive diversity of Hamilton runs deeper than the ethnicity of the actors it employs. The musical’s 46-song soundtrack includes influences from countless music styles. One of the most prominent - and the favorite of creator Lin Manuel-Miranda - is hip-hop. Songs like “Guns and Ships” and “My Shot” showcase quick-witted raps the likes of which have never before been seen on Broadway. Rap, a traditionally Black genre, is rarely utilized in Broadway musicals. One particular survey found that over 40% of hip-hop listeners are of color (Gaille 1). With such a large portion of its audience being African American, the fact that hip-hop is being so widely listened to on a Broadway soundtrack is remarkable. What is especially shocking is that this particular Broadway show tells the story of the founding fathers of America. To the naked eye, it may seem that America’s early history, riddled with racial prejudice, and rap, dominated by African American artists, would not mix well. However, Hamilton’s #4 ranking on the rap charts upon its October 2015 debut begs to differ (Atkinson 1). As Lin Manuel-Miranda wrote concerning the numerous hip-hop allusions scattered throughout his show, “They’re another way of saying that American history can be told and retold, claimed and reclaimed, even by people who don’t look like George Washington and Betsy Ross” (Miranda 95). In other words, the use of rap is another way to incorporate those who may feel alienated from American history into that very same history.
Hamilton is most definitely not the first Broadway show to showcase a diverse cast. Several other musicals have utilized the talents of many ethnically diverse actors. The Color Purple tells the story of an African American woman’s life in the American south and features an all-Black cast. The King and I showcases an almost entirely Asian cast due to its setting in Siam. What’s special about Hamilton, though, is that its cast is not diverse because it accurately portrays its setting or plot. The Color Purple employs African American actors to portray embattled Blacks in early 20th Century America. The King and I features Asian American actors playing citizens of an Asian country. Both are remarkable shows with talented casts. What’s different about Hamilton is the fact that its diversity is not accredited to the setting in which its story takes place. Hamilton features African Americans and Hispanics and Asians playing the White men and women who helped to win America’s independence. Renée Elise-Goldsberry plays Angelica Schuyler, Alexander Hamilton’s sister-in-law, in the original Broadway cast of the musical. “We have the opportunity to reclaim a history that some of us don’t necessarily think is our own,” says Goldsberry, an African American (Koroma 1). Goldsberry is just one of the many examples found in Hamilton’s cast of a non-white actor playing a white historical figure. Anthony Ramos, of Puerto Rican descent, plays John Laurens/Philip Schuyler. Hamilton’s wife, Eliza, is portrayed by Asian American actress Phillipa Soo. Aaron Burr is played by an African American actor, Leslie Odom Jr. Hamilton provides a unique chance for actors to overcome typecasting. It is an opportunity for the nation’s history to be told by the people who make up the nation today.
The success of Hamilton cannot be denied. Its 16 Tony nominations and 11 wins, numerous celebrity audience members, and sold out performances all indicate that it may just be the most popular musical to hit the Broadway stage. Although the outstanding music, message, and talent of Hamilton are all huge draws for huge audiences, one can safely presume that its diversity is one of the reasons behind its success. Hamilton is currently the most diverse Broadway show because it embodies the modern America, utilizes non-traditional music styles, and places people of color in traditionally white roles. With a cast that represents various ethnic backgrounds, the actors of Hamilton exemplify the increasingly non-white population of the United States and New York City itself. The variety of races represented in the musical’s cast, coupled with the rap music that they perform, makes for a thoroughly diverse show. However, the most striking aspect of the show is only recognized once its plot is understood. Only then can one truly appreciate the beautiful irony of the roles that these African Americans and Asians and Latinos are playing. Hamilton is the story of the history of a nation fighting for independence when it had yet to grant the same to many of its people. And it tells this story with those very same people.
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