Hamilton might be one of the rare cultural products that comes close to actually earning the phrase “universal acclaim.” Barack Obama says it’s the one thing he and Dick Cheney agree on. The National Review loves it; The New York Times loves it. The praise is so unquestioned that The Awl has an ongoing series spotlighting even the mildest hint of dissent. Deadpans Alex Balk, “On any of those rare occasions when you get a glimpse of someone wondering whether Hamilton might not be the greatest thing that ever happened in 50,000 years of culture do you find yourself stunned, surprised, or fearful for the heretic’s safety?”
But earlier this week, it appeared that backlash to the musical may have finally arrived when a New York City lawyer objected to a Hamilton ad encouraging “non-white” performers to try out for lead parts. One of Hamilton’s signature features is that it has people of color playing Alexander Hamilton, George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and their contemporaries. Accusing the casting call of being discriminatory might seem to raise the idea that the play itself is discriminatory, and it’s not hard to imagine how the conversation would go from there. In an era when the lead Republican candidate is frequently understood to voice the resentment of whites who see their longstanding supremacy in American society threatened—an era where comments sections roil with apocalyptic mentions of “reverse racism” and “black privilege”—the notion of America’s founders de-whitened for a blockbuster Broadway show would seem like inevitable cause for a round of cultural warfare.
But: The casting-call criticism appears not to have been a referendum on the play itself. It was mostly a “semantic” issue, reports Michael Paulson in The New York Times. Individual characters can, under employment law and under union rules, be described as having a specific race, gender, and age. But any actor should be able to try out for any role. Hamilton’s producers said they would reword their casting call to reflect that distinction, but would not change anything about the racial makeup of the cast. “It is essential to the storytelling of Hamilton that the principal roles, which were written for nonwhite characters (excepting King George), be performed by nonwhite actors,” they wrote in a statement.
The episode highlights just how intentional, and arguably radical, Hamilton’s makeup is. “Colorblind casting” has been an industry phrase for decades now, and while it has a few competing definitions, the common public understanding is that it refers to casting directors disregarding skin color as they fill roles. Shonda Rhimes, the creative force behind Grey’s Anatomy, Scandal, and How to Get Away With Murder—all shows that break with Hollywood’s whitewashed history—is a proponent of this kind of casting, and it is how a London production of Harry Potter and the Cursed Child ended up with a black Hermione. But it has implications that both sides of the ideological spectrum can take issue with. Earlier this year, following a few incidents where supposed colorblindness led to white actors playing parts written as non-white—including a portrayal of Martin Luther King, Jr.— more than 1,000 playwrights signed a column published in American Theatre arguing for “color-conscious” casting instead.
Hamilton is not, by the common definition, colorblind. It does not merely allow for some of the Founding Fathers to be played by people of color. It insists that all of them be. This insistence is part of the play’s message that Alexander Hamilton’s journey from destitute immigrant to influential statesman is universal and replicable (and comparable to the life stories of many of the rappers who inspired Hamilton’s music). Obama, recently hosting the cast at the White House, gave the standard interpretation: “With a cast as diverse as America itself, including the outstandingly talented women, the show reminds us that this nation was built by more than just a few great men—and that it is an inheritance that belongs to all of us.”
That last line might sound like a platitude, and there have been times in history when it may have really been one. But movements like Black Lives Matter, and renewed calls for the consideration of reparations, are built on the idea that “all” remains an unfulfilled promise—and that fulfillment can only come by focusing on helping the specific populations that suffer greatest from America’s many inequalities rooted in oppression. The national discourse in the past few years has demonstrated that this remains a controversial idea. While Hamilton does not explicitly take a side, the simple fact of its casting suggests which way it probably leans. As the production goes on tour outside New York City in the coming years, it will spread its argument about America—and perhaps also, finally, start a few.