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PILLAI: 'Hamilton' is worth watching live, but its historical flaws should be addressed

Column: Unboxed

Although "Hamilton" falls short in some key areas, it is still worth seeing in theatre.  – Photo by Jason Lei

When my friend called me to tell me that she had won the "Hamilton" lottery and now had two tickets to see the show on Broadway, I screamed in the middle of the Livingston Dining Commons. I had seen the taping of the original Broadway cast on Disney+ when it was first released, but I could not imagine seeing the production live.

Seeing "Hamilton" in person was truly a dazzling experience, especially since it was the first show I had seen since "Fiddler on the Roof" a few years ago. I am forever grateful that I was able to see the musical in a packed theater in October 2021 — a month that followed the previous months of isolation and trepidation.

The emotions I felt during the show were the polar opposites of those feelings because my fellow audience members’ chuckles and raucous applause made the show feel like a communal event. Despite all of these positive outcomes, I could not quell some of the uneasiness I felt when thinking about the show.

While "Hamilton" is a production that celebrates American independence and grit, it is also a show that ignores the role that people of color played in the revolution and makes little reference to slavery.

In his quest to compose a heroic portrait of the titular character, Alexander Hamilton, creator Lin-Manuel Miranda made this historical figure out to be more of an abolitionist than he actually was.

No matter how “scrappy” his origins or how much he personally opposed slavery, Hamilton himself supported the “three-fifths” clause during the 1787 Constitutional Convention. Moreover, he married Elizabeth Schuyler, whose family enslaved more than 40 people.

On the other hand, Hamilton was a co-founder of the New York Manumission Society, but many members of this organization were slaveholders themselves. Some may argue that it is impossible to include each of these individual details in forming an accurate depiction of Hamilton’s flawed, multifaceted personality.

With a runtime of 2 hours and 40 minutes, the musical could have shaved off some of the time allocated to moments such as Hamilton’s dance with the devil in “Say No to This” to add some nuance to his perspective on slavery.

"Hamilton" received praise for casting people of color to play white historical figures, and rightfully so. Yet the show itself did not include historical figures who identified as people of color. There were countless Black patriots who fought for American freedom, even when their individual freedom was not guaranteed, and their stories deserve to be told.

These criticisms do not change the fact that "Hamilton" is a true showstopper that transports the audience to the beginnings of an era. My friend and I were privileged enough to sit in the very front row, which allowed us to see the scaffolding of the set on stage up close.

As the actors whirled through number after number, I could see how carefully they thought about each song and the individual choices they made to differentiate themselves from the original Broadway cast.

For instance, Phillipa Soo, who played the role of Hamilton’s wife, Eliza for short, has a gentle, shy demeanor when she first meets Hamilton in the song “Helpless.” Krystal Joy Brown, who plays Eliza in the 2021 Broadway show, uses her facial expressions and gestures to show red-cheeked embarrassment in the same scene, the way one might react when they meet their crush.

The theatrical production overall proved to me that a screen cannot replace live theater, even if movie musicals are becoming more prevalent and accessible. Not only is Miranda’s "tick, tick...BOOM!" currently dominating Netflix, but Steven Spielberg’s "West Side Story" has also just been released in theaters, two years after filming. While it is wonderful that millions of people can see these movies on screen, they will still miss the joys of the theater.

The booming sound of the chorus’s voices coupled with powerful solos creates an immersive auditory experience, while the immaculately designed costumes help bring the story to life. Dozens of people, both on and off stage, work hard to tell stories through plays and musicals, but it is up to audiences to show their support so this tradition can continue.

Moreover, musicals allow new actors to achieve stardom, and social media has helped these actors gain exposure. Shows such as "Hamilton" may have their flaws, but it is still worth it to witness these productions live.

Preanka Pillai is a Rutgers Business School junior majoring in marketing and business analytics and information technology. Her column, "Unboxed," runs on alternate Wednesdays.

*Columns, cartoons and letters do not necessarily reflect the views of the Targum Publishing Company or its staff.

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