The stars of the biomusical reflect on the impact of the show when it first debuted and what it means today.
When Hamilton first debuted on Broadway in 2015, it was an immediate hit. Everyone from theater critics to celebrities to politicians -- and yes, President Barack Obama -- quickly fell in love with the groundbreaking biomusical about one of the country’s Founding Fathers, Alexander Hamilton.
What made it stand out at the time was the fact that the rap-sung production featured a cast of Asian, Black and Latinx performers as some of history’s biggest icons, including George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and Aaron Burr as well as creator Lin-Manuel Miranda as Hamilton himself. The show was a reminder that Hamilton, who was born in the West Indies, was at one point an immigrant before rising to power as the Secretary of the Treasury of the United States. It also spoke to the climate of politics and the country at the time, which was ramping up for the 2016 presidential election and was just a few years into the birth of the Black Lives Matter movement.
“My only real insight in writing the show was all of the problems and paradoxes and fights present at the founding that are still here,” Miranda tells ET. “I was pulling from contemporary language over the same fights, and that includes the original sin of slavery, that includes systemic racism, that includes gun control.”
So it’s no surprise that it went on to win multiple Tony Awards and spill over from the stage to the pop culture and political zeitgeist.
And now, five years later, a filmed version of the stage production is debuting on Disney+ -- and Hamilton is just as relevant as ever as the country faces a reckoning over its continued problems around social and racial injustices and is approaching the 2020 presidential election with Donald Trump.
“The thing about Hamilton is because it brushes up against the founding of this country, it hits differently depending on where we are as a country,” Miranda says. “There are lines about slavery, there are lines about how little the founders did that hit different now than they did in 2016, than they did under Obama versus under Trump.”
He adds, “Because it deals with issues at the root, like, it’s always gonna be relevant in some form.”
Okieriete Onaodowan, who originated the roles of Hercules Mulligan and James Madison, agrees, adding that its message of activism is exactly what people need to hear now. “What drove Hamilton was his need to speak out against injustice and the whole show he’s basically saying, ‘This is what I believe America is to be,’” he says.
“Right now, in the streets, with the protests after we’ve all watched George Floyd murdered for eight minutes and 46 seconds, I think it’s very important for all fans to walk away with the need to speak out when they see something that is wrong like Hamilton stood on that box and said, ‘This is what I decree, this is how I see my America. This is what I think my America should be,’” Onaodowan continues.
He adds that it’s inspiring to see people of all ages, genders and races across the country taking to the streets to protest in the wake of the killing of Floyd, Breonna Taylor and others -- and stand up against systemic racism and police brutality. “I think it’s important when people do come home from being outside, from protesting to put on their favorite musical and have it still push that same thing out,” the actor says. “You know, it can entertain them but not numb them. It still keeps them activated and still keeps the mind moving in that direction.”
Renée Elise Goldsberry, who won a Tony for her performance as Angelica Schuyler, says that what also makes Hamilton special is that its legacy keeps changing, evolving to fit the time it's being received. “We thought we knew and we keep learning,” she says, adding that when the Hamilton film went from a theatrical release in 2021 to being dropped on Disney+, it again shifted the perspective of the musical.
“It’s going to be an event in our homes to, you know, heal us through this quarantine,” Goldsberry continues, referring to the coronavirus outbreak that has forced the country to shelter in place for several months, adding: “Now, we’re seeing that it is a light forward in a time of great pain and a need for revolution.”
“Art is always a reflection of our life that will always lead us forward when it’s done in the spirit that God gives us. And so I’m encouraged and I’m hopeful,” she concludes.