“How does a bastard, orphan, son of a whore and a Scotsman / Dropped in the middle of a forgotten spot in the Caribbean / By providence impoverished, in squalor / Grow up to be a hero and a scholar?”
That’s the opening question in Lin-Manuel Miranda’s revolutionary (pun intended) new Broadway musical Hamilton, which uses rap, hip-hop, and R&B to tell the story of Alexander Hamilton—“the 10-dollar founding father without a father.” It took a creator like Miranda, one equally well-versed in 1776 and Biggie Smalls, to realize that Hamilton’s tumultuous life fits both a musical theater arc and a classic hip-hop narrative.
Like many a rap superstar, Hamilton’s biography involves big personalities (George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and Hercules Mulligan), violence (the Revolutionary War), love, infidelity, and a deadly rivalry (Aaron Burr would eventually kill him in a duel in 1804). Most importantly, Hamilton used his gift with words to grow from an impoverished kid in the West Indies into one of the most crucial players in the early days of the great American experiment. “Immigrants,” Hamilton brags, “We get the job done.”
In much the same way Clueless remains the best onscreen adaptation of Emma because it gets the essence of the story right if not its period setting, Hamilton works because it throws nitpicking accuracy out the window in favor of depicting the spirit of history. After all, it’s hard to look at portraits of the stoic founding fathers in their wigs and powder without seeing an image of the establishment. But in their own time, Washington, Jefferson, and Hamilton were scrappy revolutionaries hell bent on blowing up the status quo and sticking it to the far-away island that wanted to take their money without listening to their voices. As Miranda puts it, “[Our show takes] it as a given that hip-hop music is the music of the Revolution.”
In its casting choices—which aren’t colorblind but explicitly written for people of color—Hamilton argues that this American narrative belongs to all Americans, not just the ones that happen to look like the founding fathers. That means Hamilton also provides actors of color the opportunity to play figures they’d never otherwise be able to. And audiences, in turn, are gifted with Miranda’s tenacious Hamilton, Leslie Odom Jr.’s heartbreaking Aaron Burr, Christopher Jackson’s regal George Washington, and Daveed Diggs’ hilariously ostentatious Thomas Jefferson.
Just a few streets away from the theater where Hamilton is performing nightly, George Takei’s new musical Allegiance is also shifting the lens on historical fiction, albeit in a very different way. Allegiance centers on the largely untold story of Japanese-American internment during World War II.
While Takei didn’t write the show, creators Jay Kuo, Marc Acito, and Lorenzo Thione took inspiration from his life; at only 5 years old Takei was one of the 120,000 Japanese-Americans removed from their homes and forced into internment camps following the attack on Pearl Harbor. Although Allegiance’s fictionalized story isn’t Takei’s own, the show has been marketed on his personal connection to the material. He’s also perfectly cast as the capricious grandpa who urges his family to face the situation with “gaman,” the Japanese concept of “endurance with dignity.”
Unlike Hamilton, which wears it progression proudly on its sleeve, it’s hard to see exactly how radical Allegiance is without comparing it to other historical dramas. Twenty-seven years ago Mississippi Burning explored the horrors of racism and the bravery of the civil rights movement in a film that didn’t feature a single black lead. And only three years ago Lincoln told the story of the passing of the 13th Amendment without acknowledging the role slaves, free black people, and women played in the fight. Given how infrequently people of color are granted leading roles in their own history, Allegiance is quietly revolutionary (much like Selma before it) in its refusal to center on a white perspective.
It would have been easy for Allegiance to pit Japanese protagonists against white antagonists or to focus on how white Washington politicians debated the issue. Instead, its conflicting and clashing ideologies are voiced almost entirely by Japanese-American characters. The unusual sight of an all-Asian ensemble in 1940s costuming is a reminder of just how infrequently these types of historical stories are told. And rather than depict them merely as sympathetic victims, Allegiance is interested in exploring the agency Japanese-Americans claimed within a situation in which they had very little.
The show’s main antagonistic force is Mike Masaoka (Greg Watanabe), the head of the Japanese American Citizens League who supports internment because he believes deescalating tension is the best way to help his people. From outside the camps he tells the U.S. government that his people are willing to put up with any hardship to prove their loyalty. Within the camps, however, many Japanese-Americans disagree.
It’s a familiar battle between respectability politics and protest, but Allegiance doesn’t neatly present those two ideologies. Instead, just about every character has a different perspective on how to deal with internment. At the heart of the debate is a loyalty questionnaire that asks detainees whether they will renounce allegiance to the emperor of Japan, declare loyalty to the U.S., and serve in combat if ordered. The indignity of being questioned about their patriotism after being stripped of their civil rights becomes a sticking point for many in the camp.
Idealistic Sammy Kimura (Telly Leung) isn’t fazed by the questionnaire and quickly signs it so he can enlist in the U.S. army. His strict father Tatsuo (Christòpheren Nomura), however, refuses to sign on principle and is sent to a harsher punishment camp. Meanwhile, Sammy’s maternal older sister Kei (Lea Salonga) is inspired by a radical student named Frankie (a magnetic Michael K. Lee) and together they begin organizing protests within the camps.
The show finds empathy for all its characters’ perspectives and goes on to complicate their worldviews: Sammy faces the horrors of an especially harsh war, Frankie and Kei deal with the personal cost of protesting, and Tatsuo finds pride in his war hero son despite their differing politics. Without letting him off the hook, the show even acknowledges the difficulties of Masaoka’s impossible situation.
Structurally, musically, and aesthetically, Hamilton and Allegiance couldn’t be more different. While Hamilton feels completely contemporary, Allegiance hopes to reach its audience through an old fashioned—and at times unfortunately generic—musical theater style. But at its best, the show subverts a big band sound into dark satire. In “Paradise” Frankie puts on a show for his fellow detainees that mocks the fact that they live under tyranny even as the U.S. fights fascism abroad. “Sure you shiver in this ice box, but cheer up the rent is free!” he intones sarcastically.
But Allegiance is still mostly “playing by the rules,” so to speak, even as it shifts the lens on who gets to tell this story. Hamilton, meanwhile, is blowing up the rulebook altogether.
The rhythmical propulsive and lyrically dense score—which can be streamed via Spotify—is accessible not just to those who love musical theater but to pop and hip-hop fans alike. Equally educational and humanizing, the show crams in enough information to fill an A.P. U.S. history textbook yet also reminds its audience that historical icons were flawed, fallible, funny people. The Jefferson versus Hamilton debates are reimagined as rap battles that capture the spirit of two intellectual, arrogant men engaging in a war of words. At one point Jefferson spits: “‘Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.’ / We fought for these ideals; we shouldn’t settle for less / These are wise words, enterprising men quote ’em / Don’t act surprised, you guys, cuz I wrote ’em.”
But when it comes to its female characters, Hamilton takes a page from the Allegiance playbook and shifts its perspective in a more subtle way. In stories about the great men of history, women are usually depicted as minor supporting characters (think Mary Todd in Lincoln or the wives in The Right Stuff). But much as Allegiance gives it detainees agency, Miranda finds ways to explore the compelling, if limited, choices historical women made in their everyday lives.
In “Satisfied,” one of the best songs in the show, Angelica Schuyler (a commanding Renée Elise Goldsberry) details her flirtatious introduction to Hamilton and all the reasons—both social and personal—that she encouraged him to pursue her younger sister Eliza (a captivating Phillipa Soo) instead. Though its concerns are domestic, the song is an emotional and musical rollercoaster that’s just as compelling as any of the show’s politically minded numbers.
As he proved in his debut show In The Heights, Miranda has a remarkable knack for writing female characters. And rather than give his leading ladies just a moment or two to shine—which is how 1776 handles the founding mothers—Miranda tracks the lives of the Schuyler sisters almost as closely as he does Hamilton’s. In his hands, Angelica, Eliza, and their younger sister Peggy are intelligent, spirited, and unapologetic. In their first song Angelica raps, “‘We hold these truths to be self-evident / That all men are created equal’ / And when I meet Thomas Jefferson / Imma compel him to include women in the sequel!”
Later Miranda even credits Angelica with pushing stubborn Hamilton to compromise with Jefferson over the structure of government we still live under today.
In one of his neatest tricks, Miranda decides that a lack of primary sources is an intentional choice made by Eliza. When Hamilton publically details his years-long affair, Eliza burns the letters that might have redeemed her husband’s character. “I’m erasing myself from the narrative,” she sings, “Let future historians wonder how Eliza reacted when you broke her heart.” And when Eliza does eventually forgive her husband, Miranda gives that small domestic achievement the same weight as any of Hamilton’s public ones. “Forgiveness,” the chorus gently sings. “Can you imagine?”
But it’s in the finale that Hamilton makes its most quietly radical choice: Where most biopics or bio-musicals use their last moments to reaffirm the importance of their central figure, Hamilton pivots after Hamilton’s death-by-duel. Eliza steps forward to “put herself back in the narrative.” She recounts the 50 years she lived following her husband’s death, which she spent speaking out against slavery, raising funds for the Washington Monument, founding New York City’s first private orphanage, and preserving her husband’s legacy.
The musical’s oft-repeated question, “Who lives, who dies, who tells your story?” is answered not with a self-congratulatory pat on the back about the Hamilton’s importance but with a salute to a woman whose face can’t be found on any currency. It’s a breathtaking and unexpected finale—the equivalent of ending Steve Jobs with a five-minute monologue from Kate Winslet’s character, Joanna Hoffman, about her own achievements. As Michael Schulman writes in The New Yorker, “You’re left wondering whether the ‘Hamilton’ of the title isn’t just Alexander, but Eliza, too.”
Created by artists of color and cast almost exclusively with them, Allegiance and Hamilton are providing two very different answers to the question of how to explore the patriarchal past without focusing exclusively on white men. Hollywood—which has long struggled with that question—would be wise to listen up. To quote Hamilton: “History is happening in Manhattan.”