№34 Jews Love Hamilton
I don’t know where I’ve been for the last four years since Hamilton became a theatrical sensation, but until I saw it two weeks ago, I didn’t know the cast was made up of people of color. I knew it was the story of Alexander Hamilton. I knew there were some rap songs. And I knew it was crazy expensive. I also knew it was supposed to be a great show.
My brother’s family had all seen it and my nieces sang the songs whenever we got together. My sister-in-law saw the show four times. She said it was up there with Wicked, which is my all-time favorite musical. My family loves musicals. My immediate family can’t sing for shit, but my brother and I grew up singing show tunes. We know all the words to The King and I, Cats, Oklahoma, Les Misérables, Hair.
Hamilton became popular in my daughter’s circle, so for her 15th birthday, I plunked down $350 a ticket and took her.
I was drawn in from the first song. I’m no history buff, but I got into how these guys had the audacity to beat back the Brits and create a whole new country. I was fascinated by the vulnerability of each character — characters I’d learned about in elementary school. Burr was insecure. He felt left out. Hamilton was a cheater. Also, I’m no rap fan, but I got caught up in the beat.
My daughter and I cheered when we won the revolution. Then we cried when Hamilton’s son was shot in a duel. We cried again when Hamilton was shot. In the end we stood for a standing ovation.
Then as we walked out of the giant auditorium — The Broward Center for the Performing Arts — I noticed something about the audience. I saw one black person. There was probably a smattering of Latinos, but everyone else looked like the people I sit next to at High Holiday services. I had just watched the second season of the TV show The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel about a Jewish comic. Two episodes are set in the Catskills in the late 50s. In the background are black musicians playing for the Jews. Now, 60 years later, it appears as if black people are still playing for the Jews.
I got a sinking feeling. We’re still so divided. And then I thought: Jews love to love black people.
I know Jewish people and black people have a storied history. We were allies in the civil rights movement, but we were also slumlords. In entertainment, Jewish producers promoted black acts but also portrayed black people in an ugly light. Now with Hamilton, what’s going on?
I’ve read a million articles since I saw the show. So much praise for Lin-Manuel Miranda, a man of Puerto Rican descent, who wrote the music and the lyrics. All the papers said Hamilton was/is itself revolutionary. The show takes rap uptown.
I only found two articles about what looked so stark and sad to me. Gene Demby, who’s black, wrote a story for NPR called “Watching a Brown Hamilton with a White Audience.” He saw one other black person in his audience. He suggests that maybe the audience is a reflection of economics, but countered that argument by noting that people of color don’t mind buying expensive tickets to Beyoncé. He also says that maybe Broadway-type theater just isn’t what people of color choose to do.
Then he brought up the ugly thought I had. He didn’t call out Jews; he called out the one-percenters. He quoted James McMaster, who writes for Howlround, a progressive online theater magazine. McMaster says, “How many one-percenters walk away from Hamilton thinking that they are on the right side of history simply because they exchanged hundreds of dollars for the opportunity to sit through a racialized song and dance? My guess: too many.”
Maybe Jews love the show because they (I) want to be on the right side of history.
A week later, I called an old friend. She was walking out of the Saturday matinee of Hamilton when she answered her phone. She told me she wanted to hate it, because of all the hype. She couldn’t believe she paid so much for a ticket. She said Hamilton was the best show she’s ever seen in her life. She’s Cuban.
I told her my thoughts about the Jewish audience versus the mixed-race cast. She said, “Lin-Manuel Miranda collapsed racial barriers. That’s the point. The founding fathers weren’t cast as white because Miranda was being true to their spirit.”
Now I get it. Jews love Hamilton because we see ourselves in the characters. And not because there are Jews in the cast. There might be, but that’s not apparent. What’s apparent is the spirit of the cast.
Jews love Hamilton. Everyone loves Hamilton because it’s a great story. Every story told well appeals to all people because we connect to the humanity of the characters.
In the Ft. Lauderdale production I saw, the character Eliza Schuyler is played by Shoba Narayan, who’s South Asian. Her sister, Angelica, is played by Ta’Rea Campbell who’s black. At first, I thought, “They can’t be sisters.” Then two songs later, I forgot all about their skin color and they were just sisters.
The founding fathers were white, but they could have been black, Latino, Asian, or Jewish. They were radical revolutionaries. They were also cheaters, liars, and cowards, just like everyone else. By the end of the show, they weren’t people of color anymore. They were just people.
This is №34 of my #weeklyessaychallenge. I started this challenge the week I turned 50.