Race, “Hamilton,” and the American musical

The hip-hop of "Hamilton" is well suited to the storytelling of an American musical, says musicologist Adeline Mueller. The popular show recently opened in Chicago as well as continuing its run on Broadway.

Interview conducted by Sasha Nyary 

Musicologist Adeline Mueller, an assistant professor of music at Mount Holyoke College, studies how the art form is circulated, consumed, and understood. She is particularly interested in music for stage and screen. Mueller has published articles on eighteenth-century opera and ballet, especially the theatrical compositions of Mozart, in addition to writing about silent film music. She is currently writing a book called Mozart and the Marketing of Childhood. 

Much of your work focuses on music and storytelling, such as in film, opera, and ballet. How does music tell or supplement a story? 

What makes music such a compelling partner to storytelling is the fact that, unlike words, music isn’t inherently representational. There’s a powerful communal dimension to a group of people hearing the same piece of music. It can be very unifying as a sensory experience. But what we actually read into that music, how we interpret it, can be very private and subjective.

There are conventions by which groups of people attribute different emotions and meanings to certain kinds of music. You and I might agree that a piano sonata by Beethoven sounds triumphant or somber or like a storm. But there’s always more than one way to hear it. And when you harness that to a story, it can make it really exciting. Music can be both very precise and very open. 

You recently developed and taught a course called Race in the American Musical. What role has race played in the development of the American musical?

You can’t really tell the story of the American book musical without talking about race. Minstrelsy and vaudeville are two of the main tributaries that feed the genre, along with operetta and jazz. All these musical traditions are bound up with race in terms of their performers, audiences, and stylistic affiliations. 

All of the most well-known works in the history of the American musical—Show Boat, Porgy and Bess, West Side Story, South Pacific, Fiddler on the Roof, Hair, Rent, Hairspray—they’re all stories about race. They involve musical appropriations from cultures of color, and representations of the ethnically dynamic American experience. Even Oklahoma! is about race. It’s about whiteness, the whiteness of the West. More and more historians of the musical are writing about what the genre reflects back to us about ourselves and our shared—and divided—history. 

The immediate inspiration for the course came from the Black Lives Matter movement, and students and faculty at Mount Holyoke who were challenged by that movement to engage in ongoing dialogue about racial identity and injustice across disciplines. It struck me that these were important and timely questions to raise about the musical, especially given the Hamilton phenomenon. I emphasized to the students that this was new territory for me as a scholar, and that we would be learning a lot together and from one another throughout the course. 

In the class we looked at early figures in the history of the musical, including black actors who often had to perform in blackface, like Bert Williams. Vaudeville and minstrel shows involved some truly reprehensible representational politics. It was difficult for all of us to encounter the imagery from these abhorrent nineteenth-century stereotypes of black culture. At the same time, the talent and the celebrity of the earliest black entertainers broke down barriers. White audiences were paying black people to entertain them, and that implies a certain degree of respect, a step toward legitimizing black performance.

We also went to see Shuffle Along, or, the Making of the Musical Sensation of 1921 and All That Followed, a wonderful new Broadway musical by George C. Wolfe. It tells the story of the making of the original 1921 production of Shuffle Along. What made the original show so revolutionary is that it was the first real Broadway smash that was created by and cast with African Americans, and it showed two black romantic leads falling in love on stage. That was very controversial—earth-shattering—at the time. The show is understood to have ushered in the Harlem Renaissance.

You mention Hamilton, the extraordinarily popular new musical by Lin-Manuel Miranda, which is among the latest musicals that deal directly with race. Its approach is startling in part because actors of color portray the Founding Fathers, and the music incorporates hip-hop as well as several other genres. Why does it resonate at this time in our history? 

Hamilton is popular for lots of reasons. It’s practically a concept album that happens to be staged. Miranda is thinking about the language, and the sounds and rhythms of that language, as the heart of the show, almost more than its visual component. The music is largely hip-hop, and hip-hop is such a storytelling musical genre to begin with. Miranda calls hip-hop the language of revolution, which is what makes it so well suited to tell this story.

Part of the show’s appeal is the historical subject, reclaiming the Founding Fathers as everyone’s Founding Fathers. To have them portrayed by people of color—even though a number of them were slave owners in the eighteenth century—really claims the promise of America for everyone who lives in America now. The ideals preserved in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution belong to all of us, and in the 21st century they stand as a challenge to our much more diverse, integrated America. 

Hamilton also demonstrates new modes of consumption and circulation of Broadway shows. Fan communities are mobilizing social media to bypass the often prohibitive ticket prices. People are experiencing Hamilton and sharing it and circulating it among themselves without ever having seen it live on Broadway. And Broadway is responding, with subsidized tickets for underserved youth like Eclipsed’s #tenthousandgirls, mini-street shows like #Ham4Ham, and the BroadwayHD streaming service.

Another interesting phenomenon, which Hamilton isn’t the first to do but is certainly the most prominent, is profit sharing between Miranda and the original cast members who developed the roles. This is becoming more of a standard practice. 

Hamilton recently opened in Chicago and productions are also coming to London, continental Europe, and Australia. How do you think it will translate overseas? 

Just as a musical like Les Misérables, which premiered in Paris, ran in London’s West End, and is about the French Revolution, ended up becoming a huge hit in the United States, I can absolutely see Hamilton having the same kind of cultural cachet abroad that it has here. The music is so infectious and the American mythology is very well-known overseas. Our ongoing issues with racial inequality and prejudice are very much in the international consciousness, especially right now. This story, like so much of the best in popular culture today, has something to say to wider debates about human rights, identity, and our interdependence as global citizens.

What will your story be? Apply.