Last week, my dear friend and colleague Miles Mykkanen wrote a beautiful post on this blog about Lin-Manuel Miranda’s smash-hit musical Hamilton. Miles wrote very well about the piece as a whole, and many other very smart people have done so also – I recommend these two articles in the New Yorker. For those who don’t yet know the musical, let me say only this: Hamilton transcends the genre, it has redefined crucial figures in American history in ways that will resonate for generations to come, it is deeply, radically progressive in its racial politics, and it’s an absolute joy to listen to. If you don’t know it yet, you have a wonderful experience ahead of you.
For those who do know Hamilton, I wanted to talk about one small part of the overall practical tactical brilliance of Miranda’s dramaturgy: the depiction of King George III. While Hamilton delves deeply into the subtleties of American post-revolutionary politics, and spends time exploring the stories of early American heroes who would otherwise be footnotes in most history books (Hercules Mulligan, you are my spirit animal), the massive power of the British Empire is depicted exclusively through one whiny, somehow charming man: the King himself.
The actor who plays King George, Jonathan Groff, is also famous for his role, Melchior Gabor, in the original cast of Spring Awakening on Broadway, and his performance as Patrick Murray, the star of HBO’s Looking. He is a charismatic, very handsome leading man, who has an irresistible charm, as well as two Tony nominations and a Grammy win. Almost any other Broadway producer would never consider casting him as the de facto villain… but somehow, in Groff’s hands, King George doesn’t feel like a villain. His music is too much fun, and he seems somehow aloof from the high dramatic stakes of the piece. Speaking with an adorably affected British accent, the language he uses to describe the American revolution is almost that of a teenage breakup – he proclaims, after learning that the colonies want to revolt, “I’m so blue,” and it’s difficult not to want to comfort him. At one point, during the chorus of “You’ll Be Back,” he invites the audience to sing along, and it’s easy to imagine the whole house roaring, singing along with the enemy of the American revolution. This is, to say the least, dramatically atypical.
There’s another fascinating element to Groff’s portrayal. Much has been made of the racial and ethnic diversity of the Hamilton cast, and rightly so: King George is the only white leading character. Instead of one character of color reduced to a supporting, usually comedic role on a stage otherwise inhabited only by white folks, we have the opposite: in Hamilton, the stage is full of actors of many colors and ethnicities, portraying complex characters capable of love, loss, vulnerability, and growth, with one token, comic white guy. There’s something immensely satisfying about seeing the racial tropes of contemporary media turned on their head. While this in itself would be deeply radical and progressive, Lin-Manuel and company go even further.
Where they might have opted for a less sympathetic white character actor for King George in the model of William Sanderson, Christopher Lloyd or Jonah Hill, they chose a leading actor instead, who would provide some measure of humanity and dignity in the role along with the comedy. In the white-supremacist model of entertainment, that breaks the mold: the comedic black (or white in blackface) actor is purposefully denied that kind of dignity. Think of the tradition of blackface Minstrel Shows, or the TV show “Amos ’n’ Andy,” or what Spike Lee has referred to as “coonery and buffoonery” in modern Hollywood. To truly invert this model, the single white character would have to be a partially-humanized stereotype as well. But in the world of Hamilton, no one is denied their humanity: whether it be the hero, Alexander Hamilton, the anti-hero, Aaron Burr, or the enemy of the cause, King George. This is progressive theater at its best, most intelligent, and most successful.