Even if you don’t follow theater in New York, it has been pretty difficult to avoid all the hoopla surrounding the latest Broadway hit, “Hamilton.” There have been other historical musicals before, and many have gone on to be multiple award-winning titles that enjoy a great life long after leaving the Great White Way, but “Hamilton” is something special. Perhaps it’s because it just broke the Tonys record, having been nominated for 16 Tony Awards, an honor that was previously held by both “The Producers” and “Billy Elliot” with 15 nominations each. Or maybe it’s because Lin-Manuel Miranda — who wrote the music, books and lyrics for the show and also stared in the titular role — also earned the 2016 Pulitzer Prize for Drama for his work. It could also be the fact that the musical has revolutionized what people consider “musical theatre” thanks to the rhythms and language of hip-hop and R&B that infuse the compelling score. No matter what the reason is, there is a lot to celebrate when it comes to “Hamilton,” so here is a look at four reasons why “Hamilton” is important.
History Is Big On Broadway
“Hamilton” tells the story of Alexander Hamilton and the Founding Fathers, including Hamilton’s legendary duel with Aaron Burr. It’s a bio-musical, and Broadway is no stranger to the historical bio-musical. “1776” was nominated for five Tony Awards, winning three, including Best Musical. Andrew Jackson got his own musical story with “Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson” which, despite a poor box-office response, was nominated for two Tony Awards. There was also the Frank Wildhorn penned “The Civil War” which was also nominated for the Tony for Best Musical, and even Stephen Sondheim’s “Assassins” won five of the coveted statues.
Of course, all of these historical musicals take some dramatic license, and “Hamilton” is no exception. While Miranda has gone to great lengths to keep the musical as true to history as possible, there are still many differences and changes brought by Miranda to ensure the show would succeed as a Broadway musical.
In a year that brought an Academy Awards celebration with no African-American nominees, it’s exciting to see a show like “Hamilton” win so many nominations. The cast is led by almost all Latino and Black actors. “Our cast looks like America looks now, and that’s certainly intentional,” offers Miranda in a recent interview with the New York Times, “It’s a way of pulling you into the story and allowing you to leave whatever cultural baggage you have about the founding fathers at the door.”
The story of “Hamilton” is, in its essence, about immigrants, and the musical has helped to bring the conversation into the spotlight even more. Thanks to the youthful music and high-energy dance, it helps to bring the important conversation to a younger audience, which has always been a challenge in theater.
There has always been a stigma that musical theater was only for your grandparents. Lin-Manuel Miranda has been one of the many recent artists to change that for good. No longer are musicals held to the traditions of Carol Channing, Ethel Merman, Liza Minnelli, Julie Andrews or Patti LuPone. Now, musicals can be edgy, fast-paced, hip-hop infused works that get even the toughest audiences on their feet. Miranda first worked to start this change with his 2008 hit “In the Heights,” which was largely Dominican-American and included plenty of hip-hop, rap and Spanish-infused lyrics. “Hamilton” is another musical that brings modern music to the stage, and the audiences are responding with their wallets, as there are tickets are being resold for more than $2,500 per pair.
It’s A Hit
Attendance at live theatre has been up and down over the past few years, but not since “The Book of Mormon” in 2011 has any Broadway musical been so in demand and talked about. Thanks to Miranda and team, theater fans all over the world are falling in love with theater again. Fans of all ages are flocking to the theater, buying the album and watching the online videos like crazy. The album launched at number 12 on the Billboard charts, which is the highest debut for a cast recording since 1963. “Hamilton” is also the highest charting album since “The Book of Mormon” in 2011 and has the largest digital sales of any cast album in history.
Deborah Flomberg is a theater professional, freelance writer and Denver native. Her work can be found at Examiner.com.