Since debuting on Broadway on August 6, 2015, Hamilton has garnered overwhelming attention, praise, success, and accolades. In addition to unprecedented advance box office sales, the show has won the 2016 Grammy for Best Musical Theatre Album, the 2016 Pulitzer Prize for Drama, and if the #Hamiltonys hashtag on Twitter is any indication, people everywhere are preparing for a Hamilton sweep of the Tony Awards this coming June. The production is on track to becoming one of the biggest critical and commercial hits in Broadway history.
With music, lyrics, and book by Lin Manuel Miranda, Hamilton tells the story of founding father Alexander Hamilton through rap, hip-hop, and R&B. Miranda, the show’s creator and star, was inspired to write the show after reading Ron Chernow’s biography of the first U.S treasury secretary. According to Miranda, by the second chapter, he knew that “hip hop was the only way to tell [Hamilton’s] story” and as he read the rest of the text, Miranda found himself assigning musical styles of each of the different characters. George Washington was a combination of John Legend and Common. Hercules Mulligan was Busta Rhymes. Hamilton was “modeled after [Miranda’s] favourite polysyllabic rhyming heroes, Rakim, Big Pun and Eminem.”
Through Hamilton, Miranda brings two of his passions together – hip-hop and musical theatre. In an interview with Heben Negatu and Tracey Clayton of the podcast Another Round, Miranda emphasizes the similarities between the two genres. “There’s a lot of amazing storytelling in hip-hop, and there’s a lot of amazing music in theatre music,” he says. “I’m always threading that needle in my work […] and [trying] to get [both groups] in a room together.” He hopes that fans of either hip-hop or musical theatre will find that Hamilton is their “gateway drug” into the other. In fact, Miranda notes that he often receives requests from “theatre-heads” for hip-hop primers. When his first production, In the Heights, was on Broadway, Miranda sent Stephen Sondheim (lyricist of Into the Woods, West Side Story, Company, Sweeney Todd and more) an A$AP Rocky track after he asked for recommendations. On Another Round, Miranda says: “I know how much hip-hop contains. Hip-hop has enough room for melody, has enough room for emotional richness. Hip-hop culture contains so many multitudes.” This is certainly evident in Hamilton. Each character with their own distinctive style has a phenomenal amount of both information and narrative storytelling packed into each of the 46 songs.
Hamilton’s rarity comes, not only from musicality, but also from the racial diversity of the cast. There’s an African-American Vice President Aaron Burr, a biracial George Washington, and a Chinese-American Eliza Schuyler – many men and women of colour playing white historical figures. As Renee Elise Goldsberry, who plays Angelica Schuyler (Hamilton’s sister-in-law), says: “Hamilton is a story about America, and the most beautiful thing about it is… it’s told by such a diverse cast with such diverse styles of music. We have the opportunity to reclaim a history that some of us don’t necessarily think is our own.” In fact, the show’s only white lead is England’s King George III.
Miranda has made it clear that these choices were entirely intentional as he was determined to represent America, as it looks now, in the cast. In an article for The Hollywood Reporter, Miranda states:
In Hamilton, we’re telling the stories of old, dead white men but we’re using actors of color, and that makes the story more immediate and more accessible to a contemporary audience. You don’t distance the audience by putting an actor of color in a role that you would think of as default Caucasian. No, you excite people and you draw them in.
Amidst the #OscarsSoWhite controversy and the various instances of white-washing in films, it’s hard to imagine Hollywood committing to the kind of racial diversity that Miranda brings forth in his work. However, Miranda has been approached by many filmmakers interested in adapting Hamilton for the big screen. This isn’t the first time a Lin Manuel Miranda-musical has received Hollywood interest either. The rights to his first musical, In the Heights, were acquired by Universal in 2008 but the film was never made. According to Miranda, “A lot of the reason the [film] of Heights went away is that they were afraid they didn’t have a big enough Latino star to bankroll this movie. […] That’s Hollywood being scared.” As Sara Bolboltz of the Huffington Post discusses, Hollywood studio executives are “said to shy away from diverse casting in the name of telling more ‘universal’ stories that appeal to the broadest audience. Too many, for example, black actors, and you have ‘a black film’ that won’t appeal to anyone but black people.” However, Hamilton’s success is a clear indication that this theory doesn’t hold true.
Both the off-Broadway and Broadway productions of Hamilton have been enormous triumphs. The off-Broadway production at the Public Theatre sold out 119 performances, and the show had sold 200,000 tickets to the tune of almost $30 million before the first show at Richard Rodgers Theatre. It has quickly become one of the highest-grossing shows on Broadway, and it did it in a climate where nearly 80 percent of theatregoers are Caucasian. The show has also won the praise of countless celebrities and public figures. Miranda and several cast members performed at the White House, where Michelle Obama, the first lady, called Hamilton the “best piece of art in any form that I have ever seen in my life.” Backstage at the Richard Rogers, there is a life-size cutout of Alexander Hamilton that has been signed by dozens of actors, musicians and comedians who have seen (and loved) the show. The live Hamilton preshow lottery (#Ham4Ham), a veritable hodgepodge of a capella, lip-syncing, mashups, and guest performances hosted by Lin Manuel Miranda himself, regularly draws crowds of thousands of fans.
Hamilton’s reign over the current pop culture landscape shows no signs of letting up anytime soon. While the film adaptation is most likely years away, we have plenty to tide us over until then. For example, Hamilton: The Revolution, a text written by Lin Manuel Miranda and Jeremy McCarter, was released only a few weeks ago. The book contains behind-the-scenes photos, more than 200 lyric annotations by Miranda, and multiple essays that discuss the history behind the production and its six-year development to a smash Broadway hit. Next up, The Hamilton Mixtape, produced by Miranda and QuestLove, which will feature covers from artists such as Busta Rhymes, Regina Spektor, Common, and Chance the Rapper and PBS’s Hamilton documentary. Both the documentary and the Mixtape are expected to be released sometime later this year. Finally, although Broadway performances of the show are sold out until the end of 2016, casting has already begun for the fall Chicago run, and a separate national tour is scheduled for 2017.
Hamilton is truly a revolution.