Hamilton: Bringing Broadway Back

How the hit musical is making Broadway, and American history, relevant again.

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Hamilton: Bringing Broadway Back

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There’s something to be said for unlikely combinations. Chocolate and peanut butter. A chimpanzee and a puppy that become best friends. A lot of times the strangest of pairings turn out to be even better than the more obvious ones.

But R&B and showtunes? On a Broadway stage, no less? Even just a decade ago, that might’ve seemed a little far-fetched. But as a society that seems to have grown weary of the trappings of its self-imposed status quo, we were more than ready to welcome composer Lin Manuel Miranda’s hip hop/rap musical extraordinaire Hamilton into the songbook of American theater. And since January 2015 when it started showing at the Public Theatre in New York, that’s exactly what we did.

Sure, there have been shows in the past that didn’t fit into the stereotypical “musical mold”. You know, the one involving chorus lines and jazz hands. (Not that there’s anything wrong with those.) Grease, The Rocky Horror Show, and Rent were all Broadway shows that were innovative and out of the box in their day. But that’s kind of the point. That was in their day. Meaning that today’s culture and music and ideas all remained largely unrepresented on the stage, at least until recently.  

For a musical subculture that had already adopted rock, country, and folk, the lack of R&B and rap in modern showtunes was palpable. That’s arguably what makes Miranda’s Hamilton so avant-garde. The theater world had barely registered the existence of rap musicals, let alone rap musicals set in revolutionary America.

These were uncharted waters, effectively making Miranda (also the composer of In the Heights) a pioneer of sorts.

For those who don’t religiously follow musical theater news–or didn’t pay a lot of attention in U.S. History–Hamilton tells the story of our first Secretary of the Treasury who shares the show’s name. Brought back to life through Miranda’s lyrics, Alexander Hamilton is much more than a powdered wig whose visage eventually appears on the $10 bill. He’s a young, restless, radical patriot. An ambitious young man who worked his way up from a poverty-stricken childhood in the Caribbean to become one of America’s Founding Fathers.

In case you aren’t aware of the magnitude of the show’s success, let me give you some perspective. Say you happen to be in New York and think you might want to see what all the fuss is about. You decide to try and get ahold of some tickets. You go online to try and see show times for later in the week. First you notice that there are no longer any tickets available through the venue; only resale tickets are up for purchase. Then you notice the price tag– the lowest possible price tag. And your jaw drops.

For a midweek performance, a single ticket runs upwards of $685 and caps out at about $2500. Weekend tickets can cost up to $3200. Basically, it had better be the best 2 hours and 45 minutes of your life.

If you’re dead set on seeing Hamilton, though, your best bet is to start looking for seats months in advance. But even then, you’d be really hard pressed to find seats for a mid-week show (generally the cheapest tickets) under $475. And that’s true through January 2017, after which showtimes haven’t yet been confirmed.

But what to attribute this kind of success to? The public’s overwhelming embrace of the show is reflective of a culture that’s grown to disdain pretension and insincerity, especially in its politicians. It’s no surprise, then, that people are lining up around the block to see a whole new side of our forefathers. Not as the rigid legislators we read about in our textbooks, but as the young, rowdy rulebreakers they once must’ve been. In short, those stoic faces peering out of their gilded frames have been transformed into something completely relatable.

Their flaws literally take center stage in this production, making them human. Making them real. They’re ambitious and restless, not unlike many in today’s society. The drive and initiative that fueled their success are qualities we laud and strive to emulate. To put it plainly, they’re relevant again.

But haven’t they always been relevant? Haven’t Americans always stood for independence and hard work? Scrappiness and gumption?

The thing is, Miranda has found a way to put those sentiments into words or, more accurately, songs we find accessible. He, it seems, is fluent in both the language of today’s street culture and that of revolutionary times. And if what we need is a translator in order to connect with our nation’s narrative, then so be it.

The theater world was due for some new art that reflected the times. Miranda, in all his MacArthur-Genius-Grant-winning wisdom, saw this need and, in the fashion of the Founding Fathers, tackled it. What resulted was nothing short of groundbreaking.

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