2015 was a great year for music, with wonderful releases from old favorites like Sufjan Stevens, Mountain Goats and Sleater-Kinney, and the continued emergence of new masters like Kendrick Lamar, Jason Isbell, and Florence and the Machine. But the best of them all was, maybe for the first time ever, the cast recording of a Broadway show. I’m speaking, of course, of Hamilton, the album you either are obsessed with or have not yet heard. Yes, it’s a Broadway musical. Yes, it’s largely told in hip hop, with a nearly all-minority cast. And yes, it’s about founding father Alexander Hamilton. Four fundamental truths at the exact same time, right there.
Famously, composer/actor Lin-Manuel Miranda (who wrote the music and lyrics for In The Heights, which ran on Broadway from 2008-11) was on a beach vacation nearly a decade ago, read Ron Chernow’s acclaimed biography of Hamilton, and was shocked that no one had yet turned it into a hip-hop Broadway musical. Many genius ideas look obvious in hindsight, but this is not one of them. Miranda is perhaps the only person in the world that would have reacted that way. And yet, it’s a perfect meeting of subject and form, and a much-needed revival of the greatest American story ever told, of the founding of the nation.
2016 will only see an increase in the influence of Hamilton, as a Chicago production will open and as the show continues to gain fans outside New York. Here are 10 reasons that’s going to happen:
This show is the hottest thing to hit New York in a very, very long time. Decades, even. The difficulty of getting a ticket (they’re sold out for months) has become a running joke among New Yorkers. In November the show announced it had passed $57 million in advance tickets, smashing Broadway records.
And the famous and influential are fans along with the rest of us. Stephen Sondheim and Spike Lee are huge fans and advocates. Musical royalty from Madonna to Busta Rhymes to Nas have seen and endorsed it. Both Dick Cheney and Hillary Clinton loved it. And the President of the United States has seen it twice.
It’s rare for a Broadway show to break out into the consciousness of the country outside New York. In recent years, arguably the only show to do it has been The Book of Mormon. But Hamilton is another thing altogether; it’s the biggest cultural phenomenon Broadway has launched at least since Rent, way back in 1996. But your cousin in Houston is just as likely to be raving about the show as your uncle in New York. It’s truly become a nationwide, even worldwide phenomenon. The show generated one million tweets last year.
That’s in great part because of a stunningly good, Grammy-nominated cast-recording album, produced by Questlove and Black Thought of The Roots. That album debuted at No. 12 on the Billboard album charts, the highest for a cast recording in more than 50 years. It eventually went to No. 1 on the Rap Albums chart.
Part of greatness is having an impact, and Hamilton has done that more than any other Broadway show in recent years.
We can argue all day long about whether the music or lyrics are more important to Broadway shows in general, but it seems indisputable to me that the key to Hamilton’s greatness lies in its words. The primary reason for that, of course, is that a great part of the subject matter of the show is language itself; it’s through language, for instance, that Hamilton is able to free himself from the poverty and obscurity of his place of birth. He writes an essay about the hurricane that devastated his hometown, and his countrymen are so moved that they take up a collection to send him to America. As Lin-Manuel Miranda has pointed out many times, writing about your terrible circumstances as the key to escaping them is, in fact, the heat of the story of hip hop.
And when Hamilton gets to America, it’s through his words that he continues to “rise up,” first as an agitator for the Revolution, then as General George Washington’s chief aide-de-camp, then as an attorney, then as the chief author of the Federalist papers and as the first Secretary of the Treasury, and on and on. “Why do you write like you’re running out of time?” asks Burr, a question that is echoed by nearly every other character throughout the second act. The show, and Hamilton’s character in particular, is obsessed with who will tell his story once he is gone.
It was going to take an exceptional writer to match Hamilton’s writing genius, and his and the show’s dual obsessions with wordplay. Miranda proved to be just the man for the moment. Another beautiful effect of the show’s emphasis on hip hop is that Miranda was able to fit an awful lot of words into Hamilton—more than 20,000 words in two-and-a-half hours (to be fair, many of the non-hip-hop songs are delivered rat-a-tat-tat as well). In the words of Miranda, it’s “a story about America then, told by America now.” Perfection.
And those words are compelling, stirring, heartbreaking, and just plain gorgeous. Miranda meticulously took over a year to write a single crucial song (“My Shot”), and it shows. After several months of listening to the show nearly non-stop, and with an English major’s ear to boot, I’m still discovering callbacks and foreshadowing and parallel structure throughout the libretto. My current heartbreaking favorite: when Eliza narrates Alexander’s asking her father for her hand in marriage, they shake hands and her father says simply, “Be true.” If you know what’s coming in the second act, a chill runs down your spine. That’s the kind of dense intelligence that makes a cast recording worth going back to over and over.
Most non-fans who are dimly aware of Hamilton know it as “that hip-hop musical.” But to me, the great undersold story is how stunning the non-hip-hop musical numbers are. “The Schuyler Sisters” is the greatest song Destiny’s Child never recorded. “The Story of Tonight” could slide right into Les Misérables naturally, and be a standout in that monumental show. “Wait for It” must have had John Legend twisting in his seat with envy. The delightful King George interludes have numerous Beatles tributes. The hip-hop songs may give the show its sizzle, but the more traditional numbers give it its heart.
Speaking of heart, how can any American who has a heart not be inspired by seeing such a multicultural cast play the founding fathers of our country? The only white actors in the show play King George and (in a delightfully naughty touch) Thomas Jefferson’s favorite slave Sally Hemmings. Just think of it. A black George Washington, a black Thomas Jefferson, a black James Madison. A Latino Alexander Hamilton. Three Schuyler sisters—one black, one Latina, one Asian. The show gives minority kids a way into the story of the founding of our nation, a story where maybe they never saw themselves before.
And the presence of all those brown faces onstage has another great effect, too—it draws parallels between the revolutionary fervor of the late 18th century, the civil rights movement of the 20th and even the Black Lives Matter movement of the 21st. And the contrasts are just as interesting as the comparisons.
It’s also kind of amazing that Hamilton has become a hero to the LGBT crowd. Do I think the evidence is very convincing that Hamilton was bisexual and that his friendship with Laurens was more than platonic? No. Am I glad that some people do think it’s convincing, and see him as someone they can relate to more? Absolutely. It shows yet another group of people with yet another entrée into the story.
Oh, the story. The story of the founding fathers has got to be the most underappreciated and inspiring story in history. They were a group of (largely) privileged, (mostly) deeply flawed individuals who nevertheless came together to accomplish one of the most noble and breathtaking feats in all of history. And Hamilton gets both sides exactly right. It’s without a doubt the most patriotic musical ever mounted; it loves America. But it rightly depicts Jefferson as a vainglorious dilettante, Burr as a weaseling calculator, and even Hamilton himself as an uncouth, annoying motormouth. The show understands that the nearly impossibly perfect collection of intellect, passion and commitment that made the founding of the nation possible was concentrated in the hearts and minds of a group of men who had many, many faults. (Except for George Washington. George Washington was a freaking otherworldly figure. And the show gets that right, too.)
There has certainly never been a show where you’ll learn more history than Hamilton. I think I know a good bit about the Revolutionary era, and Hamilton has always been a favorite of mine, but I’ve learned a lot, lot more from listening to this show, and from the further research it has spawned on my part. How many times can you say that about a Broadway musical? Not only that it teaches you, but that it makes you want to learn more?
Let me put it this way. I was discussing the show’s treatment of the Federalist Papers with a friend last month, and he wondered aloud whether the show’s success might inspire more attention to the Constitution, its writing, its priorities and motivations, and the Federalist Papers themselves. And it didn’t sound at all ridiculous to suggest. Are you kidding me? When has a work of popular entertainment inspired people to read the Federalist Papers? Unless your American Government textbook was really inspiring (like my favorite), the answer is never. It has never happened.
It’s a very happy accident that so much of the story of Hamilton takes place in and around New York City. When Washington is describing the British taking over various sections of New York City, we know the places he’s talking about. When Hamilton tells Eliza “We’ll get a little place in Harlem and we’ll figure it out,” we know just what he means. And it probably means just that much more to the lucky group who have seen the show on Broadway that they’re sitting right there in the thick of the setting.
Some have suggested that some of the show’s NYC-centric talk is pandering, but I don’t buy it. Coming from Lin-Manuel Miranda, the son of immigrants, who grew up going to Broadway shows and soaking up the sights and sounds of the city, who then turned them into a Tony-winning musical about Washington Heights, those slogans sound completely heartfelt. You think Miranda doesn’t believe that New York is “the greatest city in the world” or that “In New York you can be a new man”? Come on. His family has lived it.
And as a cementing of the show’s relationship to the city of New York, they instituted a lottery system (similar to the one Rent and some other shows have used). Twenty front-row seats are sold the day of the show for only $10 each, and the most humble man who wanders by has exactly the same shot at those tickets as Mayor De Blasio. Even better, before each drawing, Miranda, other cast members and special guests come out onto the street for Ham4Ham, in which they perform songs from their own and other shows. The devotion they show to their fans is seriously inspiring.
One of the most touching aspects of the show is its appreciation for, and tribute to, its great forbears. As noted above, Stephen Sondheim is a fan of and advisor to the show, and his influence shows. Sondheim obviously feels an affinity for Manuel, and Manuel has obviously been hugely influenced by the master’s work. In the show, Miranda specifically name-checks great predecessors like The Pirates of Penzance and (of course) 1776, but you also hear echoes of everything from Les Miserables in the revolutionary rhetoric (especially in “The Story of Tonight”) to Jesus Christ Superstar in some of the energetic choruses.
And of course, Miranda pays tribute to his hip-hop forbears as well. I’ve found direct quotes from and/or references to greats like Jay-Z, Biggie, Tupac, and even Grandmaster Flash, among others. And of course, all the relentless internal rhyming and Miranda’s own delivery are direct descendants of Eminem; it’s no coincidence that the title and refrain of “My Shot,” the showstopper that Miranda took over a year to write, echoes Eminem’s “One Shot.”
It’s a testament to the show that I can never decide who my favorite pair of characters is. Hamilton and Burr came first, of course.Then Hamilton and Angelica. Then, for a long time, Hamilton and Washington. Now it’s Hamilton and Eliza by a pretty long shot (although the Hamilton/Burr duo has been rising again recently, too).
Leslie Odom’s Burr is wonderful—scheming and conniving, yet also completely relatable and even sympathetic. His “Wait for It” is a high point of the show. Christopher Jackson takes on the impossible task of embodying a superhuman figure in George Washington and somehow succeeds. And speaking of superhuman, the stunning Daveed Diggs manages to brilliantly embody two of the show’s greatest portraits, of Lafayette and Jefferson.
But it’s Philippa Soo, as Hamilton’s wife Eliza, who eventually emerges as the show’s other breakout star. Her devotion to her husband tempered by a streak of justice that holds his feet to the fire, she is the beating heart of the story throughout the whole show, in a very subtle fashion. And then, at the end, in a show obsessed with the idea of legacy, of course it’s Eliza who steps forward and becomes the hero of the narrative, telling the story (really, the stories) for another 50 years that she lives after his death. It’s a bravura vocal performance, but it’s also a thrilling homage not only to the power of women, but to the power of marital devotion. And, almost heartbreakingly, what she asks at the end of her life is, “Have I done enough? Will they tell your story?”
Which brings us to the most obvious, yet nevertheless greatest, reason for the transcendence of the show, which is the great Lin-Manuel Miranda himself. When he wrote both the music and lyrics to the Tony-winning Washington Heights and starred in the show himself, that was a mountainous accomplishment. But to do it again? And even better this time? And to create the definitive American musical of his generation? That’s almost unimaginable.
And it couldn’t have happened to a nicer guy. You see it in his dedication to the lottery and Ham4Ham. You see it in his relentless promotion of—and spotlight-sharing with—his marvelous cast. You see it in every interview he does, the just-honored-to-share-this-story vibe he exudes. He’s not only the right man for the job, he’s the right man for our time. Every time I hear Eliza’s plea, wondering whether Hamilton’s story will be told, I imagine Miranda looking back across the years, giving a salute to her. He’s stepped up to the challenge. He hasn’t thrown away his shot. And Broadway will never be the same.