Why Has ‘Hamilton’ Become Broadway Gold?
How did a musical about long-past American history, featuring rap and dance, become the most talked-about show on Broadway this year?
The remarkable musical Hamilton, which opens Thursday night on Broadway, has been the most talked-about, fawned-over and revered show in years.
Performances of the show, which began life at the downtown Public Theater, are sold out and box office has been huge—with $30 million in advance sales.
When President Barack Obama went to a preview with daughters Malia and Sasha in July, he said (through White House spokesman Eric Schultz) it was “fabulous” and “lived up to the hype.”
Describing the rise of immigrant Alexander Hamilton and the early years of America, the show’s Founding Fathers are actors of diverse races and ethnicities. Oddly enough, you barely notice it.
The genius behind the show, lyricist-writer-composer-and star Lin-Manuel Miranda, has created an uplifting epic on stage that is both totally original and completely entertaining.
“The people you see on stage represent the city we live in now,” Oskar Eustis, the artistic director of the Public Theater, told the Daily Beast. Eustis nurtured the show through two years of workshops.
“It has liberated a lot of people who might feel ambivalent about the American experiment to feel patriotic,” Eustis said. “I can feel it in myself—it makes me cheer to be reminded of everything great about America and to have the story reappropriated for the immigrant population.”
When Hamilton opened during the winter at the Public Theater in downtown New York, the show immediately became a cultural touchstone.
The audience was packed every night with stars from Tom Hanks to Paul McCartney and political figures ranging from Hillary and Bill Clinton to Dick and Lynne Cheney.
“I worried when I first heard that the Cheneys loved it,” Eustis said. “But then I realized that the power of the show makes people who don’t share its ideology cheer for it and applaud. Cheney may not agree with the immigration policy of the times, but that’s how you change hearts and minds.”
So what is all the fuss about?
Hamilton reclaims America’s story for America as it looks and feels now. The whole story unfolds through songs that have a modern rhythm and pulsing energy and seem to reinvent the musical for the YouTube generation.
Even more striking, the rap rhythms and street-wise sounds fit perfectly with the story—letting us understand that the dead white guys of American history were once considered immigrant rebels, meeting in bars and street corners to create a revolution.
Hamilton himself was, as the opening lines of the show explain, “a bastard, orphan, son of a whore and a Scotsman dropped in the middle of a forgotten spot in the Caribbean,” who rose to become George Washington’s right hand and first Secretary of the Treasury.
The fact that “immigrants, we get the job done” as Miranda’s Hamilton says (to applause every night) is just a reminder that at one point, most Americans were from someplace else.
Hamilton also helps us see the messy glory that was American politics from the beginning.
“I’m just like my country, I’m scrappy and hungry, and I’m not throwing away my shot,” reads a lyric that is repeated often during the performance. (Warning: You can’t get the line out of your head once you hear Miranda sing it.)
“The first time I saw the show I was weeping,” actor Jonathan Groff (of HBO gay drama Looking), who plays the role of King George with bring-down-the-house charm, told The Daily Beast.
“Lin was next to me and he asked ‘Are you going to be okay?’ It’s so beautifully constructed—a masterclass in how to keep an audience’s attention and inspire and entertain. It has the same fearlessness and aggressiveness of our Founding Fathers in trying something new.”
The show breaks every rule of Broadway success. “There are no movie stars and it’s not a revival,” said Groff. “It’s storytelling and an original piece of theater that has inspired all this excitement.”
Thursday’s opening night coincides with the first Republican primary debate. The candidates might pay heed to advice the brainy Hamilton gets early on from Aaron Burr (then a friend, later the enemy who killed him in a duel): “Talk less, smile more/ Don’t let them know what you’re against or for.”
On Broadway, Hamilton faces off in two debates with Jefferson, one about whether the government should assume state debt and establish a national bank.
It’s a testament to Lin-Manuel Miranda that the debates (done in rap lyrics) are wildly entertaining—and even make you understand the issues at hand.
It’s unlikely that the Republicans will fare nearly as well on their opening night.
Hamilton is regularly described as a “hip-hop musical,” but some of its songs are lyrical and romantic, with nods to musical theater. Eustis pointed out that the gorgeously sexy “Room Where It Happens” is an homage to John Kander (of Cabaret fame) and other songs slyly invoke South Pacific and Gilbert & Sullivan.
“These things seem opposed, but they all belong together. The generosity of reference points sweeps us away,” said Eustis. The integration of genres is part of the message of the show—that we all belong together, too.
In contrast to the fresh, pop sounds of most of the show, Groff described his songs as “throwback ’60s Beatles love song type of music.”
His soaring lyrics are an hysterically funny love song from King George to his rowdy American subjects. In his kingly costume, Groff stands very still amidst the madness and offers lilting phrases like: When push comes to shove/I will kill your friends and family/ to remind you of my love.
Lin-Manuel Miranda first got attention as the composer-lyricist-and-star of In the Heights, which won four Tony Awards in 2008, including best musical.
Invited for a poetry jam at the White House in 2009, he surprised everyone by presenting a new rap song—that is still the opening of Hamilton. Eustis contacted him shortly afterwards.
“What followed was two or three years where he wrote a number of songs and sent them to me,” said Eustis. “He unleashed his creativity and each was better than the last. He planned it to be an album and called it his ‘Hamilton Mix Tape.’ Then in 2012, he realized he had enough songs to actually go ahead and do this.”
The dancing on stage is as fresh, original and stunning as Hamilton’s lyrics, while the set has two levels “because we all had the idea of there being witnesses to events,” said director Thomas Kail. “We wanted the full company on stage because everyone is a storyteller and observer.” It is full of restlessness and movement, the propulsion on stage matching Hamilton’s spirit.
Demand to see the show was already crazy from the get-go. According to Kail, for the first preview, some 12,000 people entered a lottery for two free tickets.
The Public shows sold out almost immediately and most insiders expected the show to end its run early and move to Broadway in April, in time for the Tony nominations.
Lead producer Jeffrey Sellers reportedly pushed for that, but Miranda wanted to take more time tinkering. Another influence—never mentioned—may have been that another Public musical, Fun Home, had moved to Broadway and clearly needed Tony recognition to continue.
Miranda’s respect for Oskar Eustis might have kept him from wanting to overshadow that smaller production.
The gamble paid off—Fun Home won the Tony, and Hamilton had a box-office of some $1.5 million per week during July previews, making it one of the top-earning shows on Broadway.
Even before it has the chance to win every Tony possible (which it will) next June, tickets are hard to get.
In Hamilton’s Broadway incarnation, the relationship between George Washington and Hamilton seems stronger, and some of the lines are crisper. The Broadway production maintains the show’s eager, restless spirit while feeling smoother and more polished.
“I’m like the parent watching the child grow and marking off doorways,” said Kail. “I guess we’re taller now, but so much came with us. What we’re seeing is a company of actors who have been with the show and whose confidence and faith in the story is complete. There’s something palpable about that.”
Hamilton has been called a game-changer for Broadway—something so new and different that in the first preview week, some 700 people lined up outside the theater every day to enter a lottery for $10 tickets for the front row of seats. Lin and other cast members came outside to entertain them.
“Most will go home without a ticket, but each of them will have a story to tell and a sense of connection,” Kail said.
He has marveled at the huge audience response from the first. “I’m usually focused on the details that will make the show deeper and sharper. But once in awhile, I bop my head up and go—wow, we’ve done something really meaningful.”
Groff hopes the show will inspire a whole new generation of actors and writers.
“Lin grew up seeing Les Miz and hearing rap songs—and then he decided to put them together and try something new,” Groff said. “On paper, this is a musical that doesn’t make sense. But young kids will see it and get an historical education and know they can try anything. I’m excited for where it will lead.”