Hamilton: Making a ‘miracle’ of modern musical theatre
One of the most anticipated shows of the year has finally touched down on UK shores. But how did Hamilton become the bestselling phenomenon that it is today? Mark Shenton says creator Lin-Manuel Miranda’s passion for musical theatre is the inspiration behind its brilliance
Hamilton’s concluding song asks: “Who lives?/ Who dies? / Who tells your story?” This is an apt statement for a musical that explores the foundation of the modern United States on its own terms, just as it sets about making history of its own.
It arrives in Britain in a blaze of publicity and tickets have sold like hot cakes. At home it is changing the landscape of Broadway and even musical theatre at large. It has become rooted in the US public consciousness, with Rolling Stone describing it as a “miracle of modern history”.
There was buzz from the start about the story of “the $10 founding father without a father”. And since premiering Off-Broadway at the Public Theater in February 2015 and then transferring uptown to Broadway’s Richard Rodgers Theater that summer, Lin-Manuel Miranda’s musical phenomenon has regularly broken all box office records.
In the Thanksgiving week that ended on November 26, it smashed its own record, taking more than $3.4 million across eight performances – nearly 10% of Broadway’s total gross on what is traditionally a record-breaking week on the Great White Way.
As Broadway ticketing consultant Mike Rafael recently told the New York Times: “Because of recent hits such as Hamilton and Dear Evan Hansen, we’ve entered the cultural consciousness in a way that Broadway hasn’t in a while.”
The century so far has also of course brought us The Producers, Wicked and The Book of Mormon. The current season will see the arrival of big brand blockbusters including a stage version of Disney’s Frozen and Harry Potter and the Cursed Child (transferring from London), opening a month apart next spring.
But Hamilton looms over all of them. It has ushered in – and speaks to – a larger cultural conversation, far beyond a theatrical one. It is one of historical narratives: how they are formed and who owns them – who tells the story? It has been called the “Obama-era musical”, but it continues to resonate ever louder in the age of the 45th president of the United States.
The show pre-empted Donald Trump by some years of course – but it also had an uncomfortable prescience about events that followed the election. Miranda, the sole author of the show’s book, music and lyrics – as well as taking the title role in the original production – has been a vocal critic of the administration and has used messages in Hamilton to criticise public policy.
One was from the Hamilton Mixtape, a compilation of songs inspired by, and remixed from, Hamilton, which topped the Billboard 200 when it was released last December. One of the polemical songs was Immigrants (We Get the Job Done), featuring rappers K’naan, Residente, Riz MC and Snow Tha Product, and promoted fundraising for a group of immigrant-rights not-for-profit organisations based in the US.
Miranda said: “This election cycle has brought xenophobia and vilification of immigrants back to the forefront of US politics. This is a musical counterweight. Each MC culturally represents a different place on the map.”
Hamilton has, in other words, become a lightning rod, as great art always does, for other people to find their voices. And a story about the foundations of America also feeds into the battle for its future.
The musical made political waves even before Trump took up office. His running mate, and now vice president, Mike Pence went to see the show with his family in November 2016. It made headlines when the cast addressed him at the curtain call.
Brandon Victor Dixon – who was playing vice-president Aaron Burr in the show – stepped forward. He had to silence audience members who were booing Pence, saying: “There is nothing to boo here, ladies and gentlemen, we are sharing a story of love”, before reading a prepared statement.
He read: “Mike Pence, we welcome you here. We are the diverse Americans who are alarmed and anxious that your new administration will not protect us, our planet, our children, our parents. Or defend us and uphold our inalienable rights but we truly hope that this show has inspired you to uphold our American values and work on behalf of all of us. We thank you for sharing this wonderful American story, told by a diverse group of men and women of different colours, creeds and orientations.”
In response, Trump rage-tweeted the next day: “Our wonderful future VP Mike Pence was harassed last night at the theater by the cast of Hamilton, cameras blazing. This should not happen!” He also called for an apology.
Dixon’s measured response on the social media site was: “Conversation is not harassment sir. And I appreciate Mike Pence for stopping to listen.”
To add to its political heritage, one of the earliest public outings for Hamilton, or at least material from it, was at the White House. In 2009, Miranda performed the opening number from the show in front of President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama.
The seeds of the musical were planted when the author took Ron Chernow’s biography of Alexander Hamilton on holiday with him to Mexico. Reading his story prompted Miranda to equate Hamilton to a hip-hop star.
When the White House invited him to perform a piece about the “American experience” he decided against material from his first musical In the Heights and went with Hamilton, though he had only written one song of what was supposed to be an album at that stage.
In his introduction he stated: “I’m thrilled the White House called me tonight because I’m actually working on a hip-hop album. It’s a concept album about the life of someone who embodies hip hop: treasury secretary Alexander Hamilton.” As the audience laughed, he added: “You laugh, but it’s true. He was born a penniless orphan in St Croix of illegitimate birth, became George Washington’s right-hand man, became treasury secretary, caught beef with every other founding father. And all in the strength of his writing. He embodies the world’s ability to make a difference.”
And that’s exactly what Miranda’s show has done. In 2016, Miranda returned to the White House for a schools event hosted by Michelle Obama, with other members of the cast.
Obama spoke of seeing the finished show at the Public six years after that initial White House presentation. “It was simply, as I tell everybody, the best piece of art in any form that I have ever seen in my life,” she said.
The first lady urged her daughters Malia and Sasha to see it, but they were sceptical because anything recommended by parents “can’t be cool”, Obama said. “They went in sceptical but they came out true believers, like everyone does.”
Producer Oskar Eustis, who took Hamilton to its first production at the Public Theater, which he runs, told The Stage earlier this year that during previews he would amuse himself by seeing if he could over-praise it to audiences heading into the auditorium. “I’d say it was the best American musical ever written, that Lin-Manuel’s achievement was comparable to Shakespeare. [But] people would come out and say it was better than I had said.”
Speaking to high-school students from three local schools at the 2016 White House event, one told Miranda it had helped him to learn things that he “wouldn’t normally learn” in class, because he struggles with history. Was this musical made for kids such as him, he wondered?
Miranda responded: “Honestly, I was just like you. I was not a history major.” Instead, he learned about the world through theatre. As a result, he knows “a weird amount about Eva Peron” and “a certain phantom of a certain opera house”, referring to Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Evita and The Phantom of the Opera.
Gaining attention far and wide
Lloyd Webber said in 2015 that he was a big early fan of Hamilton. “This is the first time in my career where I’ve thought: ‘Thank goodness, this is someone doing something truly new in musicals.’ He’s not trying to ape me or Sondheim or Kander and Ebb but has a new and highly theatrical talent and original voice.”
Lloyd Webber was also a particular fan of the process by which it was developed. “It’s interesting that the wondrous Hamilton, which I could not be more ecstatic about, has taken a long time to perfect to bring it to Broadway. It wouldn’t have been possible if it was developed in the commercial theatre from the get-go. No producer has the resources to develop a show over such a long period of time. Hamilton had a four-year gestation at the Public.”
Eustis was instrumental to that gestation. “By working on it here [at the Public Theater], we were trying to make it the best possible version of itself. And the real brilliance of Hamilton is that it reflects who Lin-Manuel Miranda is,” he says.
The Public’s artistic director praised how Miranda took “everything he loves and refused to recognise distinctions between them”, adding: “He loves Rodgers and Hammerstein and the Beatles, Leonard Bernstein, hip hop, and Chance the Rapper – and it all goes in. As an artist, his work is embodying the unity that we dream of for the country.”
Stephen Sondheim was also an early admirer and mentor of Miranda in the writing of the show. He told the New York Times: “When I first heard Lin-Manuel’s songs, I immediately thought of Rock Island, the opening number of The Music Man. It’s one of the most brilliant numbers ever written and the first time anybody had attempted to make music out of speech in the American theatre. It doesn’t have the attitude of rap and nobody thinks of it as rap, but the technique is rap.
“At some point, Lin-Manuel started telling me about Hamilton, which, back then, was called The Hamilton Mixtape. He sent me lyrics printed out and recordings of the songs. This raised obvious red flags: I worried that an evening of rap might get monotonous; I thought the rhythm might become relentless. But the wonderful thing about Lin-Manuel’s use of rap is that he’s got one foot in the past. He knows theatre.”
Sondheim added: “He respects and understands the value of good rhyming, without which the lines tend to flatten out. Jokes don’t land the way they should. Even emotional lines don’t land the way they should. Rhyme does something to the listener’s perception that is very important, and Lin-Manuel recognises that, which gives the Hamilton score a great deal more heft than it might otherwise have. Most lyrics are by their very nature banal — it’s the way they’re expressed that makes them soar.”
Sondheim complained in another interview that most theatre is “too insular to age well”, but Hamilton might change that. Perhaps, he said, it could open the door to producers to take more chances on new work.
Most new stuff, he added: “was not as skilled as Hamilton. Lin knows how to write a song and so did [Rent author] Jonathan Larson. Rent was the perfect example of a guy with one foot in the past, one foot in the present and a third foot in the future, but it’s mostly in the present.”
Rent was also a massive influence on Leslie Odom Jr, the first actor to play Aaron Burr. He told Playbill before the show opened at the Public: “I heard this really great quote not too long ago that said, ‘An artist spends their entire life trying to get back to the place where their heart was first opened up, and Rent was certainly that for me as a 12 or 13-year-old kid. It opened up my heart and my senses, and [Hamilton] is the first time that I’m back there.”
He continued: “One of the biggest reasons I had to do this show was for that 13-year-old kid. I haven’t had a chance to decorate my dressing room yet, but I have these pictures of myself as a kid that I want to put up because I said: ‘I really want to make sure that I take that kid with me on this journey.’ I want him to experience this.”
Miranda responded that so much of what Odom Jr had said resonated with him. “Especially that notion of: ‘There’s a kid who fell in love with theatre.’ We all start in theatre – if we did the school play. Most of us go on to other things and then there are some of us who fall in love with it so deeply that we never want to do anything else, and that’s us.”
‘Soundtrack to the nation’
So the show was forged in a love of theatre and its possibilities. And that’s also where its emphasis on the diversity of the cast came from. Speaking at the White House schools event in 2016, director Thomas Kail said: “That was a really early and essential conversation we had.” He added that it was important that they take a world that “feels like a sepia tone” and make it look similar to the modern world.
And sound like it, too. As Eustis said: “Hamilton is the first musical since Hair where the soundtrack to a show has become the soundtrack to the nation. People listen to it whether they’ve seen it or not. That ability to take pop music at its hottest and bring it to the theatre, and the theatre to it, is just one of the achievements of Hamilton.”
Could it be a marker for the future of musical theatre? Sondheim is cautious, telling the New York Times: “Hamilton is a breakthrough, but it doesn’t exactly introduce a new era. Nothing introduces an era. What it does is empower people to think differently.
“There’s always got to be an innovator, somebody who experiments first with new forms. The minute something is a success, everybody imitates it. It’s what happened with Oklahoma!; everybody immediately started to write bad Western musicals. Hair also had that effect. But eventually people stop imitating and the form matures. Hair allowed young writers to say: ‘Hey, let’s use rock as a way of telling a story.’ Now they’ll say: ‘Let’s use rap as a way of telling a story.’ So we’ll certainly see more rap musicals. The next thing we’ll get is Lincoln set to rap. If you think I’m kidding, talk to me in a year.”
And now, while it is still running on Broadway and has two other North American productions, Hamilton is making its first foray beyond the US to an international market in London.
Tickets are already in extremely short supply and selling at some of the most premium prices in the West End, which attests to the flood of publicity that has preceded it – and all the talk in the US that this is an era-defining piece of work.
It is going to be influential in many ways. Not least, as its London co-producer and landlord Cameron Mackintosh has said, for showing off its British stars and the diversity and quality of this country’s talent pool.
“It’s a credit to the brilliant training given to young actors from all different races. It’s not at all like you hear in the media – that black actors aren’t being given chances. Come and see this show and you will see it’s full of people of all races,” Mackintosh said. “And they are all talented and they are all British.”
Hamilton is running at the Victoria Palace Theatre until June 30, 2018; at Chicago’s CIBC theatre until September 2, 2018; New York’s Richard Rodgers Theater until August 19, 2018; and is on tour in the US throughout the 2018/2019 season
‘Mortgage your house and lease your children’
Was Hamilton a critical success from the very beginning or did it take a while to get noticed?
Fergus Morgan recaps the reviews – from the Off-Broadway curiosity to the international sensation
Since it premiered Off-Broadway almost three years ago, Lin-Manuel Miranda’s record-breaking, chart-topping, trend-setting hip hop musical about Alexander Hamilton has rarely been out of the headlines.
Whether it’s New York ticket prices sailing past $2,000, vice-president Mike Pence getting a plea from the stage and boos from the auditorium on his trip to see it, or Miranda freestyling with Barack Obama in the Rose Garden, it keeps bobbing up to the surface of the US’s national consciousness.
How did US theatre critics respond to Miranda’s mega-hit musical on its journey from Public Theater phenomenon, to Broadway big-hitter, to international success? Were they always fully supportive, spotting this cultural phenomenon from the first preview or does their early copy suggest it initially passed them all by?
With its roots in Ron Chernow’s 2004 biography of Alexander Hamilton, it officially opened at New York’s Public Theater on February 17, 2015. And it turns out the critics were on-board from the very start. It was an instant hit, a revolution in form and content.
It was “a breath-taking pageant” according to Peter Marks of the Washington Post, “an extraordinary achievement”, USA Today’s Elysa Gardner said, and “a wonderfully humanising view of history” according to Marilyn Stasio in Variety.
“Not just for its lyrical virtuosity, but also structural elegance and fierce topicality, the piece is a signal achievement,” wrote David Cote in Time Out NY. “In remixing the past to his own beat, Miranda shows us the future.”
The New York Times’ eminent critic Ben Brantley weighed in: “It convinces us that hip hop and its generic cousins embody the cocky, restless spirit of self-determination that birthed the American independence movement.” He continued: “Like the early gangsta rap stars, the founding fathers forge rhyme, reason and a sovereign identity out of tumultuous lives.”
Broadway beckoned on August 6 of that same year. Hamilton opened uptown at the Richard Rodgers Theatre, where it has remained ever since. The critics, returning for a second time, were bowled over once again.
“I am loath to tell people to mortgage their houses and lease their children to acquire tickets to a hit Broadway show,” confessed Brantley, “but Hamilton might just about be worth it – at least to anyone who wants proof that the American musical is not only surviving but evolving in ways that should allow it to thrive and transmogrify in years to come.”
Chris Jones of the Chicago Tribune followed up: “The language and nomenclature of Hamilton feels wildly fresh and distinctive. But what makes Miranda such a uniquely potent Broadway figure is that he also is steeped in the craft and tradition of the American musical and can forge melody and lyrics that hold up to the work of the old masters; you can see the influence of Richard Rodgers just as explicitly as Notorious BIG.”
“If this sort of thing catches on, the old, reliable Broadway show tune may be a thing of the past,” observed Stasio. And six months after its Off-Broadway premiere, as the election machines kicked into gear, US critics were more perceptive of Hamilton’s political implications. At a moment when the country wrestled with its national identity, here was a musical that boldly retold its founding mythology, and did so in thrilling style.
“Because it is unfolding against the backdrop of the 2016 presidential campaign, Hamilton registers as a rare convergence of a popular Broadway musical and a political-cultural moment,” said the Boston Globe’s David Aucoin. “Miranda’s sung-through musical delivers a portrait of 18th-century political rivalries inflamed to boiling point by ambition, ego, partisanship, opportunism and a thirst for power that feels all too contemporary.”
“It will make you want to stand on your seat and yell with delight,” cheered the Wall Street Journal’s Terry Teachout, “and no matter which side of the political divide you may favour, it will also remind you of what a unique privilege it is to live in a flawed but free country that was forged on the anvil of revolution by giants such as Alexander Hamilton.”
Hamilton hasn’t been universally acclaimed, though. Its second press night gave some New York reviewers the chance to pick holes in its five-star sheen. It might be full of nationalist debate “but it never elucidates a political critique”, said Tom Sellar in Village Voice. “It’s a shame that gender roles, too, stay so traditional: the guys get the bring-down-the-house rap numbers and the women mostly have the ballads.”
“Revolutionary the show is not,” said Elisabeth Vincentelli of the New York Post. “Truly radical art is divisive and, under its brash exterior, Hamilton is warmly reassuring – a love letter to a land of opportunity.”
Despite the niggles, it’s still been success after success for Miranda’s musical. It triumphed at the 2016 Tonys, earning a record-breaking 16 nominations and winning 11, and was also awarded the 2016 Pulitzer Prize for Drama. A Chicago version opened in September last year, and a US tour set off in March.
And now it arrives in the West End, with a new lead, a new audience, and a new set of critics to impress. Will London’s reviews be as effusive as their transatlantic counterparts, or will they be singing a different tune?
• 11 Tony awards
• 1 Grammy
• 2016 Pulitzer prize for drama
• $147 million gross in the year until October 12, according to Broadway World
• $827.98 price of the top Broadway ticket, according to Broadway World
• 537,481 seats sold