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Mark Shenton: Hamilton is about to change the face of Broadway

Hamilton. Photo: Joan Marcus A scene from Hamilton on Broadway. Photo: Joan Marcus
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New York loves a bit of hype. Or in the case of Hamilton, the new musical about one of the previously unheralded founding fathers of the American constitution as re-played in modern hip hop, New York loves a lot of hype.

Not since Rent first moved from Off-Broadway’s downtown New York Theatre Workshop to Broadway 19 years ago has a show generated the same amount of heat as Hamilton has done on its similar move from the Public Theatre to Broadway where it officially opened last week, with a mammoth reported $27.6m in advance sales, that will have surely grown since the rave reviews that greeted its transfer. (The other comparison being made is with the transfer of another show from the Public – A Chorus Line – exactly 40 years ago this year, that would become the longest-running show in Broadway history, until it was eclipsed in turn by Cats and Cats in turn was eclipsed by The Phanton of the Opera).

As the New York Times reported before it opened:

Thus far Hamilton has been seen by relatively few people – a total of 34,132 seats were available over 15 weeks at the Public, fewer than at a typical Yankees home game, and there remain uncertainties about how it will be received by broader audiences over time.

I took two of those seats during its run at the Public – once on a press comp, the second time I paid – and have just seen it again on Broadway at a press performance before it opened. And I can confirm: here’s a show about history in the making that itself is making history. It’s a startling, exhilarating musical that dares to tell a complex but involving story, and applies the sounds of the streets and pop charts to do so.

As Ben Brantley put it in his brilliant review for the New York Times when it first officially opened at the Public in February, the show “persuasively transfers a thoroughly archived past into an unconditional present tense. Written and composed by Mr. Miranda, this work may reap the pattern-bestowing benefits of two centuries of hindsight. Yet it exudes the dizzying urgency of being caught up in momentous events as they occur.”

As he goes on to say:

How Hamilton achieves this then-is-now effect could itself be said to qualify as historic, at least on the progress-challenged continuum of the American musical. In telling the story of Hamilton – and confreres that include George Washington, Aaron Burr and Thomas Jefferson – via rap and R’n’B ballads, this sung-through production sounds a lot like what you’d hear if you tuned the radio to a mainstream pop station. To which you may well say, ‘So what?’ But this confluence of what’s heard on the American musical stage and what’s heard on the airwaves and in the clubs hasn’t existed for at least six decades.

Broadway – along with Hollywood, where many Broadway writers decamped to score film musicals – once supplied the soundtrack of popular song. It is here that the Great American Songbook was largely born. But Broadway parted ways with the charts in the early 1960s: even Wicked hasn’t spawned a pop chart hit (though Frozen, the film musical scored by Avenue Q’s co-writer Robert Lopez and his wife Kristen Anderson-Lopez, achieved that rare distinction with the Oscar-winning Let It Go).

Stephen Sondheim’s only hit song is Send in the Clowns from A Little Night Music (turned into a hit by Judy Collins and covered by endless singers since). Andrew Lloyd Webber has had a couple of stand-alone hits like Don’t Cry For Me, Argentina (from Evita) and Love Changes Everything (from Aspects of Love). But these are exceptions, not rules. It will be interesting to see now if Hamilton fulfils Brantley’s prophesy and turns out to be something that you will hear when you turn on a mainstream pop station when the album is released.

 But as it is, Miranda is getting plaudits from theatre people for embracing and offering something genuinely new. In my recent interview for The Stage with Andrew Lloyd Webber, he spoke admiringly of him and said, this “is the first 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 a new and highly theatrical talent and original voice.”

Sondheim has also weighed in, telling the New York Times:

The wonderful thing about Lin-Manuel’s use of rap is that he’s got one foot in the past. He knows theatre. He respects and understands the value of good rhyming, without which the lines tend to flatten out… Rhyme does something to the listener’s perception that is very important, and Lin-Manuel recognizes 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. Hamilton is a breakthrough.

Ted Chapin, the president of the Rodgers and Hammerstein Organisation who knows a thing or two about musicals, commented to the New York Times that the show “takes the rules and shifts them. It’s historical but modern. This is a guy who knows rap and knows Stephen Sondheim, and that’s the step no one has taken yet.”

And it is a giant step for musicals. As Brantley, again, said in his follow-up review for the New York Times last week, it offers “proof that the American musical is not only surviving but also evolving in ways that should allow it to thrive and transmogrify in years to come. A show about young rebels grabbing and shaping the future of an unformed country, Hamilton is making its own resonant history by changing the language of musicals… In mixing a broad range of references and rhythms in one percolating style, Mr. Miranda does what rap artists have been doing for years. It’s the immoderate language of youth, ravenous and ambitious, wanting to claim and initial everything in reach as their own.”

But that’s not all. There’s also the diversity of its casting: as Erik Piepenburg pointed out in another New York Times feature last week, “Led by a cast of mostly black and Latino actors, Hamilton has already helped challenge the perception that Broadway’s nickname as the Great White Way refers to the color of the actors onstage. ‘Our cast looks like America looks now, and that’s certainly intentional,’ Mr. Miranda, 35, said earlier this year. ‘It’s a way of pulling you into the story and allowing you to leave whatever cultural baggage you have about the founding fathers at the door’.”

You also, now, of course, have to leave the baggage of hype around the show at the door, too, which is arguably an even bigger task. But the show deserves and warrants all the attention it is receiving. Its reverberations will be felt for years.

As Sondheim, again, pointed out, “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.”

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