Even those who live far away from the bright lights of Broadway and pay little attention to the goings-on in musical theater have likely heard rumblings of Hamilton.
There's a reason for that: After a sold-out run off-Broadway that was extended three times, Hamilton quickly and loudly made the transition to Broadway, selling millions of dollars' worth of tickets months before it opened. Now, less than two months after its Broadway bow, it's one of New York's hottest (and most expensive) tickets. That's unlikely to change after 2016's Tonys, for which Hamilton is a sure bet to take home a few statues, if not all of them — possibly even the ones it's not nominated for.
But even those who don't live in New York, or aren't planning a trip there anytime soon, should pay attention to Hamilton. As far as mainstream musicals go, Hamilton is revolutionary (in multiple senses of the word), a fact that was clarified on Tuesday, September 29, when the show's creator and star, Lin-Manuel Miranda, was awarded a MacArthur "genius grant," the annual $625,000 fellowship extended to "talented individuals who have shown extraordinary originality and dedication in their creative pursuits."
Hamilton is not Miranda's first successful musical (more on that in a bit), but it is easily his best and most exciting. Here's a primer on what makes the show so audacious, why people are talking about it, and how you can experience it (sort of) from the comfort of your living room.
So who's this Hamilton guy?
Maybe a glimpse of the show itself will help clear it up:
That's right — as evidenced by the britches and velvet blazers, we're talking about Alexander Hamilton, the United States' first Treasury secretary and one of its Founding Fathers. Hamilton was also a key adviser to George Washington during and after the American Revolution, and he became one of the main interpreters of the Constitution through the Federalist Papers, of which he wrote a staggering 51 (out of 85 total).
So it's sort of like 1776?
God, no. It's 2015, and this is a Lin-Manuel Miranda joint, which means Hamilton is as far away as it gets from that seminal (but fairly musty) musical interpretation of our nation's birth.
For starters, Hamilton is often described as a "hip-hop musical," though that doesn't quite get at the melange of musical styles evident in the production. But the music, which was all written by Miranda, is certainly rooted in the language of modern hip-hop, as well as in other traditionally black musical forms such as R&B and jazz, with a dash of Broadway traditionalism and Gilbert and Sullivan–style patter (which is basically just rapping anyway).
That seems … different.
Okay, granted, one of this nation's premier old white dudes may seem like an incongruous subject for such a modern-day musical treatment, but Hamilton doesn't merely justify the combination of subject and tone; it brings new shading and nuance to both. As Miranda himself has put it, Alexander Hamilton "embodies hip-hop," which isn't nearly as glib a statement as it may seem.
Hamilton tracks the life of Alexander Hamilton from the time he arrived in the US as an immigrant from the Virgin Islands through his (spoiler alert for American history) death in a duel with Aaron Burr. Hamilton was a penniless orphan of illegitimate birth, and his outspoken (and oft-controversial) ascent through the nascent United States government is the sort of rags-to-riches story that not only makes for good drama, but also merges shockingly well with the energy and attitude of modern-day hip-hop culture.
In fact, Miranda originally conceived of Hamilton as a hip-hop concept album. Back in 2009, he performed a song from that in-progress work at the White House's "evening of poetry, music, and spoken word" for Barack and Michelle Obama, who clearly loved it.
I liked that! Is it in Hamilton?
Yup! It's the opening number, in fact, functioning as a sort of prologue setting the stage for the events to come. However, the song, "Alexander Hamilton," has been fleshed out considerably in the transition from "The Hamilton Mixtape" to Hamilton, incorporating nearly the entire cast of characters, which also includes George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Marquis de Lafayette, and more.
That's a lot of old white dudes...
It sure is! But one of the most interesting things about Hamilton is its approach to casting those old white dudes. As you may recall from that earlier photo, Hamilton's cast is decidedly multicultural — in fact, the only actual white dude in the Broadway cast is Jonathan Groff (a Broadway superstar who also starred in HBO's Looking), who plays King George at a narrative remove from the main action.
The choice to cast actors of color as historical white men (including Miranda himself as Hamilton) sounds like a pointed, potentially distracting choice, but only the former is true in this case. As Miranda told the New York Times, "Our cast looks like America looks now, and that’s certainly intentional. … 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."
While that sounds potentially disrespectful to all the black men and women whose stories aren't taught in American history class, it really does work in the context of Hamilton. There's very little suspension of disbelief required to consider Miranda's Hamilton as a Hispanic man, or Thomas Jefferson (Daveed Diggs) as a black man, or Elizabeth Schuyler Hamilton (Phillipa Soo) as an Asian-American woman, because the musical's book and lyrics so masterfully play up the revolutionary spirit and political uncertainty of the time that Hamilton really does feel like it's taking place in the modern day, rather than in the pages of a history book.
The play also, tellingly, plays up Hamilton and others as "immigrants" to this country, which feels like a pointed reminder that no one race or culture can really lay claim to America or its history. (And, in case you were wondering, yes, Hamilton's content does touch lightly on slavery, but it's outside the context of race.)
The casting of actors of color is undeniably a bold choice, and one of Hamilton's most talked-about aspects. It's also an interesting case study in so-called "colorblind" or "nontraditional" casting, which is forever a hot topic in all visual media, and in theater in particular lately: Recent imbroglios over "whitewashed" casting in high-profile productions of The War of the Roses and The Mikado have highlighted the need for greater diversity in stage casting, something Hamilton functions as a direct response to.
But for all that loaded context, when you're in the midst of the material, experiencing Hamilton itself, it feels utterly natural, less a political statement than a bold (and successful) artistic choice.
Okay, I'm intrigued, but I can't really afford a trip to New York right now.
That's okay — neither can I, and neither can a lot of people. Luckily for us, the original Broadway cast recording of Hamilton was released in September, which means at least the audio portion of Hamilton is now available to all.
What's more, Hamilton is what's known as a sung-through musical, which means there's little to no dialogue in the play that isn't part of a song. That means you can listen to the Hamilton OBCR and experience more or less the entire show from beginning to end (well, minus the visual element, but still). At nearly two and a half hours long, it constitutes a fairly major time investment, but 20 bucks and 143 minutes for the soundtrack is a lot more reasonable for the casual theater-goer than a trip to see Hamilton onstage.
There's also the possibility of waiting it out until Hamilton goes on tour or is remounted in a city near you. But that's not ideal for a couple of reasons. First, nothing of the sort has been announced or even hinted at yet, given that Hamilton is still a brand new show; you'll probably need to wait years to see it somewhere other than New York. Second, and more importantly, subsequent Hamilton productions will likely have a new cast, which means seeing the show without its star and driving force: Lin-Manuel Miranda.
Okay, so what's the deal with this Miranda guy you keep talking about?
Lin-Manuel Miranda has been a bright light on Broadway since 2008, when his musical In the Heights became a sensation. Having written the earliest drafts of In the Heights when he was a sophomore in college, Miranda officially became a Hot Young Talent when he took home the Best Musical and Best Original Score Tonys at the tender age of 28. (He was also nominated for Best Leading Actor in a Musical.)
In the Heights — which also features a book by Pulitzer winner Quiara Alegría Hudes — is an ensemble musical that takes place over the course of three days in modern-day Washington Heights, a traditionally Dominican-American New York neighborhood, with music heavily influenced by hip-hop and Latin music sounds. In the original production, Miranda starred as the narrator and main protagonist, Usnavi, and became inextricably linked to the musical's success.
Miranda also played a major part in a couple of other memorable Tony moments, though as a behind-the-scenes player. Even those who pay little to no attention to the Tonys likely remember a moment from the 2011 ceremony that went viral the next day, when host Neil Patrick Harris ended the telecast with a "rap-up" of all the highlights from the show that was just ending. It was undoubtedly the highlight of the night.
Incorporating multiple specific references to key events in the ceremony, the rap was clearly composed on the fly, during the ceremony — by none other than Lin-Manual Miranda, with his writing partner Tommy Kail. (Do yourself a favor and watch Miranda's video blog of them writing during the ceremony.) Two years later, they repeated the feat for the 2013 Tonys, and penned Harris's opening number as well.
Between In the Heights and the Tony raps, Miranda had clearly established himself as a wildly gifted and ambitious lyricist, but the extent of that ambition didn't become fully apparent until Hamilton. Inspired by a book he read while on break from In the Heights — Ron Chernow's Alexander Hamilton — Miranda actually thought to himself, "What the world needs right now is a hip-hop-influenced retelling of the life of Alexander Hamilton, and I should be the one to write and perform it." The chutzpah and vision required to not only think up but also see through such a notion —at age 35, no less — is no small thing, and people are rightly taking notice, including the MacArthur Foundation.
Even more so than with In the Heights, Miranda is Hamilton's defining aspect — and not just because he wrote and stars in it. Miranda and his work represent an exciting and unexpected new course musical theater can chart in the future, one that's strongly informed by but not beholden to years of Broadway tradition.
Miranda, and Hamilton, is clearly influenced by classic musicals — including 1776, for what it's worth — and storied composers like Stephen Sondheim. But there's also a strong vein of pop musicality that runs through his work. He straddles the line between the musical theater establishment and popular entertainment in a way few manage with as much style and substance.
But ultimately, there's something utterly singular and personal about Hamilton that rises above all that. There's a "How did this even happen?" wonder to experiencing this show, which unquestionably stems from Miranda's unique vision.
Okay, I need to see this in person!
Then you better get on it, and quick. Hamilton is currently playing at New York's Richard Rodgers Theatre and is booking through September 2016 (though it should run much, much longer). Tickets are already extremely limited, and range in price from $65 to $156.
However, front-row seats for every performance have been set aside for a lottery, where those who enter get the chance to pay only $10 — get it? — for up to two tickets. You can only enter the day of, two and a half hours before the show starts, so it's a long shot. But hey, stranger things — like, say, the mega-success of a hip-hop musical centered on the life of Alexander Hamilton — have happened.