I wrote this for Business Day newspaper, and because I’ve been listening to the soundtrack non-stop this week, decided to post it here too.
It’s not like the hottest ticket on Broadway right now needs any more endorsements. US President Barack Obama gave it the thumbs up when he took his daughters Malia and Sasha to see it last month.
Theatre impresarios Stephen Sondheim and Andrew Lloyd Webber have lauded it for raising the bar for the stage. The likes of Samuel L Jackson, Sarah Jessica Parker and Madonna have all given Hamilton a resounding chorus of applause. And yet, the accolades and acclaim keep coming for what may be Broadway’s most unlikely, and most necessary, of hits.
The buzz around the musical ensured that even before Hamilton, which tells the story of the first US treasury secretary, Alexander Hamilton, opened on Broadway at the start of this month, it had notched up $30m in advance ticket sales. In its first full week of performances, it became the fifth highest grossing show on Broadway, edging out The Book of Mormon and the stage version of An American in Paris.
Buoyed by an extended and sold-out run off-Broadway at The Public Theater earlier this year, the show has fast become one of the most successful on the Great White Way before it is even well into its stride. And with every performance that is attended by a well-known name, the hype grows.
Like a modern-day Shakespeare, writer and composer Lin-Manuel Miranda uses dazzling wordplay, contemporary hip hop and pop song melodies to portray the story of how Hamilton, an orphaned son of immigrants, became one of the US’s founding fathers in the 1700s, and the face on the $10 bill.
Less well known than Thomas Jefferson, John Adams and Benjamin Franklin, Hamilton became the right-hand man of first president George Washington, devised the banking system, and was shot in a duel by his nemesis, deputy president Aaron Burr.
The origins of Hamilton the musical can be traced back more than a decade when Miranda, born in New York to parents from Puerto Rico, read the 2004 best-selling biography by Ron Chernow about the firebrand-turned-statesman.
He had already used his fresh style to create the Tony award-winning In the Heights, about Latino families living in Washington Heights in Harlem.
Miranda, who plays the central figure in the show, says he was drawn to the story because he felt Hamilton embodied hip hop — the drama, the talent, the beef he had with the other founding fathers.
“At the end of the second chapter, I knew this was a hip hop story. It was in the relentlessness of Hamilton, who wrote his way to the top of American society,” he says.
AT A night of poetry and music at the White House in 2009, where Miranda was invited to perform a number from In the Heights, he began rapping a track from the concept album he had been working on. The Hamilton Mixtape ended up becoming more than a concept album; the rhymes Miranda dropped in front of Obama back then became the lyrics of the opening number the president took his daughters to see last month.
Where Hamilton really excites is in the casting choices made for roles of, in Miranda’s words, “old, dead white men”. The actors are from across the colour spectrum and this makes the story more accessible.
It also makes the hype around Hamilton more than just exaggerated praise. The musical is generating the kind of buzz that has reverberated beyond the theatre walls of Broadway, and across the country, at a time when America is facing two urgent and pertinent issues: recognising the role of immigrants and true acceptance of diversity in society. Hamilton offers a vision that reflects what it truly means to live as a multicultural and diverse society.
It has a cast of mostly African-American and Latino actors and, at a time when the US is trying to tackle issues of diversity on the screen, both big and small, this has challenged the traditionally white entertainment enclave of the theatre. It’s the kind of step that has the ability to inspire dramatists around the world — and change perceptions about what theatre is and can be, by subverting the norms of the Great White Way.
THAT Hamilton was an immigrant who made crucial contributions to America is all the more relevant now, centuries after the story takes place. With the US edging closer to the next presidential race and Donald Trump’s controversial take on the subject, the issue of US policy on immigration is one that will surely only become more pressing in the coming months.
But while Hamilton is an American story for an American audience, the buzz will surely travel across the seas, as plans rumble about taking the show on tour and making it into a movie.
No doubt it will find resonance in the UK, as it centres on the American Revolution, with a marvelous Jonathan Groff playing King George. As for the big screen, Miranda isn’t quite there yet. “I don’t have my head around Hollywood,” he says. “If I can find the version of what I have in theatre, which is producers and collaborators I trust, I’d jump in with both feet.”
But Miranda’s creation would do well to travel to SA too. “Art engenders empathy in a way that politics doesn’t and in a way that nothing else really does,” he says. “Art creates change in people’s hearts but it happens slowly.”
Perhaps it may inspire a few more stories to be told about SA’s own “founding fathers”. Though his contributions were great, Hamilton was by no means without sin, as Miranda’s production shows. But telling his tale, and those of others whose names are cemented in the foundation of a country, keeps history vibrant and relevant, and that’s vital for any democracy — on stage and off.
Hamilton is on at the Richard Rodgers Theatre.