What’s so great about Hamilton? That’s something you might well wonder if you’ve heard the deafening buzz around Lin‑Manuel Miranda’s musical, which filters the rags-to-Treasury tale of Alexander Hamilton, an orphan immigrant turned founding father, through a prism of modern hip-hop. Awards and rave reviews have been showered on it; politicians and celebrities have flocked to see it; words like revolutionary and game changer have been tossed around it like confetti. After a sold-out run at the Public Theater earlier this year, Hamilton is making the leap to the Great White Way—exactly where it belongs. It’s the show Broadway needs right now.
Back to our first question. The shortest answer is: What’s great about Hamilton is Hamilton itself. Its combination of 21st-century music and 18th-century history is amusing, entertaining and dazzlingly ingenious, but the show is also surprisingly moving; audiences leave feeling wrecked and exhilarated. The musical really is everything: a drama, a comedy, a character study, a spectacle, a lesson, a romance, a war story, a historiographical critique.
But Hamilton is not just all that. It is also important for what and how it represents. Until now, hip-hop has had only a small presence on Broadway: in swaths of Miranda’s previous two musicals, 2008’s In the Heights and 2012’s Bring It On: The Musical, and snippets of shows including Rent and Dirty Rotten Scoundrels. (Holler If Ya Hear Me, cobbled from the Tupac Shakur catalog, flopped quickly last summer.) In Hamilton, directed by Thomas Kail, the use of rap feels new but is not just a novelty; on the contrary, it’s at the core of the show’s achievement.
Miranda started working on the project after reading Ron Chernow’s biography, Alexander Hamilton, on vacation in 2008; he famously performed an early piece of it, then titled The Hamilton Mixtape, at the White House a year later. In Hamilton’s remarkable life—his outsider status (as an immigrant from the British West Indies), his violent revolt against authority, his scandalous personal life, his tragic death in an 1804 duel with Vice President Aaron Burr—Miranda saw a proto–hip-hop story. (“All of Hamilton’s successes and all of his failures were due to his verbosity, his ability to argue and debate and use his words,” Miranda told us in 2013.)
Rather than simply depicting its subject’s journey onstage, Hamilton conflates it with the world of the present, specifically with the lives of modern-day immigrants and people of color. Miranda, who also plays the title role, is of Puerto Rican descent; Phillipa Soo, who plays Hamilton’s wife, Eliza, is Asian-American. The other major characters are played by black actors: Leslie Odom Jr. as Burr, Christopher Jackson as George Washington, Daveed Diggs as Thomas Jefferson and the Marquis de Lafayette, Renée Elise Goldsberry as Eliza’s sister, Angelica. The sole white principal is Jonathan Groff, who sings a comic-relief Britpop ditty as King George III. In Hamilton’s world, “minorities” are the majority. American history, the show suggests, belongs to everyone, even or especially those excluded from its usual telling.
Miranda’s inclusive, wide-ranging vision—Burr is a complex figure with nearly as much stage time as Hamilton—helps account for why the piece has proved so popular with audiences from across the cultural spectrum. It was seen by prominent Democrats like Michelle Obama, Hillary and Bill Clinton, and New Jersey Senator Cory Booker, as well as hop-hop artists like Busta Rhymes and Questlove, but it also found favor with conservatives like columnist Peggy Noonan (who called it “a masterpiece”) and even former Vice President Dick Cheney.
At the same time as it translates American history to the present, expanding it from within, the show pulls off a similar trick with musical theater as a genre. Hamilton doesn’t sound like a traditional Broadway musical, but it’s executed with a profound understanding of how musical storytelling works in tandem with drama onstage. Miranda is not an adversary of the classic Broadway tradition but an heir to it. He worked with Stephen Sondheim on the most recent revival of West Side Story and is friends with Cabaret and Chicago composer John Kander.
It’s worth remembering that the golden age of Broadway partly grew out of an outsider culture (Jewish immigrants) with a new kind of music (jazz). For all of its innovation, Hamilton also is a melting pot of Broadway musicals past. It has the in-depth American history of 1776, plus the nearly sung-through rebel pageantry of Les Misérables and the reformer-versus-conformist betrayal narrative of Jesus Christ Superstar; it has the Zeitgeist commitment of previous Public Theater breakthroughs Hair and A Chorus Line and the panoramic moral ambiguity of Into the Woods.
Or go back further still: In its emphasis on wordplay and dexterity of rhyme, Miranda’s use of hip-hop harks back to the gleeful, open delight in language of such classic lyricists as Cole Porter, Lorenz Hart and Yip Harburg. But it also breaks open new areas within musical storytelling. The sheer volume of words facilitates the flow of information and complexity; it expands the scope of the story Miranda can tell. Hip-hop doesn’t just make Hamilton better—it makes Hamilton possible.
What, in turn, can Hamilton make possible? It’s hard to know whether writers other than Miranda can harness the potential of hip-hop as effectively. But Hamilton shows that it can be done, and in that respect its greatness reaches beyond itself and pushes Broadway forward into vigorous contemporary relevance. It’s a success story of the best kind, breathtaking but also breath-giving: an inspiration.
Hamiltontakes over the Richard Rodgers Theatre Monday, July 13th.