What is a bastard, orphan, son of a whore… doing on Broadway?
2016 has been a tumultuous year in many respects, be it politics or pop culture. While this year has been plagued with celebrity feuds and deaths of pop cultural icons, it has also been a year of many introductions to new cultural elements. There is one particular phenomena this year that has captivated the entire nation. This is the critically-acclaimed Tony Award-winning Broadway musical, Hamilton: An American Musical.
Since its opening on August 6, 2015, this production has attracted historians, students, and politicians (although sometimes unwanted) from all over America. The production, summarized by Mark Binelli of Rolling Stone as “a hip-hop musical about the Founding Father best known for authoring the bulk of the Federalist Papers and being killed in a duel”, isn’t what most people would expect to see on Broadway, or anywhere really.
But the real question is, what is it about Hamilton that commands universal acclaim, from both critics and audiences alike? What is the fundamental element that has propelled this show to its place as a cultural phenomena?
There is not just one element that has allowed this show to succeed; rather, there are multiple elements that have contributed to this show that has propelled it to become a widespread sensation.
This musical was inspired by a biography of Alexander Hamilton written by Ron Chernow. Written and produced by Lin-Manuel Miranda, a native of Brooklyn Heights, New York, Hamilton initially began as a mixtape which he then developed into the first act of the show. He later finished the script and the entire musical for it which he performed Off-Broadway. This musical later gained more traction, and is now the single most successful shows in Broadway and musical history.
Hamilton is about the life of Alexander Hamilton, a founding father of the United States of America, and his role in the American Revolution as well as his person life and affairs. The show’s music especially received critical acclaim, as Miranda was able to fuse history with the present day through creating hip-hop and R&B music whose lyrics and rap effectively portrays Hamilton’s life and character while maintaining a fresh approach to historical musicals.
Hamilton’s soundtrack instantly became one of the highest-selling Broadway albums and charted on the Billboard Top 200. The Hamilton Mixtape was subsequently released featuring artists such as Usher and John Legend, and was produced by The Roots, who are well known for being the house band on The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon. A show, which would have been a somewhat monotonous tale about a historical figure, is now one of the most fascinating stories portrayed on the stage primarily through a fresh musical approach to the presentation of historical musicals.
Apart from its impact on the Broadway scene, Hamilton has been the center of an open discussion about historical America and present-day society. Alexander Hamilton is often one of the founding fathers of the United States that is overlooked (such as John Hancock) compared to other, well-recognized founding fathers such as George Washington and Thomas Jefferson. However, with the revival of Alexander Hamilton’s life story, there has been a different and more extensive approach to the study of his role in the American Revolution and as a Founding Father in schools. The rap tracks in the musical itself is enough to pique the interests of kids, therefore becoming a conduit for students of all ages (at least middle school and upward) to actually learn with curiosity and passion.
It has also brought to light the discussion about racism and opening opportunities in acting and Hollywood for minorities. As one of the most unique musicals running in Broadway as of now, it has an all-minority cast with the exception of the character of King George the III, who was played by white actors. It directly tackles the lack of diversity within the entertainment industry and supported a holistic and color-blind approach to casting. Casting people of color for traditionally white characters has shown the progression of casting within the stage as well as promoting diversity in the 21st century.
Hamilton has had a widespread effect on society – there has even been an increase in babies born in 2016 who were named Hamilton (not Alexander). It has attracted famous audience members such as President Obama, Beyonce and Jay-Z, and the Vice-President-Elect Mike Pence, whose visit to the show ended with the cast sending a direct public message about acceptance of diversity in the modern world. Also, at a time where Alexander Hamilton was thought to be taken off the $10 bill, Manuel’s revival of Hamilton’s story ensured that he would continue to be celebrated in American culture.
The invigorating story that was so provocatively told by Lin-Manuel Miranda is a unique a fresh taste of history in the modern-day is not something that is seen often. It will have a far-reaching effect on the way society views and approaches history as well as giving credit to a man whose name is often overlooked in history.
Graphics: Swathi Kella
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