What will be Hamilton’s ultimate success?

The hit musical Hamilton opened on Broadway on 6th August 2015. It is likely to gross $100m per year and will most likely become a million dollar industry before long. It was written by Lin Manuel Miranda, based on the biography of Alexander Hamilton by the historian Ron Chernow. Hamilton was an immigrant who rose from nothing to be one of the founding fathers of America, was George Washington’s assistant, then served as the first financial secretary and was the co-author of the Federalist Papers.

Hamilton is the first successful R&B musical created from a combination of 20th century music and 18th century history. Having been an avid fan of musicals such as Les Miserables and Rocky Horror Picture Show I would definitely consider myself a lover of musicals. However, I have come to understand that musicals are not for everyone; there is a very common misconception – or stereotype – that musicals may be seen as feminine and flamboyant.

So why is Hamilton so different and even considered ‘cool’? The philosopher Theodor Adorno argued that popular media is due to familiarity; “In light [of popular] music, once the trained ear heard the first note of the hit song, it can guess what is coming and feel flattered when it does come… The result is a constant reproduction of the same” (Adorno and Horkheimer 1997). So the concept of musical ‘taste’ is recognition – people may like popular music with which they have a sense familiarity.

But Hamilton is new and refreshing, combining influences from two very different – and popular –musical genres. Those who like rap and R&B music would be familiar with My Shot (possibly one of the most popular songs from the show), because it was influenced from Mobb Deep’s Shook Ones Part II. Other songs such as Meet Me Inside and Cabinet Battle 1 were also influenced by contemporary musical artists such as DMX and Jay Z. Miranda cites Grand Master Flash and Notorious BIG as being other musical influences.

Musical lovers revel in references to past Broadway musicals; Les Miserables, Into the Woods, South Pacific, Pirates of Penance, The Last Five Years and Rent – these are all regularly referenced and have a familiarity with musical theatre audiences. It is perhaps the reason why the introduction of contemporary music into Broadway has been so startling, even though it had been attempted once before. Hollar if Ya Hear Me, was a musical about the troubled life of the rapper Tupac who was shot dead at the age of 25. It focused only on rap music, with a track list of Tupac’s most popular hits, but closed after only 55 shows. This would suggest that the Broadway influence on Hamilton had a great influence on its success, as though it is new and unfamiliar with most of its music, it still has a sense of familiarity for the musical fanatics.

To musical theatre audiences rap is a new genre but its omnipresence would not make it unfamiliar and it may have contributed to its box office success. Furthermore, I know several people who are not fans of rap but Hamilton has given them a self-satisfying feeling of knowing something of the genre, even if it is a show tune version. Hamilton has provided them with an association with something ‘cool’ or even a link with a different age group or class.

Miranda’s father was an immigrant from Puerto Rico, as was Alexander Hamilton an immigrant from the West Indies. Miranda felt a strong historical connection with this circumstance. The majority of Broadway productions feature either a majority white cast. However, Hamilton in comparison does not focus on one minority group and features a wide variety of ethnicities. Miranda did this intentionally, explaining; “Our cast looks like America looks now. 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”.

Reflecting contemporary America extends beyond the casting and is also deftly resonant in Miranda’s lyrics. The song Yorktown includes Hamilton and the french aristocrat Marquis de Lafayette who sing in unison “Immigrants, we get the jobs done”. This central idea links the following four verses that values and empowers immigrants.

The Vice-President elect Mike Pence was recently in the Hamilton audience and was addressed with an impromptu speech written by the cast; “We are the diverse Americans who are alarmed and anxious that your new administration will not protect us or defend us and uphold our inalienable rights … we hope that this show has inspired you to uphold our American values and work on behalf of all of us. We thank you for sharing this wonderful American story, told by a diverse group of men and women of different colours, creeds and orientations.” In response, Pence made it clear that he would leave it to others to decide whether it was the right venue to address these feelings. Hamilton has openly defied Donald Trump and his campaign rhetoric of self interest and nationalism. The cast used their stage to warn of the dangers that lay ahead for America.

Trump issued a statement asking the cast to apologise for “harrassing” Pence and Trump supporters started to boycott the production. One could argue that at least Pence went to see the show and that this could have been an indication that the Vice President elect was attempting to engage with issues that ran contrary to his beliefs. Nevertheless, his political career proves otherwise.

To me, Hamilton is much more than a musical but an art form that reflects today’s society. Some could argue that broadway musicals are hard to relate to as nobody bursts into song when they are feeling down in the real world. However, it reminds us that many of the people who made America (great or otherwise), were immigrants and that their contributions remain invaluable. So this history belongs to all Americans and not just a select few.

The Hamilton soundtrack made a dent in the Billboard 200 sales chart coming in at number 12 which led to Manuel Miranda and The Roots to co-produce the Hamilton Mixtape. The widest range of musicians worked on the album (Alicia Keys, Sia, Busta Rhymes, Wiz Khalifa and even Jimmy Fallon), producing their own version of the show songs. The rapper Black Thought from The Roots took on one of the most popular songs My Shot.  His verse begins with; “Ayo mugshots, gun shots, dope shots, jump shot / Take your pick, but you only get one shot,” underlining that there are very few ways to survive in the troubled neighbourhoods of America. It can be a life of crime, gangs, gunshots, drugs – or a one-in-million chance that you’ll be good enough at basketball to make it big time. Today’s younger generation almost have to be more enterprising than Hamilton was to rise above their situation. My Shot brings this home brilliantly, focusing on the problems of contemporary American youth.

On the 25th October 2015, the producers of Hamilton announced they had formed a partnership with The Rockefella Foundation so that 20,000 underprivileged students in New York City would be given a ticket to the show for just $10. Student applicants would have to complete a project on an historical event, document or figure of their choice. Responses were to be in the form of an artistic exploration; anything from poetry to a song to be presented to the cast of Hamilton and then shown at their very own student matinee. It would appear that Miranda, a former seventh grade English teacher, still values teaching – but with bigger class sizes of over 1,300 seats at the Richard Rogers Theatre. Miranda is still encouraging young students to explore and push the boundaries of their creativity.

Although the founding fathers did not rap in public speeches, or use phrases like ‘John Adams shat the bed’, the historical aspect of Hamilton is extremely accurate. Miranda told Newsweek “The thing about Hamilton’s life is the truth is invariably more interesting than anything I could have made up”. The show has brought to light some historical figures that have gone under the radar for so long, many of great importance in American history and culture. Hercules Mulligan was one such forgotten American hero; an Irish immigrant who worked as a tailer and an undercover spy, he provided the American military with information that was resulted in a pivotal victory at the Battle of Yorktown in 1781. Unacknowledged untill now, Mulligan is now found his place in history thanks to the popularity of the show. The american treasury was planning to replace Alexander Hamilton’s spot on the $10 dollar bill with a different historical figure. However, the resurgence of interest in Hamilton described as “the 10 dollar founding father with out a father” with in the show, led to a policy change and kept Hamilton on the note and in America’s pockets. Hamilton has created a resurgence of historical interest and is undoubtedly a significant part of its success.

There is no question that Hamilton has revolutionised Broadway, with its viral marketing making it more accessible to a wider audience. The show has a lively Instagram and Twitter feed with a stream of Ham4Ham videos documenting cast press tours, interviews and even everyday blog entries. Hamilton has a strong online presence, taking it beyond Broadway. The entire show is on iTunes and is free on Spotify, helping the youth of America and many other countries experience the musical. Hamilton has actually enabled those who may not be able to afford a ticket, or even get one before a sellout, to be part of the show and in doing so, he has broken through an intolerance of the musical genre; the idea that theatre is mainly for the upper class elite because of the high priced tickets.

Whether this show will resonate with a British audience is questionable. Some may not feel such a connection with the topic and it may become just about the songs because of its focus on American history. However, in my opinion, I think that Hamilton is still relevant to a British audience and just as important. During the EU referendum Brexit’s campaign put restrictions on immigration as a key reason for leaving. Slogans such as; “Let’s take back control!” and “We want our country back” are familiar self interested concepts. With a rather ‘camp’ and childish portrayal of King George III in the show he (and Britain) is clearly one of the villain’s of the musical. With a sadistic smile King George III sings “I will send a fully armed battalion to remind you of my love”. As a British audience member I feel it would remind us as a nation we cannot appear so righteous and that our history is also tainted. No doubt UK immigrants will feel an affinity with any West End production of Hamilton and connect with the powerful lyrics that may reflect how they feel.

The success of Hamilton doesn’t just rest with the fusing of the unconventional (rap) with the comfortable (musical), it is the acknowledgement of what an audience may feel about a subject. The show draws in the widest sweep of audiences who experience self reward, who listen intently to a form of music that is so very different to what they normally listen to. Hamilton proves that rap and musicals can be accessible to everyone worldwide – breaking Broadway barriers. A musical that confronts racial boundaries has also touched white America, challenging it to reassess its vision of history. The story of Alexander Hamilton reflects well on America at a time when the country faces new political and social uncertainty under a new President. It’s an important look at racial equality in America which every country could learn from as the show travels beyond Broadway. In short, its timely release has meant that Hamilton has become something much larger than a musical; it is a history lesson, a mirror on contemporary society and a rallying point for liberal minded people in America. I hope Hamilton will be a similar catalyst for Britain when it opens on the West End next year. This will be its real success.

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