How Hamilton the Musical has Changed Broadway Forever
A revolutionary musical about groundbreaking aspects of American history, ‘Hamilton’ taps into fundamental, birth-of-a-nation facts and emotions whilst sounding bang up to date and resonating with modern audiences, even those who may be hearing of the tale and about its hero for the first time.
Since its launch in 2015, this sell-out show has dominated Broadway’s headlines and ripped up the blueprint for musical theater success. Though ‘Hamilton’ is beyond doubt edgy and confrontational, it still manages to show plenty of tasteful respect for the musical theater genre too – a powerful mix which adds further to its strong claim to be a viable alternative future for the Broadway musical tradition.
‘Hamilton on Broadway’ is an inspiring epic which focuses upon Alexander Hamilton, one of America’s revered Founding Fathers. The story recounts his role as an American revolutionary, painting a picture of a disadvantaged yet driven man prepared to give everything to achieve his ideals. This rounded portrait of the young statesman as a visionary architect of the new American nation – who single-handedly wrote 51 out of 85 essays in a collection now known as the Federalist Papers – also includes insightful depictions of his friends and foes.
Among these, the most significant are: Eliza Schuyler (played by Phillipa Soo) who becomes his wife and ultimately secures his legacy; another of the Schuyler sisters, Angelica (played by Renée Elise Goldsberry), a close confidant who fears Hamilton’s commitment has the potential to harm him; and political rivals James Madison and Thomas Jefferson, played by Okieriete Onaodowan and Daveed Diggs respectively, who oppose Hamilton on ideological grounds. Hamilton’s tragically premature demise is the outcome of a duel with Aaron Burr (played by Leslie Odom Jr.) – another bitter political adversary – who, ironically, is the character charged with the storytelling role.
Essentially a production about cherished ideals, how they are achieved, and what sacrifices this may entail, ‘Hamilton’ clearly evokes the “American Dream” in its most direct and authentic form. To highlight this feature, Lin-Manuel Miranda, the show’s highly talented Puerto-Rican composer and creator, often references mainstream musical theater styles from the past, which in their day would also have been used to deliver similar messages about American aspirations.
Miranda is as knowledgeable as he is masterful in his deployment of all his musical material and draws upon a broad range of influences. For instance, his use of a largely sung-through score is highly reminiscent of ‘Les Misérables’, as is his revisiting of key themes throughout. In similar vein, it’s also possible to catch nods to shows such as ‘West Side Story’, and quotes from Rodgers and Hammerstein too.
Perhaps more strikingly, Miranda calls upon his fluid familiarity with modern music styles – scoring Hamilton/Jefferson political debates as set-piece hip-hop shoot outs between rappers, and confidently setting these alongside more traditional showstoppers such as ‘Burn’, the searing ballad delivered by Eliza Schuyler.
This professionally wrought hommage to conventional Broadway musical tradition juxtaposed with street styles delivers a truly special music score, but the casting strategy goes even further and takes the show into a totally new musical theater landscape. All major roles are almost exclusively given over to non-white performers, regardless of the ethnicity of the original historical character. In effect, this creates a band of migrant strangers from markedly diverse backgrounds working together to create a new nation. Whilst this masterstroke helps to reveal important truths about the young rebels and their circumstances, it also causes audiences to reflect upon inclusion, the role of women, and much more within modern urban America.
In creating a piece about Alexander Hamilton as an inspiring American pioneer, Miranda himself has produced a radical work which sets out a new and revolutionary pathway for musical theater. His production is an adaptation based on the 2004 Hamilton biography, with its biographer Ron Chernow also advising Miranda as historical consultant.
Such attention to detail has won unprecedented acclaim from history enthusiasts, whilst theater fans have celebrated Miranda’s mastery of the genre, and his adventurous deployment of a modern music repertoire has won over entirely new audiences. By such means, this Broadway crossover work has inspired the enthusiasm and dedication of a host of followers, and shown how it is possible to bring a diverse range of new people to Broadway.
‘Hamilton’ the musical has created a trailblazing legacy of which Alexander Hamilton himself – the ‘founding father without a father’ – would most certainly approve.