Unless you spent 2015 living under a rock, you’ve heard of Hamilton, Lin-Manuel Miranda’s renowned musical about the face on our $10 bills. The critically acclaimed production has garnered super fandom from just about every celebrity—President Obama has seen it twice—and tickets are a very hot commodity. The musical, based on Ron Chernow’s Alexander Hamilton, ran first at the Public before opening on Broadway in August with plans to play in Chicago in the works.
Whether you’re severely addicted (I feel you—I bought waterproof speakers so I could add “shower” to the long list of places I throw my very own Hamilton sing-a-longs) or don’t really care, there’s no denying Hamilton’s popularity. The musical has made its way onto Broadway and into the zeitgeist, and there’s something different about this show. Hamilton is not just a story about the Revolution, it is a revolution. In fact, it’s cracking away at a centuries-old ceiling. So, whether you’re a super-fan or less than into it, here’s what you need to know about this serious game-changer.
Conceptually, Hamilton is experimenting with unchartered territory—who would have guessed rap, hip-hop, and R&B would so beautifully tell this founding father’s story? Miranda, who read Chernow’s biography, was struck by the hip-hop nature of Hamilton’s life and times. So much so, in fact, that he began writing a hip-hop album to tell his story, first performed at the White House Poetry Jam in 2009. Hamilton, described in the opening number as a “bastard, orphan, son-of-a-whore,” used his own penchant for writing and deep thought to begin to make a name for himself as he found his way in America. As Miranda puts it, Alexander Hamilton “embodies hip-hop.”
Another of Hamilton’s revolutionary firsts is its casting, which reflects the diversity of contemporary America. The notable Dead White Men from your history textbooks—think George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Aaron Burr, and Hamilton himself—are portrayed by actors of color. This choice has inspired audiences and cast-members alike; actress Renee Elise Goldsberry, who plays Angelica Schuyler, as quoted in TIME, said being in the show has given the cast “the opportunity to reclaim a history some of [them] don’t necessarily think is [their] own.”
Composer and writer Lin-Manuel Miranda, who also plays the titular character, explains that “you don’t distance the audience by putting an actor of color in a role you would think of as default Caucasian; no, you excite people and you draw them in,”—and how right he is. This choice has inspired audiences and cast-members alike; actress Renee Elise Goldsberry, who plays Angelica Schuyler, says being in the show has given the cast “the opportunity to reclaim a history some of [them] don’t necessarily think is [their] own.” This idea—that the production’s approach to the telling of American history allows the people usually marginalized by history to have a sense of ownership over the story of their nation—means Hamilton’s impact is being felt far beyond the Theatre District.
Miranda is also challenging the way we see women on stage, beginning with his recent comment that he would love to see women play the founding fathers. Hamilton doesn’t just offer a more equitable depiction of women onstage, but also upends our usual sense of women’s role in history itself. When we’re introduced to Hamilton’s soon-to-be wife Eliza Schuyler and her sisters Angelica and Peggy, we meet three women who are fluent in philosophy and politics and who speak out about their place in early American society. Miranda’s lyrics, like “I’m a girl in a world in which my only job is to marry rich” and “I’ve been reading Common Sense by Thomas Paine,” rendered three-dimensional women who know what’s happening around them and even comment on what it means to be female. From the outset, we know these women aren’t going to be sitting politely on the sidelines of history. In fact, the end of the finale belongs to Eliza, who outlived her husband by half a century. She went on to tell Alexander’s story and to pull together the fabric of our young nation. In the end, Miranda shows us that women are often invisibly responsible for shaping history.
Hamilton, one of the most successful musicals in recent history, will make room for more innovation and more parity.
Beyond Broadway, Hamilton – its music, its story, and its mission – has found its way into the hearts of millions of Americans at a time when its hard to have faith in this country. Amidst the Syrian refugee crisis and debates on who belongs in America, audiences hear the story of a poor, self-taught, orphan immigrant who rose to defend our constitution and design our financial system. Rap battles between founding fathers whose passionate pursuit is literally palpable in the music energize a generation of young voters who are disillusioned and fallen out of love with their country.
Suddenly, the story of the old white men who came together to create our country has been dusted off – and now that it’s not so old or white or male anymore, it has some spunk! By changing our sense of what history looks and sounds and feels like, Hamilton has also changed Broadway, and American culture, forever.
Cover image courtesy of The Odyssey.