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“Hamilton” on Broadway – “It Lived Up to the Hype”

On March 21, 1915, President Woodrow Wilson saw a special White House screening of D.W. Griffith’s “The Birth of a Nation.” The film had its premiere just over a month before under a markedly different title “The Clansman,” the same title as the Thomas Dixon novel from which Griffith drew inspiration for his film. For those who saw it as a mythologized account for the brutal return of white supremacy after the Civil War, the film was a call to action that was quickly overwhelmed by a national surge of white supremacy generated by the film. President Wilson was an enthusiastic part of this surge, offering his presidential seal of approval of the startling power of the new medium of film to tell the story of our past: “It is like writing history with lightning.” Film was on its way to becoming the center of popular culture and a powerful platform for telling popular history.

Just over a hundred years later, on July 18, 2015, President Barack Obama saw a Secret Service-secured performance of the Broadway hip-hop musical “Hamilton,” created by Lin-Manuel Miranda based on historian Ron Chernow’s biography. Although the title has not changed, it has been altered from its original off-Broadway premiere to fit the tastes of the much larger mainstream audience needed to sustain a Broadway show. Although some have questioned the casting of blacks and Hispanics in the roles of Founding Fathers, any criticism has been overwhelmed by a national surge of excitement inspired by the musical. President Obama even offered his presidential seal of approval of the startling power of the new medium of hip-hop to tell the story of our past: “He said it lived up to the hype.” Is the hip-hop musical on the verge of becoming the center of popular culture and telling popular history?

On the face of it, this seems absurd. Musical theater, regardless of its dominant musical form, is performed live in front of a limited audience. Even the most popular and long-running musicals cannot compare to the tens of millions who might see a movie in its opening weekend. But musicals have long ago gone beyond the confines of Broadway stages by using other mediums, most notably film. Movies like “West Side Story” and “Chicago” were musical theater for the masses and the critics. And musicals can be performed by traveling companies, colleges and high schools, even by children’s groups. And now we have a new development in musical theater, powered by the energy and storytelling of rap music, and with the audacious idea that it can tell our nation’s story.

In our current age of YouTube and vlogs (video blogs), of cell phones and cutting the cable, of dozens of candidates vying to be the next president, our national audience for all storytelling is deeply fragmented. In this environment, what content can reach viewers, shape how they think about their nation and their nation’s past? Storytelling has always been at the center of hip-hop music, but the stories were of outsiders, especially of young African American men and their lives of urban desperation. The song “Glory” by Common and John Legend goes a step further, telling the story of young African American civil rights leaders as the center of American history. The film achieved critical acclaim and was profitable, but far more Americans saw the “Selma” soundtrack song on YouTube, the Academy Awards, or many other websites, than saw the actual movie. “Hamilton” goes further. 

Perhaps it is inevitable that someone like Lin-Manuel Miranda would be the progenitor of this new medium. Of Puerto Rican descent and middle class upbringing, Miranda approaches hip-hop as an outsider, but has tapped into its power in a way never seen before. “Hamilton” is far more than a “hip-hop musical” as it has been casually dubbed in hundreds of media outlets. Hip-hop might be a relative stranger on the Great White Way (pun intended), but it has long been part of American popular culture. Hip hop music—a little over a generation old in America—has gone from rebellious to mainstream, and it is now crossing over into other realms like musical theater, movies, television, and advertising, just as rock and roll music colonized every corner of American culture within a generation.

Miranda was already a successful and popular creator and performer, from musicals like the Tony winner “In the Heights,” to television and film. Miranda did not attend Julliard or Tisch but is a polymath who draws on an enormous range of theater, music, popular culture, and even political culture: part Stephen Sondheim, part William Shakespeare, part Quentin Tarantino, and even part David Axelrod. (Miranda is the son of a political consultant, and he worked in the family business.) Add to this the power of Tupac Shakur and Eminem, and Miranda is his generation’s Renaissance man. Formal historians might lack the lyrical skills needed to rap, but it is only a matter of time before clips of narrative songs become standard classroom tools. Look for clips, rap battles, even entire albums and new musicals inspired by Miranda to lead the way.

I was in attendance at the July 18 performance attended by President Obama and his daughters. The audience was spellbound by the show, but we were also consumed by the idea of what it was like to watch the story of a man who helped create the foundation of modern America through the eyes of our current president. This is someone who came from modest and unlikely origins, the son of a single mother, to become the most powerful man in the nation. This is a leader who was a lightning rod of criticism from the opposition and even within his own party. This is a man who has faced an unprecedented level of personal attacks on his character, his intellect, his patriotism, even his very birth. He has had to weather a financial crisis that jeopardized the future of the nation, charges that he was an enemy agent, and accusations that he was betraying American allies in their greatest hour of need. And if you are not sure if I am talking about Obama or Hamilton, I am talking about both.

The staggering critical praise, the huge sales, and the sense that this is a generational paradigm shift in the form of the musical itself have not been seen since “Rent” opened on Broadway in 1996. This is clearly a moment in the zeitgeist. The creator of the show has been declared a voice of his generation. Part of the phenomenon of “Hamilton” has been its astonishing popularity with celebrities since its off-Broadway debut in late 2014, including not just film and music stars, but active and retired politicians from both sides of the ideological aisle who share a reverence for the story of Hamilton. But why are they going? And what are they thinking? How could figures from very different ends of the political spectrum enjoy the same political history?

It is always wise for politicians to associate with youth culture. It is also wise to associate with the historical figure who is effectively the founding father of capitalism as well as a living embodiment of a Horatio Alger story before there was a Horatio Alger. But this is also a very old-fashioned story, a story of heroes and villains, of power and human frailty, of love and loss, of fickle fortune and ambition. And perhaps of the greatest, unwritten appeal to the political class, this is a story of great men astride the stage of history. Change a few of the songs into iambic pentameter and this could play in the Globe Theater. The final number—“Who Lives, Who Dies, Who Tells Your Story”—is a song, monologue, and a poem for the ages, a meditation on love, loss, memory, and history.

Lin-Manuel Miranda is not just the premiere musical theater talent of his generation, he has just become one of our premier historians. And perhaps his greatest work remains: the musical story of President Obama. For those who think this is far-fetched, consider that the very origins of the musical “Hamilton” can be seen in a presidential command performance in 2009. This was not Pablo Casals playing for white men in tuxedos and white women in gowns. This was a brash, young Broadway talent who was willing to cross artistic, cultural, and racial boundaries, with a delighted multiracial audience that included another rising star who knew something about crossing boundaries. Miranda was expected to perform a number from his Tony-winning musical about life in Washington Heights in Manhattan. Instead, he staged what must have been the first rap musical theater workshop in White House history, unveiling what would become, five years later, the opening number of “Hamilton.”

The image of Hamilton on the playbill, on the marquee of the theater, on the website, on promotion material, and on what will soon be a formidable array of memorabilia is a silhouette. It quickly and effectively reminds us that this is about the distant past. Popular in the late 1700s in the new American nation, silhouettes were an affordable alternative to formal portraits, quick outlines that could be made with simple tools for a private sale or as collectibles. They are a reminder that all silhouettes are black on a white (or light) background. Historians have our facts, our outlines. But how we color in those silhouettes, how we breathe life into what is two dimensions: that is the stuff of history. And right now, no one is telling our nation’s story with more energy, skill, and success than Lin-Manuel Miranda. Just ask President Obama. Or Alexander Hamilton.