If ever there was any doubt about the importance of Art, the Broadway musical Hamilton should have non-believers begging forgiveness. Forget for a moment the Pulitzer Prize for Drama, the record-breaking 16 Tony nominations, and the Grammy Award for Best Musical Theatre Album. The people have spoken and not just some people. Young and old, whites and non-whites, historians and kids-bored-by-school, rich and poor, and–even more astonishing in this tumultuous Presidential Election year–Democrats and Republicans. President Obama joked that he and Dick Cheney finally have something in common.
It turns out what unites all these different people is their love for a musical with a whole lot of rapping going on. It’s not entirely rap or hip-hop. There’s also R&B, 60s British Pop, and the kind of soaring ballads that give traditional theatre-goers goose bumps. Is it any wonder that creator/star Lin-Manuel Miranda was named a MacArthur Fellow (aka the “Genius Award”) last September? How many people would choose a hefty biography as a beach read and envision it as a rap-musical fifty pages in? Or realize that poor, illegitimate, orphaned Alexander Hamilton, who was born in the Caribbean and set sail for New York for a brighter future, embodies the immigrant experience for many people of color–despite being a white man.
Hamilton started wowing Off-Broadway audiences on Day 1 in January 2015. A hit Off-Broadway doesn’t always translate to a hit on Broadway, where 3 out of 4 productions fail. Hamilton opened at the Richard Rogers Theatre last August, less than a year ago. Is it true the only way to buy a ticket right now is by mortgaging your house to a scalper or entering the digital lottery that awards a handful of $10 front row seats to the hundreds of hopefuls who apply every day? Is it true that many teachers across the country are using the cast album or videos of some of the performances to teach an important slice of U.S. history? Is it true that the musical’s success saved Alexander Hamilton from being knocked off the $10 bill? Yes! Yes! And Yes! (Instead of AH, Andrew Jackson will get knocked off the $20 bill and replaced with Harriet Tubman.)
There are many stories about Hamilton, and you’ve probably heard at least one. My favorite is one that’s been told by Ron Chernow, who wrote the much-praised Alexander Hamilton, on which the musical is based. Early on Lin-Manuel asked him to be a historical consultant on the project and showed up at his house one day in 2009 to try out a song: snapping his fingers, he rapped/sang the title song that would eventually open the show. Chernow, a gray-haired Pulitzer Prize-winning white historian didn’t know much about hip-hop, but he thought the song was the most astonishing thing he’d ever heard. Lin-Manuel had condensed the first 40 pages of his very long book into a 4-minute song. Fast forward a few years and L-M asks Chernow to drop by one of the first rehearsals. The historian sees eight black and Latino actors standing in front of a row of music stands. He was confused. Rather, he though L-M was confused. This was a story about the Founding Fathers–a bunch of white men. Within five minutes of listening to the performers, he was a believer. This is what he said in the New York Times in July 2015. “The miracle of the play is that it shows us who we were as a nation but also who we are now. This young, multiracial cast has a special feeling for the passion, urgency and idealism of the American Revolution.”
Now it’s time for me to confess I haven’t seen Hamilton. YET. While I wait for my loan to come through, I listen to the cast album for the umpteenth time and watch the YouTubes of L-M performing at the White House. My older son, 27, was recently in Little Rock, Arkansas, on business. He met up with a colleague from his NY office, who told him about grabbing a cab at the airport. The cab driver’s first question was: where are you from? The second was: have you seen Hamilton? (He had.) My son also told me L-M had done a rap song about Puerto Rico’s debt crisis that he performed on the John Oliver Show. He told me to check it out on YouTube, and I did. While I knew a little about the debt crisis, it was mostly sound bites. I learned a lot more from Lin-Manuel. Genius.