Broadway's musical 'Hamilton' stands on the edge of history

Staff Writer
Columbus Monthly

NEW YORK (AP) — It hit Broadway like a lightning bolt after enormous buzz downtown. Celebrities crowded in to see it. Reviews were ecstatic. And the young man behind it was the most sought-after theater figure in town.

The show was "A Chorus Line," which opened 40 years ago this summer and went on to run for 15 years, forever changing Broadway. Its groundbreaking legacy is something many believe "Hamilton" will share, but even its creator cautions patience.

"I know this show exists because of 'A Chorus Line' and 'Rent' and 'Sweeney Todd' and 'Jesus Christ Superstar' and '1776' and a million other shows that you could find in the DNA. It's a love letter to all of those," says author and star Lin-Manuel Miranda. "And so I'm curious what shows will have the DNA of 'Hamilton' in them. But that's not going to be for a while."

Few shows in recent memory have excited the New York theater community like Miranda's hip-hop flavored biography about Alexander Hamilton, the nation's first treasury secretary.

"Hamilton" opens Thursday on Broadway already having received national critical raves and enough advance tickets to keep it running for years. The actual president of the United States has seen it — before it officially opened.

At 35, Miranda is a unique artist able to reconnect Broadway back to popular culture. He's both a hip-hop lover and a theater fan, someone versed in both Sondheim and Snoop Dog. He has a Tony for creating "In the Heights" and is part of a crew that freestyle raps.

His book and score for "Hamilton" has sly references to Gilbert and Sullivan, Notorious B.I.G., LL Cool J and Rodgers and Hammerstein. "America, you great unfinished symphony/ You sent for me," he wrote for Hamilton. It could just as easily apply to Miranda.

"He's a rapper and he thinks like a rapper. He's a musical theater nerd, but he thinks like a rapper," says Daveed Diggs, a rapper and actor from California who plays Thomas Jefferson and the Marquis de Lafayette.

"Hamilton" is no fussy history lesson. In it, Founding Fathers swear, cheat on their wives and conduct rap battles over fiscal policy.

It's ultimately the story of an orphan immigrant from the Caribbean who rises to the highest ranks of American society, told by a young African-American and Latino cast. It is not your father's Founding Fathers.

"I don't know why they don't teach us history in this way. I don't know why they don't teach that these people were human beings. They make them demigods and they make them so far out of our reach," says Leslie Odom Jr., who stars as Aaron Burr. "These were regular people who were petty and jealous and had affairs and had scandals, but they still were able to do remarkable things."

"Hamilton" was a sold-out sensation earlier this year when it debuted at the Public Theater, with people paying well over 10 times the $120 ticket price and a crush of fans seeking lottery tickets. Celebrities like Tom Hanks, Dick Cheney and Madonna showed up. Last weekend, J-Lo went to Broadway to see it, too.

The frenzy has its echoes in "A Chorus Line," which attracted the likes of Diana Ross, Cher and Shirley MacLaine when it, too, was at the Public. Back then, Michael Bennett, who was 32, had $1 million in the bank ready for the Broadway move — an enormous advance for 1975. "Hamilton" has a war chest of $31 million, a stunning amount. It has already won awards from the Outer Critics Circle, the New York Drama Critics' Circle and the Drama Desk. (It's only eligible for a Tony after it opens on Broadway.)

The backstory of "Hamilton" could easily be a musical itself: Miranda, the New York City son of Puerto Rican parents, came across Alexander Hamilton biographer Ron Chernow's book and was inspired to write a musical. He debuted the first song at the White House.

Jeffrey Seller, the Tony Award-winning producer behind "Rent" and "Avenue Q," was one of the first people to hear the music as it developed in the summer of 2010. He says he's still in awe of Miranda.

"That he was onto something powerful was clear. But we never know. You don't know where it's going to go. And literally we're in a place now that I could never have anticipated," Seller says.

There are some warning signs in theatrical history: "Holler if Ya Hear Me," a rap musical featuring Tupac Shakur songs, failed last summer, and a too-cool recounting of the nation's seventh president, "Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson," left most people puzzled.

But Miranda has already proven adept at blending hip-hop, R&B and traditional show tunes in his hit "In the Heights." He's also got a talented director in Thomas Kail and a hungry cast that also includes Broadway veterans in Odom, Renee Elise Goldsberry, Christopher Jackson and Jonathan Groff.

In interviews, cast members say they love watching young people respond to this fresh retelling of America's birth told in a hip-hop vocabulary. The next step is to be inspired and write their own stories.

"He's opened the door because he's set the standard," says Okieriete Onaodowan, who plays James Madison. "Now he's done it in such a great, prolific, clean, clear, precise way that it can't be denied, which opens the door for other people to start to explore and hopefully get to that level."


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