Lin-Manuel Miranda and Hamilton: Changing the Face of Broadway

Katharine Richardson

Lin-Manuel Miranda’s musical Hamilton, based on the life of Founding Father Alexander Hamilton, has taken the 2015-2016 Broadway season by storm. With shows sold-out close to a year in advance, the show’s popularity is due to its unexpected aspects—a hip-hop score, a script packed with history, and a diverse cast of actors—that have piqued the interest of habitual theatergoers and musical theatre skeptics alike. Hamilton reflects the influences of Miranda’s childhood that have given the show’s all-in-one playwright, composer, lyricist, and star such a unique approach to musical theatre. Beyond reaching viewers and listeners, Miranda is also opening doors in the business for actors of color by ignoring casting norms and diversifying his show. By pushing boundaries and challenging stereotypes, Miranda is helping to reshape the scope and framework of Broadway musicals and to create a more inclusive experience and broaden the range of people who can enjoy and have access to them.

Hamilton juxtaposes hip-hop and musical theatre with American history to create a fresh and exciting experience for audiences. Others before have succeeded in reinventing the sound of musical theatre through rock and pop, but hip-hop—a term used to encompass a genre and culture that often includes rap—has not always been featured prominently in Broadway shows. Miranda is able to merge the disparate styles of hip-hop and musical theatre because he grew up immersed in both genres. While he grew up listening to cast albums (his parents loved musical theatre), he also had a passion for rap and a talent for rhyming. Storytelling attracted him, whether it was “Jay-Z or Gilbert and Sullivan” (Vozick-Levinson). Hamilton stands apart from previous hip-hop musicals, such as the Tupac Shakur review Holler If Ya Hear Me, by bringing the music into a plot that may seem to stand outside of hip-hop culture. Miranda injects hip-hop into the stories of the past and revives history by expressing it through the music of today.

Miranda first had the idea for the show while reading Ron Chernow’s biography Alexander Hamilton. Young Hamilton’s struggle reminded him of “the great hip-hop narratives” (Zeitchik), so he chose to merge the two and highlight their similarities, evidenced in this lyric from the show’s opening number:

The ten-dollar Founding Father without a father

Got a lot farther by working a lot harder

By being a lot smarter

By being a self-starter (Miranda).

The phrase “hip-hop musical” might suggest that rap written for the stage does not maintain the standards of the genre, but Hamilton’s lyrics refute such a dismissal. Miranda wrote a score that incorporates technically and stylistically expert rapping and is commendable on its own merit. The show exposes Broadway audiences to the art of hip-hop in a form that’s true to the conventions of the genre.

The cast album is itself a musical achievement. Fans of hip-hop have praised Hamilton for its complex, polysyllabic rhyming (Aku). The record debuted at number 12 on the Billboard 200, the highest debut for a musical cast recording since 1963 (Khan). It also reached number 3 in the rap charts, and Billboard deemed it the “Best Rap Album of 2015” (Gate). The cast recording even went on to win the 2016 Grammy Award for Best Musical Theater Cast Album. The album’s success demonstrates Hamilton’s ability to reach a wider audience.

Because the entire story is enclosed in the recording, one can get a full picture of the plot simply by listening to the score. From start to finish, each character is presented, every conflict is explored, and the narrative reads as clearly as a printed book. The power of the story impacts not only those who can travel to New York and purchase tickets, but anyone who listens to the album, available for free through the music app Spotify. Thanks to this widespread availability, even listeners without means to see the show on Broadway have access to the Hamilton story

The vast scope of the show’s appeal, spanning multiple genres and generations, gives Miranda the ability to bring people together through musical theatre. In Hamilton, Miranda expands the range of the modern day musical by omitting stereotypical sequins and kick lines and focusing on the magic of storytelling through rap. By including new hip-hop elements in his show, he broadens the sphere of people able to find something to connect with on Broadway. Hamilton demonstrates that musical theatre can be inclusive of a variety of people and interests. Further, Miranda challenges the negative perceptions of rap held by some upper-middle class audience members. The prejudice against the genre—the idea that it is somehow a lesser art form—disappears in the context of Hamilton. The show maintains the magic of Broadway while introducing the standard musical crowd to the world of rap and hip-hop. By merging these two forms, Miranda appeals to a variety of viewers, including typical musical theatre fans and whole new groups of people who might not have otherwise seen a Broadway musical. Hamilton combines its varying elements so seamlessly that no matter which feature originally attracted each viewer—hip-hop, history, or musical theatre—he or she will be captivated for the entire show, even by parts that may not initially have seemed interesting.

History as a subject is not a new endeavor for Broadway shows. Musicals such as 1776 and Camelot have also been successful landmarks on Broadway, and, like these previous shows, Hamilton portrays its plot with careful attention to recreating a particular period in history. Miranda pays homage to some of these historical musicals, even adding nods in his lyrics, such as “Sit down, John!” – a comical recurring line from 1776 that appears several times in Hamilton as an inside, referencing the “obnoxious and disliked” character of John Adams (Edwards). Miranda makes audiences feel like they could be living in the world of Alexander Hamilton and his counterparts, understanding the struggles and motivations of each character that still resonate today.

People may not always consider the human complexity of America’s Founding Fathers—to some, they are mythologized figures in distant history—but seeing them onstage living out their stories through modern music helps audiences connect with them. On NPR’s “All Songs Considered,” contributor Timmhotep Aku admitted that he was “ready to hate” Hamilton (Aku). He thought the premise of a historical musical infused with hip-hop seemed ridiculous. After seeing it, he was greatly impressed with it not only as a show but also as a hip-hop album. He was so inspired by the music that he did further research into the life of Alexander Hamilton (Aku). Hamilton’s musical complexity and narrative strength has converted skeptics into researchers.

Broadway has a history of casting primarily white actors, quite literally living up to its nickname “The Great White Way.” Growing up in Manhattan, Miranda saw that Broadway did not have a place for most Latino actors, and the shows that did offer such parts were usually not popular enough to be produced frequently: “I don’t dance well enough to play Bernardo [in West Side Story] or Paul in A Chorus Line, and that’s it. If you’re a Puerto Rican man, that’s what you got” (Vozick-Levinson). Miranda worked to remedy this imbalance with his debut Broadway musical In the Heights about a barrio in Washington Heights. The popularity of that show, and the fact that it calls for an almost entirely Latino cast, has created many jobs for non-white performers.

Hamilton takes casting one step further by featuring a diverse cast despite the fact that almost all of its characters were historically white men. Talented actors of color perform roles such as George Washington, Aaron Burr, and Thomas Jefferson. The show ignores casting stereotypes and, as Miranda says, “transcends race” (Vozick-Levinson). Instead of being able to recognize George Washington purely on looks, one has to dig deeper, which pushes the audience to look beyond skin tone to see the character truly for his story and, likewise, the actor for his talent. Miranda wants his viewers to see these characters as real-life people instead of glorified historical beings. The color-blind casting contributes to this idea: “In Hamilton, we’re telling the stories of old, dead white men but we’re using actors of color, and that makes the story more immediate and more accessible to a contemporary audience” (Aucoin). In the same way hip-hop makes the story relatable in today’s culture, the diverse cast makes these long-dead white characters relatable to audiences. “We have the opportunity to reclaim a history that some of us don’t necessarily think is our own,” said Renee Elise Goldsberry, the actress who portrays Alexander Hamilton’s sister-in-law Angelica Schuyler (Perez). Her sentiments apply not only to the cast members but also to the audience. The casting of the show humanizes these players in history and enables the audience to envision themselves living in the story as if it were happening today, with a cast that represents the world outside the theatre.

By breaking down these stereotypes of musical theatre and history, Lin-Manuel Miranda is expanding the demographic of Broadway audiences. Currently, the average Broadway audience member is white, between the ages of 45 and 55, with a yearly income of $250,00 (Vozick-Levinson). As one writer reports, “80 percent of Broadway ticket-buyers are white, according to the Broadway League, but the percentages of black, Hispanic and Asian theatergoers have all risen significantly over the last decade” (Paulson). Shows like Hamilton appeal to people of all different ages, races, and backgrounds. While Miranda has increased the number of people who desire to see a Broadway show, he is frustrated that many still cannot purchase tickets because of the high prices. Income differences between demographics result in lack of diversity in audiences. To combat this problem, Hamilton offers twenty-one $10 front row lottery tickets at every performance, “Hamilton for a Hamilton,” referencing the face on the bill. Originally, those who wished to enter the drawing simply had to go to the theatre two and a half hours before the show and write their names on slips of paper. Anyone could enter so the crowds often and easily contained hundreds, stretching far down the block and out into the middle of street traffic. Because of the huge popularity of the contest, Miranda added “Ham4Ham” performances at certain days’ lotteries, where he and other cast members performed for the crowd. Often he would also bring in other Broadway superstars, including Tony Award-winners Kelli O’Hara and Laura Benanti. The popularity of these street-side shows grew to attract such massive audiences that the overflow into the road gave the city cause for safety concerns, and with the oncoming winter weather, the “Ham4Ham” show was temporarily shut down in January of 2016. The lottery has since moved to an online platform, opening the competition up to an even wider pool of entries. The digital lottery site crashed within a day of its creation due to web traffic, a testament to the production’s enormous popularity.

Lin-Manuel Miranda’s work will have a lasting impression on the future of musical theatre, but its importance reaches beyond the world of Broadway. Even those who cannot see the show can still experience the power of the narrative through the cast recording. In Miranda’s words, “art changes people’s minds, because it allows us to empathize with people we never empathize with” (Vozick-Levinson). Through Hamilton, Miranda has united people with theatre, with music, and most importantly, with each other. He has created common ground among people of contrasting backgrounds, and he is helping to dismantle stylistic boundaries. Lin-Manuel Miranda, by striving to create art that is truly for everyone, is making history.

Works Cited

Aku, Timmhotep. “+1: Why ‘Hamilton’ The Musical Works.” All Songs Considered. NPR.25 Sept. 2015. Radio.

Aucoin, Don. “Diverse Casting a Sign of Progress Onstage.” Boston Globe. Boston Globe. 22 Aug. 2015. Web. 15 Oct. 2015.

Edwards, Sherman. “But, Mr. Adams.” 1776 Original Broadway Cast Recording. Sony, 1969. CD.

Gate, Alex. “‘Hamilton,’ the Best Broadway Musical in Years, Boasts an Equally Thrilling Cast Recording: Album Review.” Billboard. Billboard, 01 Oct. 2015. Web. 15 Oct. 2015.

Khan, Jessica. “Hamilton Cast Recording to Make History with No. 12 Debut on Billboard 200.” Broadway World. Broadway World. 07 Oct. 2015. Web. 18 Dec. 2015.

Miranda, Lin-Manuel. Alexander Hamilton. Original Broadway Cast of Hamilton. Atlantic Recording Corporation, 2015. CD.

Paulson, Michael. “This Broadway Season, Diversity Is Front and Center.” The New York Times. The New York Times, 12 Sept. 2015. Web. 15 Oct. 2015.

Perez, Adam, Ashley Ross, and Salima Koroma. “Why History Has Its Eyes on Hamilton’s Diversity.” Time. Time, 15 Dec. 2015. Web. 12 Mar. 2016.

Vozick-Levinson, Simon. “Revolution on Broadway: Inside Hip-Hop History Musical ‘Hamilton’” Rolling Stone. Rolling Stone, 06 Aug. 2015. Web. 15 Oct. 2015.

Zeitchik, Steven. “‘Hamilton’ Offers American History with a Hip-hop Beat.” Los Angeles Times. Los Angeles Times, 27 July 2015. Web. 15 Oct. 2015.