The hottest ticket this Broadway season is “Hamilton,” a musical retelling of the rise and fall of Founding Father Alexander Hamilton. Maybe that doesn’t sound like edge-of-your-seat entertainment, even if you recall that this particular Founding Father met an early demise following a pistol duel with Vice President Aaron Burr. So how exactly did the life story of the first Secretary of the Treasury and founder of the Federalist Party become a must-see Broadway musical? By choosing hip-hop as its mode of delivery.
Theatrical productions like these tend to get labeled a “hip-hopera,” but don’t mistake “Hamilton” for a gimmicky ticket sales grab. Composer and librettist Lin-Manuel Miranda knows his history, earning his hip-hop stripes when he founded the rap collective Freestyle Love Supreme while attending Wesleyan in the early ‘00s. Shortly after, he began composing “In the Heights,” a tale of Dominican-American life that featured salsa, boogaloo and hip-hop interludes along with more traditional Broadway musical numbers. Miranda brought the heat on two fronts: not only did “In the Heights” win a Tony Award for Best Musical, the composer/librettist was also nominated for Best Actor in a Musical. That’s right, the show’s composer was also its leading man. How hip-hop is that?
Miranda again assumes center stage in “Hamilton,” taking on the lead role in a multicultural cast that recasts Thomas Jefferson, James Madison and George Washington as individuals who can more than hold their own in any freestyle battle. And if this kind of reconfiguration sounds like a recipe for disaster, rest assured that it’s brilliant. Miranda did his homework, basing his libretto on Ron Chernow’s learned 2004 biography Alexander Hamilton (the biographer’s involvement with the production continued through every stage of development, to the point where Chernow semi-humorously referred to himself as the musical’s “resident historian”). History buffs will be pleased to note that “Hamilton” doesn’t skip on details, working in plot devices pivoting on events like the Whiskey Rebellion and the 1793 Proclamation of Neutrality. But the musical is really all about origins, legacies, passion, betrayal, and violence, and how a “$10 Founding Father without a father” got “a lot farther” by “being a lot smarter.” Sounds like a good Tupac song, doesn’t it?
Miranda has mentioned Tupac’s “Brenda’s Got a Baby” as one early source of inspiration for “Hamilton,” but he might also have been keeping the unfortunate trajectory of stage production “Holler If Ya Hear Me” stored in the back of his mind. The ill-fated Tupac bio barely lasted a month on Broadway before collapsing amid weak ticket sales and a general sense of audience indifference, as star Saul Williams outlines in this emotional interview. But “Holler If Ya Hear Me” was a jukebox musical for better or worse, in which pre-existing songs got plucked from back catalogs and reassembled into (sometimes forced) narratives, which can prove enormously successful with Broadway audiences (see “Jersey Boys”, “Motown: The Musical”, and “Mamma Mia!”) even while leaving the critics cold. Hamilton is something altogether different.
Maybe it’s best to think of Miranda’s achievement as something separate from such earlier “hip-hopera” attempts as George Wolfe’s “Bring in ‘da Noise, Bring in ‘da Funk”, Kate Prince and ZooNation’s “Into the Hoods”, and even efforts like Will Power’s “Flow” and “Rome & Jewel” (we could also briefly acknowledge Jonathan Larson’s “Rent”, although hip-hop was a mere dash of seasoning in the musical’s overall pop/rock sound). “Hamilton” is more like Scott Joplin’s remarkable “Treemonisha,” the African-American pianist’s 1910 “ragtime opera,” which attempted to unite the language of operatic arias with black spirituals and congregational call-and-response.
“Treemonisha” famously wouldn’t receive a proper stage debut until the 1970s, long after Joplin’s death. But it shares with “Hamilton” the suspicion that American history is best told using American vernacular, and although Broadway has been awkwardly slow to embrace current, popular non-white music (hey, they don’t call it The Great White Way for nothing), we’re deep enough into rap’s history for the notion of hip-hop being our musical lingua franca to only be controversial among reactionaries. And as Leah Libresco has noted in an [excellent study for FiveThirtyEight, hip-hop’s fast-pace was tailor made for a musical dedicated to cramming more information into its running time than just about any other production in history. So think of Alexander Hamilton declaiming over a dope beat as an idea whose time has come – a history lesson you can breakdance to.
Evidence of Miranda’s clever appropriations can be traced through music, like transforming The Notorious B.I.G.’s “Ten Crack Commandments” into “Ten Duel Commandments,” or referencing a line from Black Star’s “B Boys Will B Boys” on “Aaron Burr, Sir” (Miranda spins it as “I’m John Laurens, in the place to be). But you can track all that fun stuff down over at Rap Genius. The more pressing matter is the question posed in the musical’s very opening moments: “How does a bastard, orphan, son of a whore/And a Scotsman, dropped in the middle of a forgotten spot/In the Caribbean, by Providence impoverished, to squalor/Grow up to be a hero and a scholar?” It’s a very American query, and one that Lin-Manuel Miranda’s remarkable production does its best to answer.