Let's Art-iculate

Let’s Art-Iculate #9: What makes Hamilton: An American Musical, such a triumph?

Lin-Manuel Miranda (actor, composer and writer, amongst other things) is no stranger to success. His previous musical, In the Heights, won 4 Tony Awards (including Best Musical) out of its 13 nominations; he was just 19 when he wrote its first draft. However, all of that pales in comparison to the response to his current show, Hamilton: An American Musical, which has seen him receive the MacArthur “Genius” Award, the Pulitzer Prize for Drama, and a total of 11 Tony Awards out of a record breaking 16 nominations.

Not only that, but in terms of commercial success – let’s just say it is near impossible to buy tickets in the next year, unless you’re willing to hand over at least $3,000. But what is it about this musical in particular that makes it such a global phenomenon?

”Let’s just say it is near impossible to buy tickets in the next year, unless you’re willing to hand over at least $3000’’

Well, the short answer is: lots of factors. To name a few, it could be the fact that pretty much every character (apart from King George III) is played by an actor of an ethnic minority. Or maybe it’s that Miranda never fails to emphasise Hamilton’s initial status as an immigrant in America – made all the more relevant during the current refugee crisis. Perhaps the huge variety of musical styles utilized by Miranda – such as rap battles, hip-hop and jazz, as well as ballads typical of musical theatre – casts a wide enough net to capture several demographics. This decision to use types of music that are unconventional on Broadway also helps make Hamilton accessible in the modern day.

The musical, based on a biography by historian Ron Chernow, follows Alexander Hamilton – one of the founding fathers of America – in a true rags-to-riches story, as he transforms from an impoverished orphan in the Caribbean to the first Secretary of the Treasury of the USA and George Washington’s right hand man. Along the way, he makes friends with other revolutionaries like John Laurens and Marquis de Lafayette, but instantly comes into conflict with Thomas Jefferson, James Madison and Aaron Burr, who – as is revealed in the very first song – will go on to kill Hamilton in an infamous duel. Throw in one of the first scandals in American politics, some shady backroom deals and the fastest song in musical history (at one point, 19 words are said in 3 seconds) and you already have a solid foundation upon which to build a cultural icon.

Like Rent 20 years ago, or Les Misérables 10 years before that, one of the biggest assets of Hamilton is the way in which anyone, from any background, can connect to it. As previously mentioned, the fact that non-white actors make up the majority of the cast allows more American citizens to associate themselves with their nation’s founding; even Daveed Diggs – who plays Lafayette and Jefferson (several roles are doubled up in this way) – stated that his participation in the show has developed his relationship with his country’s history.

”One of the biggest assets of Hamilton is the way in which anyone, from any background, can connect to it’’

Another reason it’s easy to connect with this musical is that these characters are all so relatable. Although that may be hard to believe, given these events took place more than 200 years ago and the characters in question are such historical legends as Washington and Jefferson, there are numerous moments where audience members can apply the story to their own lives.

For example, when Burr jealously proclaims that he will “wait for” the success that Hamilton doesn’t hesitate to snatch, we can understand his frustration because we too can think of an occasion when we have been envious of another person’s achievements.

Or when it becomes evident that Hamilton’s political tactics are becoming rather immoral, his decision to take the easier but slightly questionable path – rather than the harder but ultimately more ethical track – is familiar to us, as everyone has been faced with that dilemma. These figures that have been revered for centuries are humanized by Miranda’s exquisite writing in such a way that viewers can empathise with them, thus allowing for a much deeper connection.

As the musical concludes, Elizabeth Schuyler (Hamilton’s wife) wonders “who tells your story” when you and all your loved ones die. As far as Hamilton goes, there are countless instances within the two acts, and the production as a whole, that set this up to be a landmark in musical theatre history.

Never has a harmony been so energizing like in “The Schuyler Sisters”, nor has the cello sounded more sinister than at the beginning of “Say No to This”. These moments – and there are several others embedded throughout the songs – are saturated with a passion that is instantly reflected by the audience, ensuring that Hamilton’s story will be told for generations to come.

Sarah Quraishi

For more information about the show and where to get tickets, click here

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Image credit: TimWilson via Flickr

Let's Art-iculate

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