Unless you’ve been living under a rock for the past year, you’ve heard of the musical Hamilton. While theater people have been hyping up the show since its off-Broadway run, it’s not only long-time theater fans who are buzzing about the show; Hamilton’s connections to hip hop, history, combined with the diversity of the cast members have made this musical into a cultural phenomenon that nearly everyone can connect to. The show and its cast have won widespread critical acclaim: 8 Drama Desk Awards, 3 Outer Critics Circle Awards, 10 Lucille Lortel Awards, Best Musical Theater Album at the Grammy’s, ranked #2 on Billboard’s list of 25 Best Albums of 2015, to name a few. Critics have heaped praise upon the show since the beginning, with one particularly glowing review reading “Miranda’s impassioned narrative of one man’s story becomes the collective narrative of a nation, a nation built by immigrants who occasionally need to be reminded where they came from.” It’s undeniable that this musical has stirred something within our nation that is affecting everyone, from young to old, white to people of color, immigrants to native-born. But why did this musical become, in the words of the cast, a revolution?
Hamilton resonates with the audience because it's a story so many Americans can recognize and relate to: the tale of an immigrant who uses his own knowledge and skills to rise up and make a place for himself in society. It's someone who starts his life in poverty and through his own hard work earns himself a place in American history; a true "American dream" story. When Hamilton and Lafayette rap the line "Immigrants: we get the job done", the audience roars in approval becuase for those of them that are immigrants, it makes them feel recognized and validated. In a world where politicans use hateful rhetoric against immigrants, a show like Hamilton that celebrates the immigrant's story is a welcome respite.
Not only is the story of Hamilton relatable, but it's also told by a racially diverse cast that represents what America really looks like. In the words of Lin Manuel Miranda, "It's America then, told by American now." This key component is part of what makes this Broadway show so amazing: unlike most Broadway shows, the leads are not played by white actors; Instead, the cast is predominantly people of color, with only one titled character played by a white person (King George). Jasmine Cephas Jones put it best when she tweeted "Hamilton gave me the opportunity to show the world the beauty of being me. My hair, my skin color, my voice, my talent. No apologies. Just Me."
White people always get to see themselves represented on Broadway; Just look at any play or musical, and almost every single lead or supporting role is played by a Caucasian. For people of color to see themselves in roles of power and authority is empowering, and helps young people of color feel like they can achieve things like being president of the United States. As Daveed Diggs said in Hamilton: The Revolution, seeing a black man play Jefferson or Madison or Washington when he was a kid in Oakland might have changed his life. "A whole lot of things I just never thought were for me would have seemed possible." This is exactly the effect Hamilton is having on kids growing up right now.
Of course, this diverse casting has led to pushback from white people who love the show and want to be included. When the Hamilton casting call was published with the statement that the leading roles were for "non-white" actors, it sparked a controversy. White people complained that the casting call was akin to "reverse racism", saying if the casting call had said "Whites Only" there would have been "picket lines" and other protests. (http://www.cnn.com/2016/03/30/entertainment/hamilton-broadway-casting-call/) But, as Zeba Blay wrote for Huffington Post,
This isn’t a case of reverse racism. This isn’t a case of people of color excluding white people despite bemoaning their own lack of inclusion in media. That’s the whole point. “Hamilton” has created a space on Broadway for black and brown performers that otherwise wouldn’t exist. Opening up roles designed specifically to be played by performers of color means encroaching on that space. (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/no-the-hamilton-casting-call-for-non-white-actors-is-not-reverse-racism_us_56fd2c83e4b0daf53aeed9b9)
While it's understandable that people watching the show fall in love with characters and hope to play them one day, Hamilton is not about providing even more roles to white actors; It is about providing opportunities for people of color who may not otherwise get to play leading roles on Broadway.
Hamilton has also started conversations about the accessibility of Broadway to middle-class, working people. Broadway is notoriously expensive; Tickets for most shows, at face-value, are over $100 (http://www.latimes.com/entertainment/arts/la-et-cm-broadway-ticket-prices-20140610-story.html), and these prices soar when buying tickets on resale. Tickets for Hamilton, when purchasing from Ticketmaster (a popular events website), run from $512 to $1,349- prices most people simply can't afford to pay. While expensiveness is in part just an aspect of Broadway, Hamilton, and specifically Lin Manuel Miranda, is trying to make their show more accessible. Before every show there is a lottery, where 21 front-row tickets are sold for $10 each (aka a "Hamilton"). This lottery is also online, making it accessible to people who don't live in NYC but can make it to the city in time for a show. The cast also creates "#Ham4Hams", short videos of performances from the cast or from special guests, that are shared on Youtube. These videos give people who can't see Hamilton a taste of the show and a chance to see the cast. Lin also published a massive book, nicknamed the Hamiltome, to give a complete behind-the-scenes look at the making of the show. It contains the entire libretto, as well as full-color photos, interviews, annotations, and much more. While Broadway remains absurdly expensive, Lin Manuel Miranda has taken giant steps to make Hamilton accessible to everyone.
Hamilton has changed the lives of many people, but it has undoubtedly changed the lives of the kids who have gotten to see the show through the Rockefeller Foundation initiative.
A $1.46 million grant from the Rockefeller Foundation will provide the NYC Department of Education with 20,000 $70 tickets to Lin-Manuel Miranda’s SRO rap-rooted Broadway musical about Founding Father Alexander Hamilton. The tickets will then be distributed to kids at the “Ham4Ham” lottery rate of $10, according to the participants, the other $60 paid for by the grant. (http://deadline.com/2015/10/broadway-hamilton-new-york-city-students-rockefeller-foundation-1201595040/)
This program is making Broadway accessible to people who otherwise would not have the opportunity to see this show. It's making kids of color feel excited about American history, a subject they are notoriously under-represented in. Part of the program has the students learning about Hamilton in the weeks before they go see the show, as well as coming up with their own creative pieces, the best of which are performed on the Richard Rodgers stage. Through this program, Hamilton is changing the conversation about the arts, low-income city schools, and American history.
Hamilton is not just a wonderfully written show with a talented cast. It's a show that is making waves beyond the theatre community and starting conversations about race, diversity and education. It's making people think about the realities of America today, and if we really have lived up to the "ideals of our nation." Hamilton is a revolution, in the best sense of the word.