The Broadway musical can seem as oldfangled as the founding fathers. But an audacious hip-hop retelling of the life of the nation’s first Treasury secretary lands on Broadway on Monday poised to become the rarest of theatrical phenomena: not only a hit, but a turning point for the art form and a cultural conversation piece, as Michael Paulson writes in this article for The New York Times.
The show, “Hamilton,” arrives with a powerful tailwind. It has already brought in $27.6 million, with just over 200,000 tickets sold in advance — huge numbers for Broadway, and among the biggest pre-opening totals in history. An Off Broadway production of the musical, based on Alexander Hamilton, which ran this year at the Public Theater, was a critical darlingthat sold out 119 performances, attracted a who’s who of cultural andpolitical figures, and collected a trophy case of awards. And the show’s creator, a 35-year-old New Yorker named Lin-Manuel Miranda, has already won a Tony and a Grammy for an earlier show he had begun while still an undergraduate.
Thus far “Hamilton” has been seen by relatively few people — a total of 34,132 seats were available over 15 weeks at the Public, fewer than at a typical Yankees home game, and there remain uncertainties about how it will be received by broader audiences over time.
“The question we have to answer is: ‘Will the word of mouth be as good, or better, on Broadway? Will we measure up?’ ” said the show’s lead producer, Jeffrey Seller, who has won Tony Awards for the groundbreaking musicals “Rent” and “Avenue Q” and Mr. Miranda’s debut, “In the Heights.”
The show’s appeal to in-the-know New Yorkers is clear; its challenge now is to broaden its appeal to tourists from around the nation and the globe who dominate the Broadway audience and are essential to the longevity of a musical. Early indications are positive.
“There’s a huge appetite, definitely, and it’s pretty much across the board,” said Scott Mallalieu, president of GreatWhiteWay.com, a group sales and marketing company. “The word of mouth has gone out: This is a game changer in musical theater history.”
Of course, Broadway is a brutal marketplace: Three of four productions fail. And “Hamilton” does not have the ingredients of the typical success: It has no film stars, no special effects, no tap dancing — nor the kind of familiar, movie-linked branding that has made a hit out of “The Lion King,” “Aladdin” and other musicals that appeal to families.
There are also some cautionary precedents: “Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson,” a sardonic 2010 rock musical about the nation’s seventh president that also came out of the Public Theater, was not a financial success despite critical praise. And the most recent hip-hop show on Broadway, last season’s “Holler if Ya Hear Me,” which featured music and lyrics by Tupac Shakur, was a fast flop.
The “Hamilton” back story is compelling: Mr. Miranda, at an airport on his way to a vacation with his wife in Mexico, picked up a copy of “Alexander Hamilton,” a 2004 biography by Ron Chernow. By the second chapter, Mr. Miranda thought the story was made for hip-hop: Hamilton, an orphaned immigrant, plays a key role both in the American Revolution and in the nation’s foundational years, only to stumble with a sex scandal and to die in a duel. Hamilton’s childhood, Mr. Miranda said, made him think of Jay Z’s early days in the Marcy Houses in Brooklyn, and Eminem’s upbringing in Detroit.
Hamilton, Thomas Jefferson and George Washington, among others, are played by black and Latino actors, allowing the creators to comment on America’s fractured present through its past, and vice versa. “Our cast looks like America looks now, and that’s certainly intentional,” said Mr. Miranda, who portrays the title character. “It’s a way of pulling you into the story and allowing you to leave whatever cultural baggage you have about the founding fathers at the door.”
That dynamic has particularly appealed to educators. The Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History is working with the producers on an effort to make it possible for large numbers of New York City schoolchildren to see the show.
“It was unquestionably the most profound impact I’ve ever seen on a student body,” said Seth Andrew, the founder of Democracy Prep Public Schools, after chaperoning 120 students to the show at the Public.
By extensively featuring hip-hop music, the production looks to cross some invisible boundary that often separates Broadway from the broader culture. And if it succeeds, it will inevitably influence future shows.
“It takes the rules and shifts them,” said Theodore S. Chapin, the longtime president of the Rodgers & Hammerstein organization. “It’s historical but modern. This is a guy who knows rap and knows Stephen Sondheim, and that’s the step no one has taken yet.”
The producers of “Hamilton” took a calculated risk by not moving to Broadway in the spring, immediately after their run at the Public. They opted instead to take a few months to trim and sharpen, even though shows that open during the summer often fare poorly, and can feel like old news to the theater professionals who allocate Tony Awards the following spring.
But “Hamilton,” which after beginning previews on Monday night at the Richard Rodgers Theater, will have a formal opening on Aug. 6, appears to be in a strong position to overcome the obstacles. The Public run drew more boldface names than a Vanity Fair party (Jon Bon Jovi to Busta Rhymes, Michelle Obama to Madonna), including a stream of intellectuals (Bernard-Henri Lévy), authors (Salman Rushdie), activists (Gloria Steinem), journalists (Ira Glass, Barbara Walters) and political figures (Bill and Hillary Rodham Clinton, Dick and Lynne Cheney).
Particularly striking is the way “Hamilton” won over conservatives, many of whom have a fondness for its title character and a concern about the direction of American culture.
“Fabulous show!” declared Rupert Murdoch (who owns a newspaper, The New York Post, that was founded by Hamilton). Peggy Noonan, a columnist for The Wall Street Journal who was President Ronald Reagan’s speechwriter, suggested that “every Republican candidate for president see it, absorb it.” And in National Review, Richard Brookhiser (a conservative commentator who wrote a Hamilton biography) urged his readers to buy tickets, saying, “It is surprising, and heartening, how detailed and generally accurate ‘Hamilton’ is.”
The musical seems to have found a middle ground in the culture wars over American history. “In the academic world, biographies of these great figures of the past fell out of favor in the 1960s, when there was a turn toward social history, which meant the history of the voiceless and faceless,” said H. W. Brands, a history professor at the University of Texas. “But the public at large never embraced the idea that these dead white guys should be abandoned.”
Another Broadway musical, “1776,” set the Continental Congress and other moments in the nation’s founding to song; it played 1,222 performances and was adapted into a 1972 movie. But that show didn’t reimagine cabinet debates during the Washington administration as rap battles, in which Hamilton and Jefferson throw down over debt policy and foreign relations.
Seizing on the patriotic fervor that accompanies the Fourth of July, “Hamilton” chose the holiday weekend to kick off a radio advertising campaign with an upbeat spot — featuring a song more pop than hip-hop — celebrating the American Revolution as “messy and miraculous,” describing the show’s sound as “the cry of tomorrow” and nodding to its contemporary casting by saying, “This is the story of America then, told by America now.”
As opening night nears, awareness of the musical is only just building. Shirley Haspel, 90, of Dallas, saw a clip on MSNBC and decided to see the show for her 91st birthday. She’s coming to New York next month for the first time in more than a decade.
“I’m sort of a political junkie, and I saw enough that it sort of enchanted me, so I put it on my bucket list,” Ms. Haspel said. She’s no fan of hip-hop, she added, but said, “I’m willing to learn.”