The BLOG: Culture

How a B-side Founding Father became the hottest ticket on Broadway – and is changing the face of theater

Biographies on the lives of founding fathers have become popular among a certain echelon of parents and grandparents in recent years. Since David McCullough’s work on the life of John Adams, the genre has proved to have staying power among the armchair, sweatered set. But what happens when one of these tomes falls into the hands of a Tony-award winning songwriter and playwright?

If the playwright is Lin-Manuel Miranda and the book is Ron Chernow’s “Alexander Hamilton,” you get a rap and hip-hop-infused take on the life of one America’s least-remembered yet most influential founding fathers. The musical follows the young Hamilton’s career — from his days as aide de camp to George Washington up until his famous death. Miranda plays the title role and has composed a diverse cast that he says, “looks like America looks now.”

The first number covers Hamilton’s life on the Caribbean island of Nevis, where he lived until his teenage years. In a matter of minutes, the song sets up the themes that will govern the rest of Hamilton’s life and the eponymous musical; his outsider status as an impoverished, orphaned, bastard immigrant, and his determination to succeed through his indomitable work ethic and linguistic genius.

Hamilton quickly meets Aaron Burr, who becomes something of a friend. Both young orphans, Burr and Hamilton were also deeply involved in the Revolutionary fever that was heating up the colonies. Throughout the musical, Hamilton’s abrasive, all-out personality clashes with Burr’s more hesitant, calculated character. By the end of the show, the infamous duel between the two feels as though it has been coming for years – something the real Burr acknowledged in a letter to his friend, Charles Biddle.

But it’s not just the story of Hamilton’s life that makes Hamilton the musical so distinctive; it’s how that story is told. The musical score features hip-hop, rap, Broadway-style music and English pop. It pays homage to contemporary hip-hop and pop greats like Biggie, Beyoncé and a Tribe Called Quest. Slate even published a list of all the hip-hop and rap references in the musical. The music is giving the concept of “a Broadway musical” a face-lift – the Hamilton soundtrack recently clocked in at No. 1 on Billboard’s rap chart, the first Broadway cast album to achieve this unlikely feat.

The score uses Les Mis-esque reprises and echoes to set up relationships between events and people. The song, “The Ten Duel Commandments,” is initially used to tell the story of a duel that occurred during the Revolutionary War in which both Hamilton and Burr were involved, if not directly. The lyrics and the melody are resurrected in Hamilton’s son’s duel, and finally, in the fatal duel between Hamilton and Burr.

But it’s not just the inventive combination of content and form that has made Hamilton such a game-changer. Hamilton portrays the heated cabinet debates between Jefferson and Hamilton as rap battles. For students who mainly studied the historic debates between proponents of federalism and states’ rights from a fact-packed high-school textbook, the spitfire-style of Hamilton brings a welcome shock to the system. Hamilton does what every good teacher aspires to – it inspires. Though not the main intention, the Hamilton soundtrack undoubtedly teaches listeners about American history while they listen, reaching audiences in a new way.

Like rap and hip-hop, which draw voraciously from the world and other artists, there isn’t a pot Hamilton doesn’t have a finger in; theater, education, the music industry, politics, finance – much like Alexander Hamilton himself.

The musical is sold out through January, and tickets are expensive. The cast album is available on Spotify, and since nearly everything in the musical is rapped or sung, listening to the album is almost as good as seeing it live. Almost.

You can win tickets in a lottery before the twice-daily shows. I plan to try at least once this weekend while visiting friends in the Big Apple. Keep your fingers crossed for me.

Lizzie Short

Lizzie Short

Lizzie Short is a Classics and history scholar, theater-lover and writer from the Boston area. She is usually orbiting the metropolis in her Toyota.