In Homer vs Dignity, a terrific 2000 episode of The Simpsons, the tyrannical Mr Burns pokes fun at his long-suffering assistant Waylon Smithers when the latter takes a vacation in order to star in a musical inspired by the Barbie-like doll, Malibu Stacy. The oligarch sarcastically suggests that they might instead make a play about the common housecat or the King of Siam.
Mr Burns wasn’t wrong. There is no little bemusement to be gleaned from the sources and sparks behind many musical smashes. Contemporary West End wows include Six, a run through the lives of the six wives of Henry VIII presented as a pop concert, and The Book of Mormon, an affectionate poke at the beliefs of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
Even by the standards of this eclectic medium, Hamilton, a musical featuring such fusty historical characters as George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and King George III, is a curveball. We say fusty: but the life and times of Founding Father Alexander Hamilton, as mined by the theatrical smash, is quite the historical soap opera.
“A bastard, orphan, son of a whore and a Scotsman” by the libretto’s account, Hamilton was an immigrant who left the Caribbean to become George Washington’s right-hand man, a constitutional lawyer, a captain of the oldest army unit in the United States, founder of the New York Post, and secretary of the treasury. He married up, and overcame a sex scandal (by printing pamphlets owning up to said tryst before his enemies could capitalise upon it). He died in a duel with his rival Aaron Burr, his on-off nemesis and the show’s narrator.
During a visit to the White House in 2009, flush from the success of his earlier hit musical, In the Heights, Hamilton creator Lin-Manuel Miranda sounded amused when he introduced The Hamilton Mixtape - an early proof-of-concept - to Barack and Michele Obama.
“I’m thrilled the White House called me tonight,” he said. “Because I’m actually working on a hip-hop album. It’s a concept album about the life of somebody I think embodies hip-hop: treasury secretary Alexander Hamilton.”
The son of a political consultant and a psychologist, the Hamilton creator grew uep in a Hispanic neighbourhood in New York. As an actor, Miranda has appeared in Sex and the City, The Sopranos, and the BBC’s His Dark Materials. As a composer, lyricist, playwright and rapper, he has come to redefine musical theatre with Hamilton. And now his groundbreaking work is coming to a small screen near you.
Christopher Nolan’s Tenet has been nudged along in the calendar and James Bond has been booted into November. But the Covid crisis has worked in the opposite direction for Hamilton. A 160-minute film of the musical, shot in 2016, two weeks before the original cast left the Broadway show, was acquired by Disney earlier this year. A planned 2021 theatrical release has been cancelled in favour of an earlier Disney+ premiere on July 3rd.
Hamilton is one of the most successful Broadway musicals of all time. Since opening in 2015, it has won 11 Tony awards, a Grammy, a Pulitzer Prize and, more unusually, the George Washington Book Prize and a MacArthur ‘genius grant’ for Miranda
Filmed over three live performances to allow for multiple camera angles and described as a cinematic stage performance that will combine “the best elements of live theatre and film”, the property cost Disney a record-breaking $75 million.
It’s an unlikely sum of money for an unlikely hit. Hamilton, one of America’s lesser-known Founding Fathers, may feature on the $10 bill, but he has not, to date, inspired as many books and movies as his contemporaries George Washington, Thomas Jefferson or John Adams.
Based on Ron Chernow’s bullet-stopping biography (Chernow reportedly gets 1 per cent of the show’s profit), Hamilton is one of the most successful Broadway musicals of all time. Since opening in 2015, it has won 11 Tony awards (from a record-breaking 16 nominations), one Grammy, a Pulitzer Prize, and, more unusually, the George Washington Book Prize and a MacArthur “genius grant” for Miranda.
Last month, global sales for Hamilton crossed the billion-dollar mark. The show’s cultural impact has reached far beyond Broadway or the West End (where it opened in 2018). The cast album was the highest-selling Broadway cast album of 2015, peaking at number three in the Billboard chart. It became the first cast album to reach number one on the Rap Albums chart.
With a fervour to rival Directioners or Beatlemaniacs, Hamilteens, a legion of (mostly female) teenage superfans, learned every lyric of the 46-track cast album and pored over copies of Hamilton: The Revolution, a detailed account of the libretto featuring Miranda’s annotations and cast and character profiles.
From the first bow, the reviews were ecstatic. Writing in the New York Times, Ben Brantley wrote: “I am loath to tell people to mortgage their houses and lease their children to acquire tickets to a hit Broadway show. But Hamilton, directed by Thomas Kail and starring Mr Miranda, might just about be worth it.”
Admirers came from far and wide. The multiracial cast, in particular, has attracted praise. While colour-blind casting has long been common in the West End, Hamilton, as its producers have noted, is not colour-blind. In 2016, a social media kerfuffle kicked off when producers posted a casting call for the upcoming national tour indicating it was looking for non-white actors.
“It is essential to the storytelling of Hamilton that the principal roles - which were written for non-white characters (excepting King George) - be performed by non-white actors,” producer Jeffrey Seller explained in a statement. “Hamilton depicts the birth of our nation in a singular way,” he stressed, adding, that “we will continue to cast the show with the same multicultural diversity that we have employed thus far”.
“It has become a favourite in the Obama household,” then-president Barack Obama said at a 2016 White House event attended by cast members and musicians. “In fact, Hamilton, I’m pretty sure, is the only thing that Dick Cheney and I agree on.”
Another Republican, vice-president-elect Mike Pence, was memorably booed at a performance in November 2016. Brandon Dixon, who plays vice-president Aaron Burr, intervened and hushed the audience, saying: “There is nothing to boo here, ladies and gentlemen, we are sharing a story of love.”
He then addressed Pence directly: “Mike Pence, we welcome you here. We are the diverse Americans who are alarmed and anxious that your new administration will not protect us, our planet, our children, our parents. Or defend us and uphold our inalienable rights … we hope that this show has inspired you to uphold our American values and work on behalf of all of us.”
Speaking to the Irish Times last year, Anthony Ramos, who played John Laurens and Philip Hamilton in the original Broadway production, recalled the moment he realised that the show was a phenomenon.
“I realised it when the president was coming,” he laughs. “I mean, it couldn’t be any clearer than that! But I knew it was special from the moment I set foot in the room on the first day of rehearsals...I’ve never forgotten the moment I heard: ‘How does a bastard, orphan, son of a whore and a Scotsman . . .’ For someone who grew up listening to hip-hop and for someone who also has studied musical theatre and to hear those worlds collide so beautifully, I felt like my mind was about to explode.
“I tried to explain to people before the show came out what it was about and they were looking at me like I had two heads. And then it became what it is. You get people like Stephen Sondheim praising the show and somebody like Busta Rhymes giving a 30-minute speech talking about how inspired he was by the show. It’s special to be part of something like that.”
As Ramos suggests, the melting pot of musical styles in Hamilton makes for something more than the “rap musical” it has often been characterised as. Caps are doffed to Mobb Deep, Eminem, Big Pun, DMX, The Notorious BIG, and LL Cool J. There is love, too, for old school jazz, R&B and classic Broadway. George Washington introduces himself with a riff on Gilbert and Sullivan: “The model of a modern major general/ the venerated Virginian veteran whose men are all/ Lining up, to put me on a pedestal.” Aaron Burr quotes from South Pacific: “I’m with you but the situation is fraught/ You’ve got to be carefully taught.”
Speaking to the Irish Times in 2018, Miranda revealed a lifelong love of musical theatre.
Music goes into a deeper place inside us and I think that’s why musicals resonate so deeply with us.
“My first Broadway musical was Les Misérables,” he recalled. “I was seven and I don’t remember it very well. I remember when Fantine died. I remember taking a nap. I remember waking up in time for the suicide which was dodgy material for a seven-year-old. But I remember my mother bringing home the cast album. I remember her listening to Bring Him Home and she would burst into tears.
“I think seeing how music moved my parents is one of the reasons I ended up getting into musicals. You hear extraordinary stories all the time of people with long-term memory loss who can still remember a TV theme song from when they were children. Music goes into a deeper place inside us and I think that’s why musicals resonate so deeply with us. The songs we treasure are kept in the same place as our most treasured memories.”
Inevitably, there are begrudgers. “The awful musical that millionaire New Yorkers are required by law to throw away thousands watching, represents everything that was wrong with America in 2016,” scowled libertarian magazine Reason in 2017, glossing over the show’s Ham4Ham programme, a ticket lottery that allows winners to buy two of the outdoor show for those waiting for the nightly ticket lottery.
Academic and author Ishmael Reed offers a critique of Hamilton in a play called The Haunting of Lin-Manuel Miranda, which highlights Alexander Hamilton’s “complicity in slavery and his war on Native Americans”. One might equally note that Hamilton supported the idea of a president for life and that his expansion of the federal government sparked the Whisky Rebellion of 1794.
Lin-Manuel Miranda, however, has always insisted that his musical is a “work of historical fiction”. There is, too, something delicious in Miranda, the son of Puerto Rican immigrants, crafting a multicultural, multiracial extravaganza from another immigrant, one who bequeathed the US its controversial electoral system. As the programme tells it: “America Now telling the story of America Then.”
And that’s surely a form of cultural and historical appropriation worthy of the many hours of applause that have already been bestowed upon Hamilton.
Hamilton is on Disney+ from Friday, July 3rd