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Before there was 'Hamilton,' there were these groundbreaking musicals

Composer-actor Lin-Manuel Miranda celebrates Hamilton’s Grammy win for Best Musical Theater Album at the Richard Rodgers Theatre in New York in February.
Published Jun. 9, 2016

Lin-Manuel Miranda came to his friend with news of a new musical he was working on.

Tom Kitt clearly remembers the day six years ago. Kitt, a composer who won a Pulitzer that year for Next to Normal, had teamed with Miranda in Bring It On, about the crazy world of competitive cheerleading. Now Miranda, a budding superbrain who had already won an original score Tony award for his rap-and-salsa musical In the Heights, was talking an altogether different concept:

A hip-hop musical about Alexander Hamilton.

"When we were working on Bring It On, he was just beginning to work on it," Kitt said. "We were talking about it. He was showing me some of the things he was doing, and playing for me. And you just knew it was going to be something special."

Now Hamilton is the rage of Broadway, destined to leave a permanent mark on the musical genre. People talk about Miranda, 36, as a genius who almost single-handedly created a "game changer," words we blurt out when we're not sure how to express astonishment. Some reports say Miranda will leave the production July 9, when his contract to play Hamilton ends.

This much is not in doubt. At the Tonys on June 12, Hamilton will be richly rewarded. Already voters have nominated the show for a record 16 awards.

The hoopla follows a long line of shows that in some way altered musical theater. Some left subtle imprints. Others felt more cataclysmic. Some gained instant attention, and others were appreciated in retrospect.

All feel necessary.

• • •

Some of Hamilton's uniqueness is visible to the naked eye.

It is a story about the founding fathers in which almost all the actors are of color. They wear period costumes but rap the lyrics, which allows for many more words than would otherwise be possible. The number-crunching blog FiveThirtyEight found that Company, the next-fastest musical in terms of words sung per minute, would have taken more than four hours to put on, if saddled with Hamilton's 20,000 words over 46 songs. Pirates of Penzance would have taken nearly six hours.

There are shoutouts embedded in song lyrics to everything from South Pacific and Stephen Sondheim to Eminem and Notorious B.I.G. Lost in all the novelty is a simple fact: This is a really well-crafted story. A disturbing historical conflict drives the music. It's full of sly humor — King George's bemused warning to revolutionaries (You'll Be Back) and Thomas Jefferson's jazzy return from France after the war (What'd I Miss?) come immediately to mind — and searingly poignant moments (Eliza Schuyler's anthem of betrayal, Burn).

Alexander Hamilton drives himself toward impossible goals. Forces too big to conquer alone and his own flaws nearly derail those dreams.

"It's a very traditional show," said John Pinckard, who produced the Tony-winning shows Clybourne Park and A Gentleman's Guide to Love and Murder. "The structure and architecture of it looks like any other well-crafted musical. What's marvelous is both Lin's point of view around the topic and the way he's been able to write that speaks for both the traditional musical form and genres of hip-hop and non-Broadway music. He has managed to be groundbreaking while being completely traditional at the same time. That's a lot harder to do than just be ground-breaking."

The buzz around Hamilton was going strong almost immediately after its debut at the Public Theatre on Jan. 20, 2015. Lindsey Duoos Williams picked up two tickets for $125 each.

"I thought that was obscenely high for off-Broadway," said Williams, who teaches theater at Riverland Community College in Austin, Minn., and has since lectured on musicals that paved the way for Hamilton.

By the final number (Who Lives, Who Dies, Who Tells Your Story), Williams was seeing the show as an artistic moment.

"Every few years, critics say theater is dead, the audiences are getting older and dying out," she said. "Then along comes a show that reawakens everyone's love for musicals and people get excited about it."

• • •

Hamilton is not the first musical to cause a commotion. Let's examine some of the musicals that came before it. All started as unlikely prospects. Now they seem inevitable, as if they had always been here.

Oklahoma (1943)

From the 1920s into the 1940s, Williams said, popular tunes inevitably came from Broadway musicals. Think Cole Porter, George Gershwin, Rodgers and Hammerstein and Irving Berlin. Oklahoma broke ground in several ways. Rather than an introductory ensemble number it opens with cowboy Curly singing, Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin'! There's a healthy dose of insanity and murder. Songs aren't just musical window dressing anymore; they drive the story forward.

"A popular hit, like Someone to Watch Over Me (from the 1926 musical, Oh, Kay!), is not the same as Pore Jud Is Daid," she said. "That was big for the storytelling form, but it drove Broadway musicals away from popular music," Williams said.

West Side Story (1957)

The carefully cut costumes of the Jets and the Sharks still look fresh from the dryer. There is no profanity (unless you count, "Krup you!") and, I think, only one gun. But in the 1950s, a gang version of Romeo and Juliet packed with racial tension and a bittersweet conclusion was a big deal. Reviewer Walter Kerr of the New York Herald Tribune summed up the reaction after opening night when he wrote, "The radioactive fallout from West Side Story must still be descending on Broadway this morning." The musical scored by Leonard Bernstein was also doubted initially as too operatic.

Hair (1968)

It's not much of a story. A committed rock-and-roller is drafted during the Vietnam War. But an attitude of rebellion, together with two crossover hits (Aquarius and Let the Sunshine In) and a nude ensemble scene, marked Hair as a timely musical.

Jesus Christ Superstar (1971)

Composer Andrew Lloyd Webber and librettist Tim Rice, both British, debuted with the first rock opera, all of the dialogue set to music. That style of libretto has since evolved into the norm for musicals.

Godspell (1971)

This creation by Stephen Schwartz also produced crossover hits for Christian audiences, Day by Day and Turn Back, O Man.

The Wiz (1975)

A nostalgic fable, The Wizard of Oz was redesigned by Geoffrey Holder for an all-black cast and a rhythm-and-blues score. Recently redone on NBC, The Wiz remains a benchmark of diverse casting 40 years ago.

A Chorus Line (1975)

This ensemble show looks inside the lives of 17 dancers competing for eight spots in a Broadway production. Before its 15-year run ended, the Michael Bennett musical further loosened the definition of how musicals had to be structured. With A Chorus Line, monologues and songs could serve as their own plot, if they stayed consistent with a central idea. Whether future musicals followed that form or not, every new permission granted freed the composers who followed.

Rent (1996)

Jonathan Larson's enduring contribution to Broadway reached into denizens of the unseen, people with AIDS and others who are stigmatized because of their sexuality. Many conventions, such as dimming the lights and an overture, are discarded. This rock adaptation of Puccini's La Boheme also narrowed the gap again between musicals and popular music. Even the back-to-basics, two-level set made a statement. "We've moved on from big splashy sets," said Williams. "We don't need helicopters landing on stage," as in Miss Saigon (1991).

• • •

Echoes of Hamilton are already in the works. In April, New York City Center revived 1776, a 1969 musical about American independence. Actors are racially diverse and in contemporary dress. Hamilton fan Stephen Sondheim recently predicted that someone would do a rap musical about Abraham Lincoln.

"If you think I'm kidding, talk to me in a year," the composer told the New York Times.

"I think we're going to get some half-rate imitations," Williams said. "But no one can be Hamilton. Hopefully, instead of trying to be Hamilton there will be more risk taking if a show is good enough."

The long-term effects will not be known any time soon, she said. Initiatives like the Rockefeller Foundation sponsoring $10 Hamilton tickets for New York City high school students will help nourish the soil. Miranda himself had seen Les Misérables and Cats in high school. But the breakthrough moment didn't come until his 17th birthday, when a girlfriend surprised him with tickets to Rent.

"Musicals take years to write, and we won't see a whole change immediately," Williams said. "It will be a decade or longer. That's when we will see a whole range of influences pop up from Hamilton."

Writer and lyricist Brian Yorkey, who shared the Pulitzer with Kitt for Next to Normal, said he believes "all the accolades are entirely deserved."

"I think that once in every generation or so, there's a game-changing musical on Broadway that raises the bar for what quality musicals are. That opens more doors for what musicals can be."

Contact Andrew Meacham at ameacham@tampabay.com or (727) 892-2248. Follow @torch437.

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