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Five reasons 'Hamilton' is a Broadway game-changer

Hamilton, the megabuzzy biomusical about Alexander Hamilton and the founding fathers, opened this month to glowing accolades. In his review, New York Times critic Ben Brantley wrote: "Yes, it really is that good."

It's one of the most talked about Broadway shows since The Book of Mormon opened in 2011, and tickets are pretty much sold out through the end of the year. Why? It's a theatrical rarity: a critically acclaimed work, written by a young composer, that's making a cultural impact far beyond Broadway's 40 theaters.

That it's told through the language and rhythms of hip-hop and R&B — genres that remain mostly foreign to the musical theater tradition — has put it in contention to redefine what an American musical can look and sound like. As Brantley wrote in his review of the Off Broadway production, the songs in Hamilton could be performed "more or less as they are by Drake or Beyoncé or Kanye." Ethel Merman it ain't.

So what's the story behind a show that's become a Broadway must-see with no marquee names, no special effects and almost no white actors? Here, in five snapshots, is an explanation of why "Hamilton" is a big deal.

A brief 'Hamilton' history

Lin-Manuel Miranda's interest in Alexander Hamilton was sparked when he wrote a paper in high school about the 1804 duel between Hamilton and Vice President Aaron Burr, which reminded Miranda of old-school rap rivalries.

"It's a hip-hop story," he said in a 2012 interview. "It's Tupac."

He was inspired to write a musical after reading a copy of Alexander Hamilton, a 2004 biography by Ron Chernow. After developing the work for a few years, in 2009 he sang a number from what would eventually become Hamilton as part of a night of poetry and music at the White House. Three years later, excerpts from The Hamilton Mixtape, a proto-Hamilton song cycle, opened Lincoln Center's annual American Songbook series.

The full-fledged Hamilton opened in February Off Broadway at the Public Theater to positive — no, glowing — reviews.

Diversity

Led by a cast of mostly black and Latino actors, Hamilton has already helped challenge the perception that Broadway's nickname as the Great White Way refers to the color of the actors on stage.

"Our cast looks like America looks now, and that's certainly intentional," Miranda, 35, said earlier this year. "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."

Hamilton isn't the first time Miranda, who attended the elite public Hunter College elementary and high schools on the Upper East Side, has helped to bring nonwhite actors (and audiences) to Broadway. In 2008 he won a Tony Award for best musical for In the Heights, his show that featured Latin- and hip-hop-inspired songs and choreography in a story about Latino families living in Washington Heights. In 2009 he translated some English lyrics by Stephen Sondheim into Spanish for the Broadway revival of West Side Story. (Some of the lyrics were later changed back to English.)

A hot ticket

Hamilton started preview performances on Broadway in July, selling more than 200,000 tickets in advance and bringing in almost $30 million. It has continued to be a box office powerhouse, nipping at the heels of blockbuster musicals like Wicked and The Lion King to become one of the highest-grossing shows now on Broadway. Among the most high-profile audience members to see it at the Richard Rodgers Theater have been President Barack Obama and his daughters, Sasha and Malia.

An Off Broadway production that ran this year at the Public Theater was an enormous success, selling out 119 performances. Celebrities from the world of pop music (Madonna), politics (Dick Cheney), books (Gay Talese) and Hollywood (Jake Gyllenhaal) flocked to see the show, which became one of the hottest tickets in New York.

Conservatives were particularly smitten. "Fabulous show!" said Rupert Murdoch.

Getting it right

The historical accuracy of Hamilton was crucial for Miranda, whose interest in all things history extends not just to 18th century politics but also to musical theater. At the wildly popular lottery for Hamilton tickets, Miranda has answered questions from the crowd using only quotes from the musical A Chorus Line.

Chernow, the historian whose Hamilton biography inspired the show (and whom Miranda consulted for guidance), said Hamilton provides a convincing and "very interior look" at its title character.

Chernow wrote in a recent T Magazine profile of Miranda: "I think he has plucked out the dramatic essence of the character — his vaulting ambition, his obsession with his legacy, his driven nature, his roving eye, his brilliant mind, his faulty judgment."

Musical language

Broadway and hip-hop have been troubled partners. Shows like last season's Tupac-inspired musical Holler If Ya Hear Me have tried unsuccessfully to bridge rap and musical theater.

Hamilton has the potential to be a Broadway game changer thanks to its seamless integration of rap and storytelling. Hip-hop aficionados have taken note. Ahmir Thompson, who is also known as ?uestlove and is a founding member of the hip-hop band the Roots, recently said: "Watching the show I realized, 'Okay, Lin-Manuel knows hip-hop. This guy has totally done his homework.' "

No less a theater luminary than Stephen Sondheim, who knows his way around a lyric, is a fan of the musical achievements of Miranda, who has a degree in theater studies from Wesleyan University.

"Rhyme does something to the listener's perception that is very important," said Sondheim, "and Lin-Manuel recognizes that, which gives the Hamilton score a great deal more heft than it might otherwise have."

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