Alexander Hamilton, we hardly knew you. Wow, did we not know you. But do we ever know you now. Before Broadway’s award season starts, the inevitable (and altogether justifiable) coronation of “Hamilton,” it feels like the time to recap what we know about Lin-Manual Miranda’s hugely improbable smash hip-hop musical about, no kidding, America’s first secretary of the treasury. “Hamilton,” an instant hit at its opening Off-Broadway at the Public Theater in February, 2015, transferred to Broadway in the dead of August to sell-out crowds—and daily reports of bold-face celebrity and political names in the standing ovations. The show is all but sold out at least through the end of the year. As I write this, resale tickets for Saturday night, Apr. 9—a date I picked at random—were being offered on Ticketmaster for as high as $4,499 each. Obviously, “Hamilton” is a hit like no other hit. Let us count the ways.
Diverse in many ways
The musical is set in New York beginning in 1776, but the cast and the music look and sound like New York right now. The score is driven by rap’s nonstop verbal and rhythmic unpredictability. As Miranda told “60 Minutes,” “Rap has rhythm and has density. If Hamilton had anything in his writing, it was this density.” But the music is also proudly indebted to jazz, ‘60s pop, Gilbert & Sullivan patter songs and, most of all, golden-age Broadway. All the historical characters (except the hilariously dippy and jealous King George, who’s white) are played by multicultural actors — people who look like the audiences Miranda aims to reach. The diversity is so central to the message that an ad for a casting call for replacements and touring productions made national news last month by requesting “nonwhite” men and women. What seems to me to be irrational accusations of racism ensued, after which Actors’ Equity called the language “inconsistent” with union policy. The wording has been changed to “people of all ethnicities,” which, of course, doesn’t mean that the colors of the show will change.
The Obama factor
The Obamas love this show. Each has each seen it twice. The first lady even first caught it downtown at the Public Theater. The president took their daughters to see it on Broadway last summer and returned in November when the cast assembled on a dark night to perform as a Democratic Party fundraiser. The family invited seven cast members to perform at the White House last month. The president, who says the show is the only thing "Dick Cheney and I have agreed on," challenged Miranda — creator, composer, lyricist and star — to a freestyle rap in the Rose Garden.
For all the entertaining irreverence, "Hamilton" is proud of its historical accuracy. Miranda was inspired by Ron Chernow's acclaimed biography about "a bastard orphan son of a whore," remembered, if at all, for being the face on the $10 bill and for being killed in a duel with Aaron Burr. At most performances, Miranda plays this least-known of the founding fathers, who went from ambitious Caribbean street kid to being George Washington's right-hand man. He wrote most of the Federalist Papers, established the federal bank and had what may have been the first sex scandal in American politics. Chernow is historical consultant to the sung-through pop opera, which owes more to Les Miserables than to Stephen Sondheim. Pictured: Alexander Hamilton by artist John Trumbull, 1756-1843.
An undeniable hit
The show has grossed an average of $1.6 million weekly since the first preview on Broadway last July and has never played to less than 100 percent capacity. According to deadline.com, “Hamilton” returned a quarter of its $12.5 million capitalization to investors just five weeks after opening. There have been reports that the show recouped its costs, a milestone that traditionally takes years to reach, but representatives of the show have not confirmed that. Here, "Hamilton" creator and star Lin-Manuel Miranda with the cast.
A social media champ
Hamilton is the biggest social media hit in Broadway history. Miranda, second perhaps only to the Kardashians in Internet-manipulation savvy, somehow finds time for what seems like nonstop tweeting. So when he was out recently because of a bad throat, his Twitter followers were the first to know.
Mr. Nice Guy
Miranda, who also created the 2008 Tony-winning “In the Heights,” appears to be the most genuinely nice millionaire icon in a notoriously greedy world. When he saw the hundreds of people who lined up in front of the Richard Rodgers Theatre daily for a chance to win the lottery — 21 front-row tickets at $10 each — he felt bad for the fans that stood out there for nothing. So he started entertaining them outside with unique, improvised little pre-shows, #Ham4Ham, which immediately became Internet favorites. He, cast members and other sporting stars would perform crossover bits and adorably goof around. The outdoor phenomenon went on winter hiatus, but the #Ham4Ham continues on the web. According to a press representative, the street shows are expected to return. (An unrelated fan has developed a Ham App to help people enter the lottery every day.)
Taking the Grammys
Miranda also understands the power of pop-culture media. For the Grammys in February, when the show won in the musical-theater category, the whole terrific company did a live performance of the opening number from their Broadway stage. The camera work, often so problematic for theater on TV, was as spectacular and thoughtful as the show itself.
Forging a path
This year, Miranda — born in Manhattan to Puerto Rican parents — was No. 18 on Fortune Magazine’s list of the 50 “world’s greatest leaders.” Jeff Bezos, founder of Amazon.com, was first. Ruth Bader Ginsburg was ninth.
Get 'em while they're young
The Rockefeller Foundation is so high on “Hamilton” that it donated $1.46 million to send 20,000 New York City school kids to the show for $10 each. The unprecedented program begins with the April 13 matinee. At least as impressive, on a local scale, was the dream field trip for which private donors raised $85,000 to send the entire 11th grade of Bay Shore High School last month. Here, more than 500 students and chaperones from Bay Shore High School listen as cast members from "Hamilton" answer their questions following the matinee performance they attended.
Follow the money
Not incidentally, U.S. Treasury Secretary Jacob Lew had been planning to replace Hamilton's face on the $10 bill with someone more popular, probably a woman. Miranda has lobbied hard against it, and Lew has hinted this may not happen.