On Sunday, June 12, theater lovers around the country will tune in to watch the Tony Awards. Leading the field with a record sixteen nominations is Hamilton, Lin-Manuel Miranda’s groundbreaking hip-hop musical about the life of Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton. Combining historically accurate language with modern vernacular, staging critical decisions about the formation of the American nation as rap battles, and making history accessible in a whole new way, Hamilton has already garnered critical acclaim, racking up a Pulitzer Prize for Drama, a Grammy for Best Musical Theater Album, and two Drama League Awards for the 2015-2016 Broadway season.
Not only are critics raving about Hamilton; it’s attracted a broad audience both on- and off-Broadway. Since its 2015 off-Broadway opening, more than 400,000 people have seen it, and only about a quarter of those are from New York. Tickets are sold out through the end of this year. The cast album has gone platinum and, since its release in April, Hamilton: The Revolution, the book containing the show’s libretto with Miranda’s annotations and commentary by Jeremy McCarter, has sold out its first and second printings. Despite the lack of tickets, a devoted fandom has sprung up around the show.
What’s making the story of the ten-dollar founding father so popular?
For one thing, Hamilton has taken steps to be accessible even to those who can’t get to New York (or get tickets once they get there). For most performances, a limited number of seats are sold through a lottery system for $10 each. On matinee days, cast members appear outside the theater to entertain crowds with street performances, often bringing in celebrities to perform. Known as the Ham4Ham Show, it’s recorded and published on YouTube and features familiar faces such as Star Wars director J.J. Abrams, who appeared on May 4 to perform the cantina music Miranda composed for The Force Awakens. Often, Ham4Ham remixes pieces from the show with gender-swapped roles, as when three of the four men who have played King George III appeared as sisters Angelica, Eliza, and Peggy Schuyler, the show’s female leads.
Additionally, the cast and crew are very active on social media. Fans can follow Miranda through his day by watching his Twitter feed, where he regularly engages followers. On the day of the 2016 AP US History exam, he tweeted:
On May 25, Hamilton music director Alex Lacamoire tweeted a video of himself playing a mash-up of Hamilton’s “Burn” with the theme from Game of Thrones, and within an hour, #HamOfThrones was a Twitter trend, generating hundreds of memes, GIFs, and other fan creations.
Miranda refers to Tumblr as “the arts and crafts cabin of the internet,” and he and other cast members regularly take time to praise the numerous blogs and fanworks the show generates. As of this writing, Fanfiction.net and the Archive of Our Own contain a combined 3,500 works based on the fandom.
Hamilton’s take on history makes it ideal for teaching across disciplines. In a recent School Library Journal article, school librarian Addie Matteson detailed several Hamilton-based lessons she used for a fifth-grade class. Teachers may also find lesson fodder in the complex rhyme schemes of the lyrics and use of primary-source material within the show. An entire section of one song is quoted from George Washington’s Farewell Address, which Hamilton wrote. The entire show is sung-through and characterization established through songs; Daveed Diggs, (Marquis de Lafayette and Thomas Jefferson), notes in Hamilton: The Revolution each character is given a distinct musical style.
Hamilton embraces its place in education. In 2015, thanks to a grant from the Rockefeller Foundation, they partnered with the New York City public schools to present special performances to 20,000 students. Many of these students had never been in a theater. In March, the cast went to the White House to perform for the first family and present their educational program to students in Washington, DC.
In a world struggling to integrate diversity into popular culture, Hamilton stands out. Miranda is the son of Puerto Rican immigrants, and the cast is primarily minorities. Led by Miranda, the race-blind casting makes it easy to see history as pertinent to everyone, regardless of race or background.
The story pivots on Hamilton’s “non-stop” rise from penniless immigrant to statesman through his hard work and determination; then chronicles his fall from grace and (spoiler alert!) eventual death in a duel with Vice President Aaron Burr. This work ethic is also reflected in Miranda’s creative process; he first conceived the idea after reading Ron Chernow’s biography of Hamilton on vacation, and the show took over seven years to create. Miranda took great pains to make it as historically accurate as possible, bringing in Chernow to consult.
It also addresses current issues such as race, class, immigration, gun violence, and politics in a way that is fully accessible to contemporary audiences, especially teens.
This past week, Miranda announced he’ll leave the Hamilton cast next month to pursue other projects. His mark on the theater world has already been made, however, and no matter the outcome of the Tony Awards, it’s very clear: Hamilton is here to stay.
— Elizabeth Norton, currently reading The Notorious Benedict Arnold by Steve Sheinkin and listening to Hamilton