A few months ago, I declared in a column that Next to Normal is the best musical of the past 15 years. It drew by far the most spirited response of anything I’ve written for this site, and there was one question that kept coming up in comments—“but have you seen Hamilton yet?” At the time I hadn’t, but I did a month ago. And I must say, I stand corrected—Hamilton is the best musical of at least the past 15 years (sorry Next to Normal, I still love you dearly).
I think we can all agree that Hamilton has become a cultural phenomenon to an extent I would say is largely unprecedented for a Broadway musical. Everyone, even people who are not always fans of musicals, seems to be obsessed with it. In my ten years of theatergoing I have never seen anything like the horror that greeted me on Ticketmaster when I went to purchase tickets for a performance more than 4 months out. While I bit the proverbial bullet and paid probably the most I have ever paid for a single theater ticket, I still visited the Ham4Ham lottery the day of my performance, where I was met with yet another scene the likes of which I had never encountered in my years as a theater fan. It took my friends and I over 20 minutes to even enter the lottery because the line literally wrapped around the block, so I was unsurprised a few days later when the show announced it was attempting (that’s the key word here) to switch to an online lottery due to public safety concerns. The closest thing I can think of in terms of a musical that achieved such mainstream recognition is Rent, which certainly changed the theatre world forever and became its own kind of cultural phenomenon.
The reason I think so many people have been drawn to this show is that it has a very easily accessible entry point—American history. Everyone has at least a general knowledge of who Alexander Hamilton was and the role he played in founding the United States. This immediately makes the show more approachable than say, an original musical about a bipolar mother and her family. But despite the somewhat traditional subject matter, nothing is traditional about the way Hamilton is presented as a musical. From the unique blend of musical styles ranging from rap to R&B to British pop to classical musical theater to the decision to cast all of the white Founding Fathers and other main characters with African-American, Asian-American, and Hispanic actors and actresses, creator and star Lin-Manuel Miranda took the unexpected choice at every turn.
It is almost difficult to imagine how Miranda, still only 36 years old, will ever top this in his career. Hamilton is simply a masterpiece from start to finish. It moves at a breakneck pace from one stunning number to the next as it roars towards its inevitable conclusion. In a culture so wary of “spoilers” in entertainment, it is interesting that the vast majority of people know what happened to Alexander Hamilton long before they listen to even one song. The show embraces this, even acknowledging the way he ultimately meets his fate in the opening number. There are still many storytelling surprises along the way—the unsurprising revelation that Hamilton eventually dies is told to the audience by none other than the man who kills him, Aaron Burr, because Miranda made the brilliant choice to tell the musical from his point of view. My jaw literally dropped during the brilliant first act one-two punch of “Helpless” and “Satisfied,” a stunning ten minutes of musical storytelling that outlines the beginnings of Hamilton’s complicated relationships with sisters Elizabeth and Angelica Schuyler. It is the rare musical I almost always only listen to in order, straight through, because there is not a weak song to be found. It is so dense and there is so much to unpack that I kept noticing new moments, references, or musical layers even after several listens.
It’s somewhat rare in musical theater that a show achieves the combination of commercial success and creative acclaim. Next to Normal, for example, only survived on Broadway for under two years, despite its brilliance. In fact, only four Best Musical Tony Award winners (I’d like to note I certainly don’t think this award is the be all and end all of great musicals, but it’s an easy statistical reference) since 2000 are still running—Jersey Boys, The Book of Mormon, Kinky Boots, and Fun Home. Of course, it is impossible to say exactly what the future will hold for Hamilton. Rent ran for twelve years and remains the 10th longest running Broadway show of all time. Hamilton’s path to world domination is only just beginning, with a recently announced national tour to launch next year and an upcoming sit-down production in Chicago. The 2016 Tony Awards will surely be a love letter to A.Ham and a condolence letter to anyone else unfortunate enough to have their show open in the same year.
When I wrote about Next to Normal, I singled out its emotional impact, stunning score, solid book, and compelling characters as the primary reasons it’s one of the greatest musicals of our generation. Hamilton has all of that and then some, quite literally. It has been statistically proven that Hamilton is the fastest paced Broadway show ever, and, at the pace of a more typical musical, would take four to six hours to perform. Essentially, Miranda has written double the material contained in your average musical, and it is all completely brilliant. I didn't know if it would be possible for Hamilton to live up to the hype, and it didn’t—it surpassed it.