Hamilton: A Gateway to a Larger Theatre Community?

Anthony J. Piccione

  • OnStage Connecticut Columnist
  • Twitter: @A_J_Piccione

In less than a week, it will be that time of year again. I suspect many readers of this blog – not unlike me – will watch the 2016 Tony Awards on television, just as they do every year. However, let’s be honest: We shouldn’t feel too surprised about what will happen on Sunday night, when it is highly likely that Hamilton will win BIG at the award ceremony.

Before I go any further, let me just say that I am writing this column as someone who hasn’t yet had the pleasure of seeing this show with his own eyes, which is why – as someone who prefers to wait and judge a show until he sees it in its entirety – I haven’t written a column dedicated specifically to this show up until now. 

However, it is still impossible to ignore the fact that it has become a pop culture phenomenon in a way that is very rare among Broadway musicals today. Even when you put aside the fact that its soundtrack alone sounds breathtaking, or that everyone I know who has seen it says that it lives up to the hype, it is hard not to notice how it is a hot topic even outside of the theatre community, with rappers and politicians and everyone in-between heaping praise.

With that said…is Hamilton really a game-changing musical, like many have suggested? If so, what does its success mean to the rest of the theatre community in the long-term? At this point, I think I’ve already heard just enough about the show – and the reaction it has received from critics and audiences alike – to venture a fair guess as to what it MIGHT mean to the future of musical theatre. Read on, and you’ll understand why I say that.

I’ve already heard some people talk about the potentially lasting impact of this musical, and have been comparing the Hamilton phenomenon to that of other highly popular musicals that have received both critical acclaim and mainstream appeal over the past couple of decades. However, there is something I notice about Hamilton that I believe might make this cultural phenomenon different: This musical is, certainly not the first, but inarguably the most successful example of musical theatre to date that incorporates elements of hip-hop into its production.

This also seems to be one of the reasons why the very small number of people I’ve seen say something negative about Hamilton have done so. For the most part, these seem to be the exact same people who have been decrying my generation for listening to what they don’t consider to be “real music”. Yet the truth is that hip-hop has always been highly popular among both my generation and younger generations, both as a music genre and as a cultural force. Even those around my age who aren’t huge fans are, for the most part, at least willing to acknowledge its legitimacy. Say what you want about Kanye West, but when he stated in 2013 that “rap is the new rock and roll”, he wasn’t wrong. 

So if older theatergoers truly care about the future of theatre, they should consider the fact that it will be these same people who will decide its future growth and relevance as an art form, and thus be more receptive to musicals with music that may have more appeal to a younger crowd.

Consider this: I think it’s a fair assumption that many people who grow up to become successful artists in theatre – whether we’re talking about playwrights, actors, directors, etc. – do so after having seen at least one example of live theatre or performance at some point in their lives. By this logic, the more people who go to see theatre as kids or teenagers, the more of them could be inspired to one day follow in the footsteps of the people who made those shows come to life. With this in mind, it wouldn’t hurt – at least, in some cases – to think about what kinds of shows might have more appeal to these younger audiences, when producing newer works. 

In past columns, I’ve spoken about the future of theatre, and how I have concerns over the ability to appeal to potential theatergoers who aren’t rushing to buy tickets to our shows. One of the biggest issues that gets me thinking about this – and it’s an unfair issue that I had to deal with far too often when I was a teenager – is the perception by some people that being in a show isn’t as cool or as fun as, say, being on the school football team. If the future of musical theatre involves at least as much rapping as it does singing, it just might become more likely that kids and teens – especially those who otherwise might not be rushing out to opening night of their local theatre production – go on to become new long-term theatergoers, if not new artists in our theatre community.

Again, I have yet to see Hamilton in person, so I don’t want to judge it much more beyond what I’ve already said. However, in terms of what I’ve said about the elements of hip-hop included in the show – and what that especially means, in terms of its long-term influence – I think it is something that all of us ought to be thinking about when we are discussing the subject of musical theatre’s future, or even when discussing just Hamilton itself. While it will certainly be a big achievement if/when Hamilton does, in fact, win big at the Tonys on Sunday, it will be what happens after the award ceremony that will determine just how significant the legacy of this highly popular musical will be.

This column was written by Anthony J. Piccione: Playwright, producer, screenwriter, actor, poet and essayist currently based in Connecticut. To learn more about Mr. Piccione and his work, please visit his personal blog at www.anthonyjpiccione.tumblr.com. Also, be sure to like him on Facebook (www.facebook.com/AnthonyJPiccione.OfficialPage), follow him on Twitter (@A_J_Piccione) and view his work on the New Play Exchange (www.newplayexchange.org/users/903/anthony-j-piccione).