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Has the overwhelming success of Hamilton transformed BROADWAY forever?
by Charles Isherwood. 

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© Walter McBride/Getty Images
HAMILTON'S SUCCESS DOES SUGGEST THAT BROADWAY'S NEW ADVENTUROUSNESS CAN PAY SPECTACULAR DIVIDENDS.

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HOW HUGE IS HAMILTON? 

The musical, with a book and score by Lin-Manuel Miranda, who also starred in the show during its first season of performances on Broadway, has become one of the most talked-about and written-about cultural phenomena of the twenty-first century. 

At this season’s Tony Awards it took home eleven awards from sixteen nominations, just one trophy shy of the record haul of The Producers. It has spawned a CD that crossed over to the rap charts and a commemorative book that hit No. 1 on the New York Times bestseller lists. Tickets cannot be had for love or money (please don’t email me!) and are being resold in secondary markets for absurd sums in the thousands of dollars. Perhaps not since A Chorus Line, back in 1975, has a Broadway show broken out of the cultural niche that hems in musical theater to become a matter of interest and excitement not just among theater-lovers but for people who have never been to a Broadway show or much cared that they hadn’t. 

The intriguing question raised by the show’s success is whether this novel musical is just that—a novelty. Is Hamilton an outlier that, while achieving monumental success, does not change the complexion of the musical theater, as landmark shows such as Show Boat, Oklahoma! and the oeuvre of Stephen Sondheim have done? Or are we looking at an exciting inflection point in the history of Broadway, a harbinger of its return to something like the cultural prominence it held during the so-called “golden age,” whose parameters, while flexible, are generally agreed to be the 1930s through the 1960s?

Only a crystal ball would provide a definitive answer, of course, but it can at least be argued that the spectacular popularity of Hamilton does reflect some intriguing, and inspiring, developments that have taken place in musical theater in the past decade. For Hamilton did not arrive like a lightning bolt from the blue; the groundwork had been laid for its success by the gradual transformation of Broadway from a largely forgotten backwater of American culture—something your parents talked about, pulling out their well-worn original cast albums of My Fair Lady for another spin on the stereo—to a cultural marketplace (and it is, above all, a marketplace) where new forms, new voices and new sounds are achieving prominence and attracting audiences.   

In analyzing the roots of this evolution, we might look back to the waning of the musical as a force in American culture. What killed the musical, or at least dealt it a blow that left it in intensive care for a few decades? Well, what happened to the music world more generally in the 1960s? A no-brainer: along came rock ’n’ roll, sweeping all before it, and making the sugary pop of the 1950s—and much of the popular music that came before it—seem like candy for Christmas stockings. 

During Broadway’s years of greatest cultural sway, songs from musicals, while not exclusively dominant, were certainly a significant force in the realm of pop music. The most popular artists of the day—Frank Sinatra or Ella Fitzgerald or Doris Day—regularly recorded material plucked straight from shows written by the men (and they were virtually all men) who defined Broadway at its height: Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein (and Rodgers and Lorenz Hart before), George and Ira Gershwin, Irving Berlin, Cole Porter et al. 

When rock rumbled onto the scene, a great disruption took place; the art of crafting a song in which lyrics and music blended seamlessly, and were married in service of character and story, was suddenly irrelevant, or relevant only to those who had grown up with the form. In rock, as in much opera, music almost always predominates. Lyrics often become a scattered, sometimes nonsensical shout from the soul—or the loins.

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A Chorus Line
© Museum of The City of New York/Getty Images

There were, of course, successful and accomplished musicals created during this period. Hair became the only truly successful attempt at the time to incorporate rock music in a work of drama. A Chorus Line was so successful that it overshadowed another musical that had its premiere that year—John Kander and Fred Ebb’s Chicago (which, revived in 1996 and still running, had the last cackle). But by the 1980s, Broadway had begun relentlessly reviving the old classics, as worthy new material became harder and harder to put across—or even to find. At the same time, the theater district had slithered into seediness, further depressing interest in Broadway. 

And then, suddenly, the British (and French) were coming—this time to the rescue. The pop operas of Andrew Lloyd Webber (Cats and The Phantom of the Opera) and Claude-Michel Schönberg and Alain Boublil (Les Misérables and Miss Saigon) dominated the scene during the 1980s, the lone force, it sometimes seemed, countering the decadence into which the Broadway musical had slipped, like a washed-up diva listening endlessly to her old recordings. 

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Hamilton
© Theo Wargo/WireImage/Getty images

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DURING THE '80s  and even through the ’90s, the new American musical struggled to find traction, even in the years when Sondheim—the last of the golden-age composer/lyricists, and a bridge to a new generation—was writing some of the most innovative, intricate and thematically rich works of twentieth-century musical theater. It might almost have seemed that Sondheim, whose shows were rarely successful in commercial terms, would be both the apotheosis and the endpoint of the Broadway musical as a vital American art form. By 1995, the Tony nominators could find only two new musicals to put up for a vote—Sunset Boulevard, hardly regarded as the greatest of Lloyd Webber’s achievements, and Smokey Joe’s Café, one of the early harbingers of another decadent trend that would flood Broadway in the 1990s and 2000s—the “jukebox musical,” still with us today.

But there were signs of promise just around the corner. Jonathan Larson’s Rent became a runaway hit in 1996, playing for more than a decade and proving that rock could be tamed to serve character and story. A post-Sondheim generation of composers, writing ambitious musicals with dark themes—Jason Robert Brown (Parade), Michael John LaChiusa (Marie Christine, The Wild Party), Jeanine Tesori (Violet) and Adam Guettel, whose Floyd Collins and Light in the Piazza announced him as a worthy heir to his grandfather, Richard Rodgers—emerged and found support among the cognoscenti. Their work, however, while often accomplished and always ambitious, did not set Broadway afire. But it did keep alive the idea of the Broadway musical as an art form, even if audiences stayed away. 

Meanwhile, several changes coalesced to bring Broadway back some of its former popular mojo. A coalition of forces worked together to clean up the theater district. Disney had introduced young audiences (and their parents) to the classic musical-theater format through the success of the animated movies it began producing around the 1990s. Acknowledging the movies’ roots in the musical-theater form—and eyeing an economic opportunity—the company brought its animated hit Beauty and the Beast to the stage, followed by the smash-hit production of The Lion King that led to the restoration of the New Amsterdam Theater on Forty-second Street. 

Gradually, Broadway was becoming a booming business and a national and international tourist attraction. Most of the shows that were produced during the 1990s and the following decade tended to fall into one of several formulaic categories—staged versions of movies (Hairspray being the best), jukebox musicals, and musicals that spoofed the very idea of musicals (Urinetown, Spamalot and even to some degree Mel Brooks’s hit The Producers). But the increased attention—and dollars—naturally led enterprising producers to test more original material.

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The Lion King
© Joan Marcus

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THE SUCCESS of the television movie High School Musical and later the delightful series Glee, which employed both pop tunes and songs from musicals old and new, made musical theater “hip” again for those who had outgrown the Disney movie years. 

The turning point, or maybe just the time when all these factors began to produce Broadway seasons of greater originality and eclecticism, came in the late 2000s. Spring Awakening, a daring musical adapted from a Frank Wedekind play (he of opera’s Lulu), set to a score by the pop-rock composer Duncan Sheik, took home the Tony for best musical, beating more conventional fare. The following year, Lin-Manuel Miranda burst upon the scene with In the Heights, which combined rap and traditional musical-theater song forms to frame a story of everyday life in Washington Heights. It, too, was a commercial success and took home the Tony Award for best musical. 

The back-to-back success of Spring Awakening and In the Heights was an indication that Broadway, after years of playing it safe, was once again embracing fresh approaches to the musical form, leading to more experimentation on the part of producers in search of new material.

True, revivals have continued to be a big slice of Broadway’s bread and butter; true, too, that many new Broadway musicals continue to hew to the market-tested formulas mentioned above. Nary a season goes by without a trip back to somebody’s jukebox. 

But the past two Tony Awards for new musicals have gone to shows that, even a decade before, would probably have been unthinkable on Broadway. Fun Home, based on Alison Bechdel’s book, was a dark, emotionally knotty show about a lesbian’s relationship with her closeted gay father, with a score by Tesori in the post-Sondheim style, with eclectic musical structures and the occasional touch of pastiche. And while its best musical win was unexpected, more surprising still was the subsequent commercial success. 

And then along came Hamilton. The achievement of Miranda’s rap-inflected, nearly through-sung biography of Alexander Hamilton has brought a blazing spotlight to Broadway like no show in decades. Does it augur a spate of rap musicals? It’s doubtful; talents such as Miranda’s are rare, and unless rap can be smoothly wedded to smart storytelling and rich characters, as it is here, it will be no more likely to succeed on Broadway than any other form of music. Still, its success does suggest that Broadway’s new adventurousness, which has been developing for a decade now, can pay spectacular dividends.

I would not bet big that a new golden age is upon us; today the term arises regularly in reference to television. But the vitality, eclecticism and inclusiveness that have marked the musical in the past several years certainly amount to an inspiriting trend.

Thanks to Hamilton, and to the freshly envisioned shows that preceded it, this protean American art form, one of the few that we can claim as our own, is once again generating national excitement. That can only serve to broaden its appeal and attract gifted artists—new and old—to help shape its future. spacer 

Charles Isherwood has been a theater critic for The New York Times since 2004. He previously served as chief theater critic for Variety 



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