Generally, the first thing that comes to mind when you hear the words “Founding Fathers” is “dead old white guys that I have to learn about for a grade.” But, fortunately for us, Lin-Manuel Miranda isn’t the general public. He took one look at a biography about one of those dead old white guys and thought, “Hey, why the hell hasn’t someone written a musical about this man yet?”
That thought grew into what we know today as a nationwide smash hit.
When Hamilton hit the off-Broadway scene in early 2015, it quickly became clear that this show wasn’t just going to bring history to life on stage—it was going to be making it off stage, too. Since its opening, the show has been breaking records like it’s its job: the pre-performance ticket lottery has hundreds of people lining up at the door every night, the cast album has sat a comfortable twelve weeks on Billboard’s Top 200 chart, and the musical itself is lauded by critics as a theatrical game changer. Everyone is talking about Hamilton, and there’s no indication that they’re going to stop any time soon.
But, really, what is it that makes it so good? How to account for Hamilton’s rapid rise to the top?
Well, the concept itself, for one. The show details the life of the titular character Alexander Hamilton, the man most of us know as the guy on America’s ten dollar bill or, if you took a U.S. History course at any point in your life, the founding father who managed to get himself shot. The musical’s opening number quickly puts an end to that simplistic thinking, introducing Hamilton as a “bastard, orphan, son of a whore” and throwing the audience right into New York City, 1776, where Hamilton has just arrived with the intent of making his mark.
From then on, Hamilton’s narrative is threaded together by a diverse set of musical numbers ranging from fast-paced raps like “Guns and Ships” to jazzy, ragtime tunes like “What’d I Miss” to powerful ballads like “Burn.” The show’s discography is, frankly put, killer. Creator Lin-Manuel Miranda draws inspiration from several different genres to give his musical a completely unique sound, the likes of which have never been heard on Broadway before. Hip-hop, rap, and R&B are the dominating forces in Hamilton, and they serve to add an undertone of youth that we generally don’t associate with America’s founders. These musical roots weave through the story and remind us that the American Revolution wasn’t really led by old men; it was led by “young, scrappy, and hungry” people like the 19-year-old Hamilton we see during the play’s opening number.
Reclaiming history is precisely what makes Hamilton so special. In what some call a bold (and I call a “fucking finally”) move, Miranda has assembled a cast of primarily black and brown leads to bring the show to life every night—a cast that has become a countrywide sensation. Alexander Hamilton is played by Miranda himself, who is of Latino descent (as are understudies Javier Muñoz and Jon Rua). Leslie Odom Jr. plays Hamilton’s smooth-talking rival, Aaron Burr. Elizabeth Hamilton is given a heart-wrenching portrayal by Chinese-American Phillipa Soo. Reneé Elise Goldsberry plays the quick-witted Angelica Schuyler. Anthony Ramos plays the spirited John Laurens and bright-eyed Philip Hamilton. Christopher Jackson plays a powerful George Washington. Daveed Diggs plays fast-rapping Lafayette and Thomas Jefferson. Okieriete Onaodowan plays the loud Hercules Mulligan and the mild-mannered James Madison. And that’s only a fraction of the multiracial men and women that take the stage every night. As Miranda puts it, “this is a story about America then, told by America now,” and it’s made all the more delightful for it.
Hamilton is bigger than a story about a single man’s life, no matter how interesting that man happens to be. It’s not just about Alexander Hamilton—he is the lens through which we get to view a fledgling America. Lin-Manuel Miranda commandeers this lens in order to remind the audience that America was born off the backs of young rebels with a cause, a label that many of today’s youth can relate and identify with. Hamilton is, ultimately, a celebration of what America should be: a vibrant, inclusive country full of passionate people with their hearts set on leaving behind a worthwhile legacy.