What made ‘Hamilton’ such a monster hit?

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“Hamilton” was nobody’s idea of a box-office bonanza.

When you consider the elevator pitch, it’s lucky to have been staged at all:

Imagine a musical based on a wordy biography about one of America’s less well-known founding fathers, an immigrant whose career high was serving as Treasury secretary. The score will include a lot of rap music, and performers of color will play most of the major roles. We’ll cover many arcane historical events. There are no singing cats, no levitating mansions or falling chandeliers, and no stars in the cast.

Yet as we all know, “Hamilton,” which begins previews next week at the Hollywood Pantages Theatre before officially opening Aug. 16, has turned into a full-blown cultural phenomenon since its 2015 Broadway premiere. It has worked its way into conversations far beyond the world of theater. In the past half century, only a handful of shows — “Hair,” “A Chorus Line,” “Rent,” “The Book of Mormon” and arguably one or two others — seem to have come out of nowhere to surf the spirit of the moment and attract vast new audiences, many of whom have never seen a Broadway musical before.

That list is remarkable not only for its brevity, but its diversity; on the surface, none of these shows have much in common. That begs the question: Is there a crucial element or quality that all dark horse musicals share?

The most obvious common trait among surprise-hit Broadway shows is that they confound our expectations about the genre, said Jack Viertel, senior vice president of Jucamcyn Theaters in New York and author of “The Secret Life of the American Musical.” “I think people have a very traditional conception of what a musical is, and some people think it has nothing to do with their interests: ‘I’m cooler than that. I’m hipper than musical theater.’”

A breakthrough musical defies those rules and appeals to nontraditional audiences in unexpected ways, Viertel says. “For example, ‘Hamilton’ really broke the diversity barrier. That was huge, and that’s going to change how shows are cast and who gets into the business and why.”

• Related Story: How ‘Hamilton’ measures up to the greatest Broadway shows

Another common characteristic of dark horse musicals is their ability to resonate strongly with trends and events that are grabbing headlines and flooding social media.


“‘Hamilton’ really locked into the zeitgeist of our current times,” said Douglas C. Baker, producing director of Center Theatre Group in Los Angeles. “We’re in this very particular sociopolitical climate right now. There’s a great deal of discussion about immigrants in America; ‘Hamilton’ captures that — the issues of immigration and assimilation.”

Timeliness is certainly a trait of many of the musicals on the dark horse list. “Hair” dealt with the long national trauma of Vietnam, which dominated the news when the show premiered in 1968. “Rent” looked at the devastating effect of AIDS in the mid-1990s, a time when it was still a death sentence.

“Hamilton” also rode a bow wave of presidential approval and a related social media frenzy that began well before its premiere. “Hamilton” creator Lin-Manuel Miranda performed what would become the show’s opening number at the White House’s first Evening of Poetry, Music, and the Spoken Word in 2009. The Obamas loved it, and a YouTube video of the event went viral.

The confluence of artist, subject and president just seemed so right. “I dare you to watch the video … and not get a chill from the sight of a son of an immigrant rapping about the son of an immigrant to a son of an immigrant who became America’s first African-American president,” Vogue theater critic Adam Green wrote of Miranda’s White House performance.

The most masterful aspect of “Hamilton,” and something that makes it unique on this list, is its dexterous combination of musical styles. Miranda proved in works such as “In the Heights” that he can effortlessly commingle traditional musical theater styles with many other worlds. In “Hamilton,” Miranda takes that integration to new realms, interweaving hip-hop, torch ballads, Sondheim, even touches of Andrew Lloyd Webber and Gilbert and Sullivan in a pastiche that simultaneously honors traditions and emphatically explodes their boundaries.

Theodore S. Chapin, president of the Rodgers & Hammerstein Organization, acknowledged “Hamilton’s” iconoclastic qualities. “It takes the rules and shifts them. It’s historical but modern. This is a guy who knows rap and knows Stephen Sondheim, and (integrating those styles) is the step no one has taken yet.”

Secretly traditional

Despite its well-deserved reputation as a ground-breaking musical, “Hamilton” obeys many of the traditional rules of the form, Viertel said.

“I think ‘Hamilton’ has all of the features of a classical musical, even though stylistically it’s not like that. It has a hero who has forces arrayed against him; a romance that’s easily threatened; an ‘I want’ song in the first act; a tent-pole song. It does everything a good musical is supposed to do.”

For that reason, “Hamilton” has the ability to pull in traditional musical-theater audiences as well as those who would otherwise never be caught dead inside a darkened hall watching actors sing and dance.

“I think it has attracted the kind of avid theatergoer (who is) predisposed to seeing new kinds of musical styles and new modes of storytelling,” Baker said. “At the same time, it’s bringing pop-culture and pop-music consumers into the theater. ‘Rent’ was able to do that, too.”

“Hamilton’s” use of rap as a form of expression for historically based characters reminds Baker of the approach taken by another dark horse musical, “Avenue Q,” in which “Sesame Street”-style puppets tackled very non-“Sesame Street” issues such as masturbation and racism.

“‘Avenue Q’ was smart in that it took something that was very familiar to a certain generation and turned that on its head. ‘Hamilton’ also presented something familiar to a certain generation, hip-hop (culture), but used it in a new way.”

Baker thinks there’s a good chance that groundbreaking musicals will become more than a once-per-generation phenomenon. Traditionally, many successful Broadway creative artists were mid-career or even older, Baker said. “But so many new musicals are written by younger people now.” Miranda is in his 30s; so are Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, the composers of the latest Broadway hit and, arguably, the newest member of the Dark Horse club, “Dear Evan Hansen.” “I think younger artists can tap into popular culture in a very insightful way and connect (disparate) things almost innately,” Baker said.

Viertel predicts another post-“Hamilton” trend: a rash of hip-hop musicals. Despite some notable recent failures (“Holler if Ya Hear Me,” which featured music and lyrics by Tupac Shakur, was a flop when it bowed on Broadway in 2014), others will be emboldened by Miranda’s success.

“I don’t think (hip-hop) is going away on Broadway,” Viertel said. “On the other hand, I don’t think you’re going to see 10 of them next year. It’s a very particular language that will have its day.”

But regardless of its future, the breakthrough of rap music as a successful musical-theater style makes a bigger point, Viertel said. “I think what ‘Hamilton’ proved is that a lot of languages can coexist on Broadway.”

If you go

What: ‘Hamilton’

Where: Pantages Theatre, 6233 Hollywood Blvd., Los Angeles

When: Aug. 11-Dec. 30. 8 p.m. Tuesday-Friday, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturday, 1 and 7 p.m. Sunday

How much: $85-$750

Call: 800-982-2787

Online: www.hollywoodpantages.com

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