Lin-Manuel Miranda in his new Broadway musical, ‘Hamilton.’
About a week ago, Oliver Rosenberg, a would-be New York politician, was debating the incumbent House representative Jerrold Nadler on NPR’s Brian Lehrer Show. Rosenberg asserted, “As Alexander Hamilton says, ‘This is not a moment, this is the movement. Foes oppose us. We take an honest stand. We roll like Moses claiming our promised land. Rise up, rise up and vote.’”
Rosenberg, who lost the primary the following day, was wrong. Hamilton never actually said that. It was Lin-Manuel Miranda. But the confusion isn’t surprising. These days, more people can quote Miranda’s record-breaking Broadway sensation Hamilton than any passage from The Federalist Papers.
Broadway hasn’t experienced a phenomenon like Hamilton since . . . well . . . forever. The musical played a sold-out engagement at the Public Theater last year before moving to Broadway. It’s received countless kudos, including 11 Tony Awards (a record surpassed only by The Producers), 7 Drama Desk Awards, the Grammy for Best Musical Theater Album, and the Pulitzer Prize. Miranda was also recognized with a MacArthur Foundation “Genius Grant,” and as one of Time’s “100 Most Influential People.” The show will open in Chicago in September, and 2017 will see a separate U.S. touring company as well as a London production. Pre-opening box office was more than $30 million, and there is no end in sight. When Chicago tickets were released, Ticketmaster patrons waited as long as 45 minutes to choose their seats. Secondary market Broadway tickets run into the thousands; a major presidential candidate is running a fundraising lottery for two of them even as I type. “Yes, but can you get me a ticket to Hamilton?” has become a late-show punch line. And Bravo’s comedy series Odd Mom Out devoted this season’s entire third episode to its hapless heroine’s fruitless machinations to score an elusive ticket.
All of this is excellent news for the theater community in terms of generating much-needed revenue. But Hamilton’s influence reaches far wider than ticket sales. As “the founding father without a father,” Miranda has appeared on magazine covers ranging from Time and Fast Company to Rolling Stone and Billboard. The original cast album was a crossover success, charting on the U.S. Rap list (number 1) and the overall Billboard 200 list (number 3) as well as breaking records for Broadway albums. Teens who wouldn’t normally be caught dead humming musical theater numbers (or thinking about early American history) can rap the entire show word-for-word. Trust me—my daughter is one of them.
And if the show’s theatrical and musical influence weren’t enough, the general adoration has persuaded current Treasury Secretary Jack Lew to keep Hamilton on the $10 bill. Harriet Tubman will instead replace Andrew Jackson on the $20. After all, Jackson isn’t a superstar.
But how much of Alexander Hamilton’s current star status is the result of Miranda’s genius and how much is owed to the genius of Hamilton himself? To answer that I went straight to the source—and Miranda’s inspiration—Ron Chernow’s best-selling Alexander Hamilton.