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Who Lives, Who Dies, Who Tells Your Story: The Legacy of ‘Hamilton’ Five Years Later

"Hamilton" Album Cover.
"Hamilton" Album Cover. By Courtesy of Hamilton the Musical
By Sara Komatsu, Crimson Staff Writer

“Hamilton,” the inimitable and original musical that exploded beyond the Broadway bubble and revolutionized both Broadway and American popular culture as we know it, turned five years old this year. In those years, the show has become one of the most discussed musicals of all time and it is still grossing millions of dollars a week. In light of its success, how do we account for its rise to the top — its incredible, unprecedented, meteoric popularity?

Well, it truly was a revolution like nothing seen on the Broadway stage before: “Hamilton” reanimated a familiar story about the ten-dollar founding father to be new, exciting, and modern. “Hamilton” re-introduced hip-hop and R&B to a Broadway stage, helping rejuvenate a traditional industry for a young, modern audience. The show is almost entirely sung through, meaning it is possible to experience the show through the soundtrack without missing key elements of the narrative — making it accessible to those who can’t afford Broadway’s sky-high ticket price.

But it would be impossible to talk about “Hamilton” without speaking about its creator, Lin Manuel Miranda. The massive success of “Hamilton” conferred upon him the mantle of “genius,” building a platform that he certainly does not take for granted — Miranda often utilizes his voice to mobilize people behind causes such as March for Our Lives or the recent earthquakes in Puerto Rico.

“Hamilton” was not Miranda’s first musical. In 2005, Miranda made his debut with the Tony Award-winning “In the Heights,” a unique and electrifying blend of musical styles with Spanish influence. After these two major successes, there has been little indication that Miranda is writing a new show — instead, he has been working in television, film, and other Broadway shows. It is hard to blame him. To top the astronomical success of “Hamilton” seems near impossible. Perhaps Miranda is destined to be an Orson Welles of Broadway — but as is evident from his near-virtuosic tweets, his genius is both undeniable and active. Whether he produces another musical or not, there is little doubt that any work he produces will be nothing short of brilliant.

“Hamilton”’s revolution was of more than just musical style. One of its most important contributions was putting people of color on Broadway, the “Great White Way.” The sentiment behind the casting is to “take back” the story of the founding of America. Having people of color representing a whitewashed history garnered wild attention and critical acclaim in the moment.

Over time, however, the deluge of praise ebbed in favor of important observations about the musical’s political status.

Beyond the misstep of “Hamilton”’s erasure of slavery from its narrative, academic Patricia Herrera pointed to a possibly damaging consequence of the casting of people of color in the play. “Hamilton may also make it difficult for my daughter, and perhaps other youth, to differentiate Angelica Schuyler, the historical figure and slave owner, from Renee Elise Goldsberry, the African American actress personifying Angelica,” Herrera wrote. Though the insistence on putting people of color on a stage that has historically excluded them is commendable, it may also cause issues by “blurring these historical realities” and potentially confuse young people’s perceptions of history.

In light of this, it is possible that “Hamilton” may go the way of “South Pacific,” the classic Rodgers and Hammerstein musical praised for its progressiveness in 1950 but now widely recognized as having failed to break out of the confines of racist thinking. Ironically, Hamilton quotes South Pacific in “My Shot,” where Burr says “You’ve got to be carefully taught” in reference to a problematic song by that name in “South Pacific.”

So what will be the legacy of “Hamilton” — who will tell its story?

“Hamilton” is an ingenious piece of work, a catalyst for great social dialogue, and has and likely will stand up to the test of time. Five years after its premiere, the musical is a foundational part of culture and dialogue. Recently, John Bolton’s new memoir, highly anticipated for its importance to Trump’s impeachment, was revealed to be titled “The Room Where It Happened” — near-identical to the title of Burr’s climactic song in “Hamilton.” We may look back on it in 50 years with pride or we may cringe, but “Hamilton” has undoubtedly earned its place among the giants of Broadway musicals in history — not as a moment, but as a movement.

-Staff Writer Sara Komatsu can be reached at sara.komatsu@thecrimson.com

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