The cast of the Broadway show Hamilton at the Grammys

MUSIC

So what is this Hamilton thing actually all about?

Caroline O'Donoghue analyses the hype behind the most-hyped musical of all time

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By Caroline O'Donoghue on

Time moves differently in musical theatre – have you ever noticed? Almost all musicals take about 20 years to pass into common parlance, primarily because it takes a helluva long time for a million people to go see a show, make a movie about it and let the soundtracks trickle down into every home in the world. 

Which is why, when we talk about great musicals, it all seems a little dated. Oliver!, Annie and The Sound Of Music are all senior citizens, while Rocky Horror reaches a comfortable middle age. There is no such thing as an overnight success in showbusiness, but nowhere is this truer than in musical theatre. The most "modern" musical I can think of is Rent, a musical about the 90s that now feels like a history lesson.

And along comes Hamilton. The musical, based around the life of Alexander Hamilton, has been touring since early last year and has already become a global phenomenon. It's a favourite of Barack Obama's and the cast album has topped the rap charts as well as winning the Grammy for Best Musical Theatre Album. Just yesterday, Hamilton made the ultimate leap from flavour of the month to cultural icon when it won the Pulitzer for drama. 

So, what's it all about, Alfie? Let me try to explain. 

1. It's so much more than a "hip-hopera"

Hamilton began when the show's creator, Lin-Manuel Miranda, picked up a copy of Ron Chernow's biography on Alexander Hamilton. Immediately, Miranda began envisioning Hamilton's story as a rap album, pronouncing it the ultimate rags-to-riches street story. Hamilton is a "bastard, orphan, son-of-a-whore and a Scotsman, dropped in the middle of a forgotten spot in the Caribbean" who grew up to be the "ten dollar founding father" and the creator the American financial system. 

Using rap and hip-hop to tell Hamilton's story wasn't merely a gimmick to attract a young audience, but an essential component in communicating Alexander Hamilton's youth, intelligence and status in the world. Like many of the rappers Miranda based his music on, Hamilton is "another immigrant coming up from the bottom". 

2. It's letting non-white America feel a part of their own history

In a country where 13 per cent of Americans are African American, and Hispanic/Latino groups make up a further 17 per cent, it's hard to imagine feeling connected with your own history in modern America. After all, the founding fathers were all white and descendants of Europeans. How are you supposed to feel a twinge of national pride when no one in your much-lauded history looks a thing like you? 

This is a huge part of why Hamilton has become such a sensation. In casting black, Hispanic and Asian actors in virtually all of its roles (with the exception of the white King George), it's a statement that shouts two words, over and over, from its place on the Richard Rodgers Theater: us too. We are a part of this country, we are a part of this history and we matter.  

3. Almost none of Hamilton's die-hard fans have actually seen the show

Let me confess something: it is not unusual for my friend Tash and I to send each other videos over WhatsApp of us performing Hamilton to each other. I usually play Hercules Mulligan, the Irish-born tailor who spied on the British government, and I play him with a bandana tied over my forehead, Rambo-style, and an eyeliner moustache. Tash likes to play George Washington and her costume is a sailor's hat tied to her head with a belt.  

Here's the kicker: because Hamilton has only been around for a year, and because it is now sold out from now until well after I'm dead, almost none of Hamilton's fans have actually seen Hamilton. The fandom lives through the impeccably catchy cast album, through tiny clips of the show that have leaked online, and through countless Tumblr pages and annotated lyrics. Fans only have a vague idea of the staging, and just a couple of glimpses of the costumes – most of which are fairly identical to a Les Misérables outfit. 

And, somehow, this all works to its advantage. It's allowed fans to fill in the gaps themselves. Fan fiction is rife and Hogwarts/Hamilton crossover fiction is very much A Thing. Because comparatively few people have actually seen the show, it belongs to all us and we're allowed do what we want with it. 

4. It is resolutely, and unreservedly, feminist

Hamilton is a musical about the founding of America and, while the casting may be racially diverse, the information within the plot is historically accurate. Which is a long way of saying: it can't make up women who weren't there. Miranda doesn't invent a Wonder Woman for the sake of gender parity, because the founding of America did not include Betsy Ross with an invisible jet. What Hamilton does do is focus on the women who were there, if not in the battlefield then in the homes, hearts and lives of its men. Enter Eliza and Angelica Schuyler, the sisters who are at the heart and soul of the show. 

The first moment we meet Angelica Schuyler, she is scouring the streets of New York, "looking for a mind at work". When confronted with the flirtatious, rebellious men of Hamilton's pack, she retorts:

You want a revolution? I want a revelation. 
So listen to my declaration
We hold these truths to be self-evident 
That all men are created equal
And when I meet Thomas Jefferson, I'mma compel him to include women in the sequel (WORK!)

Angelica is, as Miranda often says, the smartest person in the show. Able to conclude other people's intentions merely by looking at them, her mind constantly assessing those around her. Her sister, Eliza, meanwhile, is of a softer nature – a loving, honest woman who marries Hamilton despite his emotional neglect and philandering ways. But Eliza isn't a wisp either – she's an emotionally complex, highly respected character whose strength hinges the bombastic show together. 

5. Look, it's just really catchy 

I'll level with you. Even if you hate musical theatre, even if you don't care about the social and political reasons that Hamilton is a seminal piece of American culture, the songs are just really, really, really good. With musical influences that range from Beyoncé (listen to "Helpless") to The Beatles (listen to "You'll Be Back", a break-up letter from England to America), it's tremendously likeable. There are heartbreaking arias and high-energy rap battles and power ballads that I guarantee you will end up working out to. Just trust me on this one, OK? 

@czaroline
 

The cast of the Broadway show Hamilton at the Grammys
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