Broadway has never seen anything like Hamilton.
The rap and hip-hop musical about the life and death of Alexander Hamilton, an up-from-poverty orphan and immigrant from the Caribbean who rose to prominence in the Revolutionary War, championed the U.S. Constitution and became the first U.S. treasury secretary, snagged a record 16 Tony Award nominations and walked off with 11 trophies.
Theatergoers — most of whom, as children, memorized facts about the Founding Fathers from textbooks — are learning new lessons. Actors of color play all the major roles in Hamilton. (The Founding Fathers, in fact, were white. Some were slaveholders. None were rappers.)
But a lot has changed since the formation of the U.S. As writer, composer and star Lin-Manuel Miranda, the son of Puerto Ricans, puts it, “Our cast looks like America.”
Tickets are nearly impossible to get unless you’re among the 20,000 students attending for $10 as part of American history classes. The Rockefeller Foundation underwrites those tickets for schools that themselves have been selected for diversity. (Theater buffs are paying much, much more.)
In Hamilton the Revolution, a book combining the script with the story of the musical’s creation, co-author Jeremy McCarter writes that the play’s success “alters who gets to tell the story of our founders [and] lets us glimpse the new, more diverse America rushing our way.”
Hamilton is not Broadway’s only showcase for diversity. Fourteen of 40 Tony nominations went to African-American, Hispanic or Asian-American actors. Four actors of color swept the top musical awards, including three from Hamilton.
The Mexican-born Kenyan actress Lupita Nyong’o, nominated for Eclipsed, a drama about women struggling to survive Liberia’s civil war, told the Washington Post, “I look out at the diverse audiences who come … and feel proud of being a part of sharing this important story with the world.”
A revival of the rock musical Spring Awakening, featuring Oscar winner Marlee Matlin and other deaf actors who sign their parts, garnered three Tony nominations. (The casting of Ali Stroker, a paralyzed actor who uses a wheelchair, is a Broadway first.)
The diversity in drama contrasts with the state of the film industry, which recently gave top Oscar nominations only to white actors, prompting a boycott and scorn on social media. The Tony announcement was trumpeted by Variety, the show-business newspaper, with a not-so-subtle swipe at Hollywood.
Hamilton won 11 prizes in the 13 categories for which it was nominated, falling one short of the record dozen captured by The Producers in 2001. Miranda won two Tonys for writing the music and lyrics as well as the story. But in the contest for best actor, his character was once again defeated by that of Vice President Aaron Burr, the bitter rival who killed Hamilton in a duel. Co-star Leslie Odom Jr. took home that prize.