Hamilton Making Musicals Mainstream

When Hamilton first came out, it was credited not only for being an entertaining musical, but for representing a shift in American theater. The American musical tradition began as a mainstream genre, a popular form enjoyed by the masses. In the 20th century, the songs that performers were singing on Broadway stages were the same songs that one might hear on the pop radio. Writers like Cole Porter, Rodgers and Hammerstein, and the Gershwins wrote songs for wide consumption. But over the years, the American musical became more of a niche genre, diverging from "pop" music, which became its own separate form. Hamilton, without explicitly seeking to do so, changed this, and is credited by many with bringing musical theater back into the mainstream.

In his review of the musical in The New York Times, critic Ben Brantley credited the musical with changing the course of theater for the better, writing that it is "proof that the American musical is not only surviving but also evolving in ways that should allow it to thrive and transmogrify in years to come." Other critics and fans of the theater echoed this sentiment, saying that it was a refreshing game-changer of a show, and that it successfully blended styles to revitalize a rarefied genre. With the onslaught of positive reviews, people were anxious to get a ticket to the Broadway sensation. What had been a simple (if successful) off-Broadway musical months earlier became the hottest ticket in town. The ticket prices soared and broke records; over the holiday season in 2017, top premium prices hit $1,150.

The musical was perhaps most notable for its use of hip-hop in telling an 18th century story. The blend of modern American popular forms with a historical story pulled people in with its unexpected charm and unlikely pairing. Rapping originated in an African musical tradition, and the contemporary genre of hip-hop that it birthed is distinctly American. In using contemporary American styles to accompany a period piece about the founding of America, creator Lin-Manuel Miranda sought to connect the past with the present, to integrate various images of "America" into a cacophonous, joyful blend. Not only were the songs anomalous to the story, but Miranda also made an effort to cast non-white actors in the roles of white figures from history. This served to further subvert, but also universalize the image of American-ness in the show. By using modern musical genres and reimagining the parameters used for casting, Hamilton reinvigorated a stodgy history lesson that centers around whiteness and classical aesthetics, and showed audiences that the American dream and the ideals of the Founding Fathers had a wider reach.

The musical's unexpected and innovative use of hip-hop seems to be at the center of its overwhelming success and its ability to bring the American musical back into the mainstream. But it was also the show's use of social media to spread the word, and smart financial planning to boost ticket prices, that brought it so much attention. According to an article in The Washington Post, "The show organized an “Influencer Night” during the show’s preview performances. [They] invited executives from Silicon Valley and digital media experts to the show and asked them for feedback and online strategy tips." As a result, dozens of celebrities started attending the show and posting about it as well. In response to the growing success of the musical, ticket sellers strategized ways to boost prices in order to see greater returns.

Hamilton changed the game in many ways. For one, it employed new integration between genres in music and subject matter that enchanted critics and audience members. Additionally, it used marketing, celebrity, and social media to push buzz for the show. Finally, ticket sellers bumped prices to maximize profit. By making sure it reached the right people at the right time, Hamilton's producers made it catch on like wildfire with theater-goers, music lovers, history buffs, Silicon Valley executives, social media influencers, celebrities, the wealthy, and people who thought they didn't like musicals, creating a new model for musical theater growth and success. The musical's crossover appeal, its ability to win over a mass audience, is one of its most notable achievements, especially financially. The soundtrack climbed the Billboard hip-hop charts, debuting at the highest spot for a cast recording since Camelot in 1961. Since it opened, the show has raked in billions of dollars, breaking records and reaching people who might never have cared to see a Broadway musical.