'Hamilton' effect: Do musicals matter again?

The massive success of 'Hamilton' comes as the Broadway musical is enjoying one of its most creative periods in decades.

Joan Marcus/The Public Theater/AP
A scene from 'Hamilton'

Every few years, a musical comes along that delights critics and sells out for months on end. In 2010 it was “The Book of Mormon; before that it was “The Producers,” and “Rent” before that. 

The phenomenon of “Hamilton,” the hip-hop musical about the life of America’s first Treasury secretary, goes well beyond its endless string of sold-out shows, however. The long list of luminaries who have flocked to see the production ranges from the president (twice) to Eminem and Beyoncé. The original cast recording topped Billboard’s rap chart. 

Even so, that outsize success comes as the Broadway musical, which registers on the cultural radar as little more than a Disney-subsidized distraction for New York tourists in its more fallow periods, is enjoying one of its most creative periods in decades. It’s catching up with the rest of pop culture in terms of both content and form. 

Last year’s hit “Fun Home,” for example, was the first Broadway show to mine a graphic novel (Alison Bechdel’s autobiographical comic of the same name) as its source material. A wide array of popular artists, from Sting to U2 and Regina Spektor, have tried their hand at the genre in recent years, and shows like “Once” in 2011 contain songs fit for a radio playlist. 

Broadway is adapting to modern music consumption habits as well. Ahead of the Broadway debut of her musical “Waitress” next month, composer and pop artist Sara Bareilles recorded and released most of the show’s songs as singles, and then as a full studio album in November. It’s a throwback, of sorts, to when songs from “Godspell” and “Hair” were Top 40 hits. 

“Hamilton” is a big part of that. It isn’t regarded as just a good rap musical; it’s regarded as good rap. Cast members even performed in a BET Cypher last fall, an honor typically reserved for hip hop’s buzziest up-and-coming artists. That, more than anything, is the hope this new slate of musicals offers for the future of the art form: that the best will be celebrated not just as great musicals, but as great music.

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