The Boombox Musical

by Richard Morgan


When a fire destroyed the New York Academy of Music, a suddenly homeless Parisian dance troupe improvised a partnership with an American play. On September 12, 1866, this joint venture, a show called The Black Crook, opened at Broadway’s thirty-two-hundred-seat Niblo’s Garden theater. It broke all the rules: Not only was it five hours long, but it made no distinction between actors and singers and dancers; they all did a bit of everything. It was the first venture into true musical theater and it succeeded wildly, going on for a record-breaking four hundred and seventy-four performances and hauling in a record-breaking million dollars. There were national tours, revivals, and a 1916 movie.

A hundred and fifty years later, a new kind of rule-bending musical is debuting on Broadway, six years after being created as a White House skit. Hamilton, by the thirty-five-year-old oft-goateed Tony-winning wunderkind playwright Lin-Manuel Miranda, is a period-piece retelling of the life of Alexander Hamilton as a hip-hop tragic hero. Miranda, a Puerto Rican, has cast himself in the role of Hamilton; Leslie Odom Jr., an African-American actor, as Aaron Burr; Daveed Diggs, also black, as Thomas Jefferson; and Christopher Jackson, who starred in Miranda’s breakthrough Spanglish musical In The Heights, as George Washington.

Last season, Jackson starred in another hip-hop Broadway play, Holler If Ya Hear Me, the Tupac Shakur jukebox musical (an industry term for musicals like ABBA’s Mamma Mia, Billy Joel’s Movin’ Out, or The Four Seasons’ Jersey Boys, where the soundtrack is composed of previously released music and often comes from a single artist or band) which was widely panned and shuttered after just seventeen previews and thirty-eight performances. “Can you really call it a jukebox musical when it’s Tupac?” Miranda asked me last spring, after a special showing of the movie The Warriors he had put on far, far uptown, at the United Palace. “We need a better word for that, don’t we? Something like a boombox musical.”

Hamilton, which closed a sold out off-Broadway run this spring, may be that boombox musical: Held up as a cure for Broadway’s racial and cultural problems, it has transfixed the largely white Broadway community and its acolytes with less subtlety even than this year’s Academy Awards, which made a performance out of Selma being its centerpiece despite having the whitest nomination list since 1998. From a recording studio in the Heights, Diggs told the Wall Street Journal this week: “It’s sort of ridiculous that it has taken so long for a musical that honors rap music appropriately to come to Broadway. Musicals in the 1920s and 1930s played jazz music. It is odd that musicals in the later part of the 2010s still sound like musicals from the 1960s.” When I asked him about Hamilton’s appeal, he was more politic: “Lin just wrote something we feel really comfortable performing.”

Miranda’s publicist, Charlie Guadano of Sunshine Sachs, declined interview requests, citing an exclusivity agreement with the New York Times, which kicked off its self-described “coronation” of Miranda as the very model of a modern major everything by declaring that “the crucible of American popular theater was the minstrel stage, where white actors blacked up to perform racist caricatures of African-Americans. Hamilton flips minstrelsy on its head.”

The upcoming Broadway season is otherwise about as culturally bold as letting Madonna do the Super Bowl halftime show in her fading fifties instead of her roaring twenties: The Color Purple, The Gin Game, The Wiz, a rumored Do The Right Thing musical. Yes, Taye Diggs is a transsexual East German. And, sure, Shuffle Along stars Audra McDonald, a black actress who holds the record for Tony wins (six!) for a performer. But they are tucked among a revival of Fiddler On The Roof and a play about Prince Charles as king. There’s truth, of course, to the idea that Hamilton is Broadway’s Barack Obama moment — a no-turning-back watershed of cross-culturalism, multi-culturalism, culture in the broadest brashest ballistic sense — but it’s equally true that Hamilton might just be the Tiger Woods of the Great White Way, the Fresh Prince of Broadway. Meanwhile, London theater arguably has been color-blind about its historical casting since 2000, when the Royal Shakespeare Company cast David Oyelowo as King Henry VI; it’s been done.

Four years after the New York Times first reported on a “gay cancer,” playwright Larry Kramer debuted his invective off-Broadway AIDS play The Normal Heart. Three years after Trayvon Martin triggered a new national consciousness about black lives mattering, where are the #blacklivesmatter plays and musicals? Shakur, who has been dead since 1996, was Broadway’s only credited African-American writer last season (ignoring the seven-day run of the combined Four Tops and Temptations concert). There is a bracing, renegade puckishness to Hamilton, but there is also an almost-camp winking whimsy to gangsta rap proffered by men in cravats and spatterdashes. It’s reminiscent of how often West Side Story’s jaunty “America” gets performed by orchestras and marching bands every Fourth of July — without, of course, the song’s jarring lyrics.

In June, at his annual Decades Ball, a fundraiser for Lapham’s Quarterly, Lewis Lapham feted the seventeen eighties and in doing so solicited a telling snippet of Hamilton. Nibbling on smoked pheasant turnovers with warm celeriac and brandy-infused cherry slaw, and quaffing cocktails of gin and violet liqueur, the five-hundred-dollar-a-plate attendees were treated to one of Hamilton’s only non-rap moments: a song performed by Glee’s Jonathan Groff in his role as King George III, a bait-and-switch of Shining proportions. The crowd — skewing as old and white and rich as that at any Broadway show, if not more so — loved it. It was like applauding Barack Obama on Election Night 2008 for his fine taste in his Hart Schaffner Marx hand-cut suit.

Like Silicon Valley or Hollywood — which contractually obligates Spider-Man to be white even as the actual Spider-Man comic book makes him Blatino — Broadway is so rich with white money that it doesn’t need young people or people of color or poor people to survive. Broadway is so white and so whitewashed that Clybourne Park, a play about racial tension over decades, was celebrated for its set design. Broadway is whiter than the Supreme Court, whiter than Harvard University’s student body, whiter than all of France. Its audience — mostly forty-four-year-old white women with a household income of more than two hundred thousand dollars — is twice as likely to be white as the average NBA fan. It can seem like the only black people regularly attending Broadway shows are the Obamas themselves — who have seen Joe Turner’s Come And Gone, A Raisin In The Sun, and, yes, Hamilton. Broadway is otherwise largely the worst sense of black box theater, about as authentic to the modern black experience as, say, Blair Underwood on L.A. Law or Diahann Carroll on Dynasty or Franklin in Peanuts or the entirety of Good Times. It’s no wonder, then, that Hamilton is being championed as a breakthrough moment.

Touching on Broadway’s safety-first, franchise-driven approach to musical theater — Legally Blonde: The Musical, Beaches: The Musical, Groundhog Day: The Musical, American Psycho: The Musical, James Bond: The Musical — Tony-winning composer Jeanine Tesori said in a speech at the Lucille Lortel Awards (the off-Broadway Tonys), “Whenever I think about getting a car, I’m the one saying, ‘Oh! 95 percent of Subarus are still on the road! Maybe we should get a Subaru?’” She added, “Thank God there are those out there proving that musicals can be Maseratis, too. I mean, just look at Hamilton.”

Moments before this year’s Lortels, Miranda greeted me on the red carpet, cheering about “our days uptown.” I asked him again about the Tupac Shakur musical, which had by then been thoroughly eviscerated. “I don’t know their journey,” Miranda said, “but it’s hard to bring hip-hop to Broadway, to bring hip-hop to musicals. Hard to use hip-hop. I love Tupac. I danced to ‘Dear Mama’ at my wedding. And I’m glad they found a way to give his music an audience. But also, guess what? He’s Tupac. The world has already heard his music.”

That analysis came shortly before Hamilton stole the show, sweeping every award for which it had been nominated. The only Hamilton nominations that didn’t win lost out to other Hamilton nominations in their same category. Accepting the Best Musical award, Miranda rapped his acceptance speech, a trick he also pulled at the 2009 Tonys, when he won for In The Heights. “He wrote that on the train,” his father, at an after-party, said of the acceptance speech rap at the Lortels (for the record, George Gershwin composed “Rhapsody in Blue” on a train to Boston). “He’s always doing that,” his mother chimed in, half-proud, half-meh.

Shortly afterwards, Hamilton scored a historic win for Best Musical by the Drama Desk Awards — which don’t distinguish between Broadway and off-Broadway (although an off-Broadway musical hadn’t won since 1983’s Little Shop of Horrors). Hamilton is, in some ways, serving multiple masters — in music, in content, in audience, and, perhaps most importantly on Broadway, in dollars: At the Public Theatre, its off-Broadway home, the show was able to offer ten-dollar lottery tickets (which it’s continuing on Broadway), but for its first preview performance on July 13th, Forbes reported that tickets prices were averaging more than six hundred dollars on the secondary market, with a minimum cost of a hundred and seventy-one dollars. Miranda has brought hip-hop to Broadway in a way that nobody from his neighborhood uptown can afford. “At the Public,” Miranda told me, “there was no stage door. After the show, you walk into the lobby and you see the audience and hear the conversation and feel the energy. You can’t buy that. You can’t fake that. But I’m nervous about bringing that experience to thirteen hundred seats. At the Public, we were kinda hotboxing that shit.”

It’s very early in Hamilton’s theatrical life. But it has a charisma and momentum that defies patience on top of everything else it defies. In that way, its Obama analogy may be truest; people saw a single speech and ached to vaunt a man to the highest office in the land. The worst part of the Miranda-Obama analogy, though, is how both men, talented as they may be, deliver big rushes of excitement only once every four years. They are only human: In 2016, both Obama and Miranda will gather their laurels and exit stage-left. Then what?

Hamilton seems destined for accolades and greatness beyond even Miranda’s wildest dreams. It feels custom-fit to be put on forever and ever and ever by high schools, colleges, and regionals, from now until the end of time. “My man Lin-Manuel Miranda making history in all the right ways,” cheered Pulitzer-winning novelist Junot Díaz (rightfully so) this morning on Facebook, linking to the Times coronation with his own anointing. That’s apt, as Miranda is the Díaz of theater, giving it twenty-first-century teeth.

But Miranda’s crisis is Marie’s Crisis, New York’s venerated singalong piano bar devoted to all things Broadway. On any given night, nearly uniformly white crowds cheerily go through razzle-dazzle ivory-tickling trite-and-true chestnuts from the Broadway canon: Chicago, Les Misérables, Pippin, Rent, and Wicked. But they rarely sing songs from jukebox shows like Mamma Mia or Movin’ Out and, despite its run on Broadway, the arena-rock ballads from Rock of Ages are unspokenly verboten. Is that an atmosphere in which Hamilton can also become canon? Is this crowd — this barometer — going to be spitting Revolutionary War raps in between “Good Morning Baltimore” and “Suddenly Seymour”? That will be the day that the game truly has changed. It’s an uphill fight, but not an impossible one: Just look at the stunning turnaround of that other live performance in town: Saturday Night Live.

Photo from The Public Theater