Tuesday, April 5, 2016

History is Happening in Manhattan

Last week in class, we briefly noted that, for the most part, Broadway musicals tend to have a pretty high rate of failure and a pretty low rate of reaching phenomenal success. Even when a musical is considered a commercial and critical success, it's pretty rare that it becomes popular or well-known outside of the niche area of musical theatre (you probably haven't heard of last year's Tony Award winner for Best Musical Fun Home unless you're already into Broadway, for example). Even among more widely popular musicals, many are either popular by their sheer longevity (Wicked, Phantom of the Opera, etc.) or because they were almost guaranteed to be successes (e.g. The Lion King for being based on a wildly successful movie or Book of Mormon for being written by the creators of South Park), and few musicals become immediately culturally relevant on their own. One musical is starting to break that mold.

In the first week it went on sale, the soundtrack for the Broadway musical Hamilton debuted at no. 12, the highest debut for a cast recording in over 50 years, and has been sold out for almost the entirety of its run since it opened on Broadway in October 2015. In addition to its wild commercial success, Hamilton also breaks the mold in its content: the cast is almost entirely comprised of black and Latin@ actors despite being about the founding fathers of the United States, so that the play is "America now, telling the story of America." Additionally, the show's music is almost entirely comprised of hip-hop and rap songs, breaking the norms of more "traditional" show-tunes and rock ballads that seem to saturate Broadway today. So who's behind this ground-breaking rap musical about Alexander Hamilton? That would be playwright and lyricist Lin-Manuel Miranda, who also stars as the title character in the show.

Miranda grew up in a primarily Puerto Rican neighborhood in northern Manhattan (though he frequently visited his grandmother in Puerto Rico during summers), and as a theatre major at Wesleyan University, he helped found a hip-hop comedy troupe and wrote, directed, and acted in several musicals. After his graduation, he worked for several years on his first Broadway musical In The Heights, which went on to win a Tony Award for Best Musical. His work on all of these projects over the years helped to lead him to a sort of "domain expertise" that Simonton describes as one possible approach to understanding creative geniuses, laying the groundwork for the creativity that would lead to Hamilton.

While in the airport about to leave for a vacation from acting in In The Heights in 2008, around 10 years after his freshman year of college, Miranda decided to purchase a copy of Ron Chernow's comprehensive biography of Alexander Hamilton to read while away. After quickly finishing it, he immediately began work on developing the musical adaptation that would become Hamilton. Drawing again upon Simonton's explanation of the domain expertise
Lin-Manuel Miranda reading Alexander Hamilton on
that fateful vacation
approach, education and experience needs to develop over at least a ten-year period before one can be considered enough of an "expert" for the fruits of genius creativity to truly be developed. Though Miranda wrote and worked on many shows in college and achieved success with In the Heights, it was not until he had been seriously working in theatre for 10 years that he was able to create a show like Hamilton that has already become so culturally relevant in its six-month run thus far.


Works Cited
Simonton, Dean Keith. Genius, creativity, and leadership: Historiometric inquiries. IUniverse, 1999.


  1. Now I want to see this show! It's so cool to hear about Black and Latino actors in lead roles, especially in an American history musical. This definitely defies stereotypes. And you make good points about Miranda's creative process-like peaking after ten years, and that his inspiration was a book he bought at an airport. Interesting!

  2. I have to say, the music is a refreshing change of pace from what has been the standard "Showtune" style of music that seems to have been stagnate since the major works of Andrew Lloyd Weber and Steven Schwartz. Plus, rap and hip-hop is such an excellent medium for storytelling

  3. Thanks for sharing, Abbey! I am a big fan of the 'Hamilton' soundtrack but didn't know that Hamilton has been such a long-time work in progress. Miranda's experience definitely affirms what we talked about in class incubation of ideas and development of expertise. Thanks for sharing!

  4. This was awesome to read about! I am a huge fan of the "Hamilton" soundtrack, and I loved learning about how the musical came to be. Miranda's journey to creating such a popular musical is interesting. I never would have thought that Alexander Hamilton's life could have become a musical, but that just proves that creative minds view things differently than everyone else.


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