When President Barack Obama hosted a DNC fundraising concert of “Hamilton” on November 2, it brought the phenom full circle. The hit Broadway musical began as a series of raps that writer-actor Lin-Manuel Miranda performed at the White House under the banner of “The Hamilton Mixtape.” The mixture of Hamilton’s transformative life story and the stars-and-stripes patriotism of the American Revolution, infused with a hip hop vibe, was a perfect match for a president whose administration was seeking that same balance in tone and policy: multicultural, transformative, patriotic, cool.
The rise of Barack Obama and the runaway success of “Hamilton” essentially tell the same story: The standard narratives of the 20th century are not only dead in the water, but waiting to be cracked open by a new group of artists. “Hamilton” uncannily mirrors the early days of the 2008 Barack Obama campaign, when a grassroots surge pushed him past the staid establishment’s pick, Hillary Clinton. Racially homogenous political parties are increasingly uncool, un-American, regressive. The clear message is to evolve or expire, invest in the youth or be left behind. And like the 2008 Obama campaign, “Hamilton” might be both a victor and victim of its own success.
I got my ticket to Hamilton last fall when it was at The Public Theatre, before it secured its record-breaking $14 million advance in Broadway ticket sales. I’m a playwright ensconced in the New York City theater scene, so it was the first and only time I paid more than $40 for a ticket. Something told me I wouldn’t be able to get tickets once the play’s reviews went up. In the run-up to the show, I read the stories about the surge in “Hamilton” fans, heard about how Public Theatre’s ticket hotline and website crashed.
On average I see two to four plays a week, which comes out to more than 100 plays annually. I’m lucky if I see a “change-the-face-of-theater”-type work once every few years. But there was a distinct feeling that this wasn’t just a great musical—it was a cultural shift opening up an entire generation of black and Latino people to an artform from which they had been excluded for much of American history.
At a playwriting conference earlier this year, a well-respected Pulitzer-Prize winning author was talking about the shock of “Hamilton’s” success. This author couldn't believe it and neither could any of the Broadway insiders nodding their heads in response. To them, this “Hamilton” phenomenon seemed random, like a bolt of lightning. To a black man like me, it seemed like a slow and inevitable erosion of their power.
Broadway and musical theater is a very small market in New York City. Geographically its center of gravity is on the east and west side of Central Park. Demographically it’s lily-white and affluent; its median age is in the 50s. Broadway has always been predominantly white and upper class, but 1980s Reaganomics widened the gap even further. Theater tickets, which were once affordable for a middle-class family, became a luxury item that might cost an average worker their entire weekly wage to take their family.
By 1999, “Iceman Cometh” became the third show on Broadway to open with an average price of $100. In 2001, “The Producers” made history when they offered orchestra seats starting at $100. Last year was the first time the average price of any Broadway ticket reached $100. At this point, a theater ticket has a distinct air of exclusivity. Even though most Broadway shows fail, pricing up turns them into a special, elite event.
Marketing theater tickets as luxury items would seem to make sense. Wealthy theatergoers are Broadway’s SuperPAC donors—who wouldn’t be tempted to sell to a rich demographic with a lot of disposable income? It makes the sales pitch so easy when one size fits most.
The problem is, this market is shrinking, and it doesn’t have the same cultural cache as it did 30 years ago, before a huge chunk of the youngest generation was nonwhite and social media-literate. Not to mention that it, predictably, stifles creativity. A group of privileged theatergoers used to hearing “yes” would rather have their views validated than challenged. When people pay hundreds of dollars for a few hours, they don’t like to be surprised. Outside of occasional aesthetic tricks and celebrity guest stars, there isn’t much room for fresh thought.
What ends up happening is that audiences are underwhelmed and annoyed, while artists who once felt like they could make a difference know they’ve sold themselves out to an ungrateful lot. Instead of fulfilling the ambitious goals of their youth, they pander to people who have the most money.
“Hamilton,” like Barack Obama, didn’t completely change the paradigm; the show is inoffensive and highly marketable. But “Hamilton” is rare in that it’s invigorating a now-stodgy art form that often inspires nothing but cynicism. And it’s doing it not by stealing away those old, white theatergoers, but by attracting new ones altogether.
Think of the 2008 Iowa caucus. Hillary Clinton hired the best strategist to capture the Iowa voter. She poured millions into the state, crunched the numbers to determine the odds. And then a young senator from Illinois came along and crushed her. Obama didn't do it by competing for the same old, white voters. He merely opened the market by getting more young people to register. This unaccounted-for segment of the population easily overran Clinton's safe and stable approach.
The key is that Clinton won exactly the share she should have, but failed to account for new voters. Broadway’s blind side continues to be the enormous and growing audience they don't consider. Old habits die hard, even when it makes no business sense. And the shock over "Hamilton" just shows how many atrophied heads are still in the game.
I remember the famous story (apocryphal or not) of how someone was cleaning out the literary office at McCarter Theatre and found a yellowing copy of "Rent" that had initially been submitted to them. This is a musical that has grossed hundreds of millions of dollars; a major institution had first crack at it, but didn't even bother getting around to reading it. McCarter's loss ended up being New York Theater Workshop's astronomical gain. But until McCarter and other theaters realize that not looking at new plays is like throwing away a potential "Rent" every year, the revivals will continue. And so will the disbelief over every new "Hamilton."
I ronically, Hamiltonian's inclusivity is so attractive that it's made the show exclusive. The very audience meant to see the show is once again limited by the price point as tickets have skyrocketed to $500 in some cases. There’s a price to pay for being the biggest hit on Broadway, and apparently it’s half your monthly rent.
While this isn’t the fault of “Hamilton”’s producers, who are simply offering tickets at the price people are willing to pay, it does complicate the show’s sense of cultural and class diversity. Miranda has battled against this problem by offering free sidewalk mini-performances before Wednesday and Saturday shows in Ham4Ham. Similarly, Obama has had to balance relatively sudden success with being accessible to the constituents who voted him into office. Throughout his life as a public figure, Obama has battled claims that he’s both a sellout to the mainstream—and a dangerous, radical foreigner.
I remember the sense of impossibility of what Obama was being asked to do and be for America. After getting a haircut in 2008, my local barber distilled the reason why he wasn’t going to vote for Obama into four words: “They’re gonna kill him.” His unwillingness to support the first black president wasn’t because Obama wasn't worthy or smart enough, but because he feared for his safety. He still believed in white supremacy’s inability to see people of color clearly. There were nods all around the barbershop that spoke to a lifetime of injustice, police brutality, discrimination, and exclusion from normalcy.
Both my mom and I ended up voting for Hillary Clinton in the Florida primary. (It turned out that our vote was merely symbolic: Florida had been stripped of all its delegates because of a rule violation that, once again, highlighted our state’s incompetent electoral process.) Later on, we came around and worked on his campaign, but I can’t help but wonder how much of our reluctance was born out of cowardice—the same assumption of stasis that plagues our theaters. The same expectation of perfection that hinders transformative leaders of both politics and art, even among people like me, who stand to benefit from new paradigms.
Fortunately Lin-Manuel Miranda and Obama decided to ignore naysayers. Neither are perfect, since they’re operating within the framework they’ve been given. But little by little, they’re forcing our nation’s institutions to catch up to a rapidly changing America.
Aurin Squire is a freelance journalist and playwright who lives in New York City. In May he graduated from The Juilliard School and is a staff writer on "Braindead" a new political satire set to premiere on CBS during the political convention-heavy summer. He's also an artist in residence at Brooklyn Arts Exchange and National Black theatre.