How Hamilton Revolutionized The Broadway Musical–a lecture by John McWhorter


Dr. John McWhorter is Associate Professor of English and Comparative Literature at Columbia University.   He gave a short (12 minute 20 second) lecture in the Great Courses Plus series of lectures offered by the Teaching Company and I wanted to pen a quick note to say that I was impressed on how he compressed his main argument into such a short but powerful talk.

Hamilton bridges the gap between popular music and the music of theater

The music of Hamilton is revolutionary in an odd way, because it is oddly old-fashioned.   The music that the American public would hear in a musical fifty years ago such as Rogers and Hammerstein or the Gershwin brothers a generation earlier would be music that would similar to the popular music coming out of the radio and television.   As celebrated as the musicals of Sondheim might be, there was an increasing gap between the popular music coming from Broadway and modern pop music, to the point that it would be called something else, “show music.”

Rap has become the popular music for young people, and by using that musical style for its songs, Hamilton has become a “rap musical” if you will.   This means it is drawing in a younger audience into the theater who are listening to a story in a musical style that they don’t have to adjust to, and also causing an older audience who appreciate theater to relate to  rap in a way that they would not ordinarily have done.   So it is revolutionary because it is responding musically to a change in demographics in the American population.   Speaking of demographic changes …

Hamilton tells the story of revolutionary America from a revolutionary angle … that of people of color

The story of the Founding Fathers is told from the point of view of people of color, and the white person in it (the King) is the Other, and vaguely sinister.   The fact that this traditional story of our revolutionary origins told from a revolutionary new angle could become a popular hit tells us something about the shifting demographic of our nation.

People of color are not in the margins in this musical–they are front and center.   Twenty years ago, nobody would have been as interested in the story of Hamilton.   But now, people are saying, the fabric of our country has many threads, and we want to trace all of them.   It is not a rejection of the patriotism of an earlier age, it is a widening and deepening of that patriotism by finding other colors stitched into the national fabric.

Hamilton revives the promise of the American Dream

Although it is told in the guise of a fatherless immigrant from the Caribbean who rises to become one of the Founding Fathers, it is popular not just among those could be called Hamilton’s descendants, but all people who go can relate to the story of someone who transcends their origins to create a better life.

Before the Revolution, one of the most privileged of Americans was George Washington, but even he realized that the system was rigged against Virginia planters like himself.   After all, it was a colony of Great Britain, and it was seen by the mother country as a source of wealth to be extracted.   Americans, it turns out, had different ideas about building their own wealth, which is the outline of what might be called the American Dream.

For a generation now, the assumption for baby boomers that the life of their children would automatically be better like it turned out for their parents has often turned to be a disappointment; what if a musical came along and showed that such a life were possible, no matter what your racial or social origins are?   Well, why not?   We’re in a parallel situation to before the Revolution; but rather than colonized by Great Britain, we’re living in an economic situation as if we were being colonized internally.    What if the promise of the American dream, seen through the life of a fatherless immigrant, could spark the same revolutionary spirit today?

After Professor McWhorter’s talk, it made me want to get tickets for Hamilton before it leaves the Chicago area, that’s for sure!

NOTE:   This lecture on Hamilton shows another feature of the Great Courses Plus that is worth keeping the subscription up to date:   they regularly add lectures on topics that are relevant to today’s event’s or even popular culture.

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