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What those 11 Tony Awards for ‘Hamilton’ mean for Broadway and the art of theater

June 13, 2016

“Hamilton,” Lin-Manuel Miranda’s landmark musical about Founding Father Alexander Hamilton, had its coronation Sunday at the 70th Tony Awards. As expected, the show won for best musical, capping a triumphant season that seized the attention not just of Broadway but of the entire nation.

The ceremony, which was held at New York’s Beacon Theatre, was muted by the devastating attack at a gay nightclub in Orlando, Fla. Host James Corden prefaced the evening with an expression of sympathy for all “affected by this atrocity.” 

He went on to affirm the theater as “a place where every race, creed, sexuality and gender is equal, is embraced and is loved.” References to the tragedy were contained, but Miranda, in accepting the award for best original score, addressed the heart of the matter in a sonnet he wrote for his wife that reminded everyone that “love is love is love is love” and “cannot be killed or swept aside.”

A beacon of diversity, “Hamilton” was the right recipient of adulation on this somber night. The musical deploys the language of hip-hop to interpret America’s founding as an immigrant tale. The historical roles — all those illustrious freedom fighters we first encountered in our social studies textbooks — are performed by actors of color.

This has made “Hamilton” unique among Broadway blockbusters in its potential to move beyond theater’s traditional white, older and well-heeled demographic. By contrast, “The Book of Mormon” and “The Producers,” to cite two other runaway successes of the new millennium, helped make popular musicals a luxury goods item for the expense account set.

“Hamilton” picked up 11 awards, falling just short of the record for a musical of 12 Tonys held by “The Producers.” History was nonetheless made this Broadway season by a show that broke out of the theater bubble to become a cross-discipline sensation.

Since “Hamilton” opened in August at the Richard Rodgers Theatre to hosannas from all quarters, the cultural world has been divided into two camps: Those who through connections or credit card munificence or quick action were able to score a ticket and those who are still waiting to get their shot.

This was by any reckoning an extraordinary year for Broadway. Its cultural visibility, thanks in no small measure to the cool cred of “Hamilton,” is greater than ever. New York’s theater district has become a magnet not just for crowds but for big money. According to the Broadway League, this was the best attended and highest grossing season in Broadway history.

But like the economic picture of the country in general, Broadway reflects a growing divide. There are the megahits (the one-percent, if you will) and then there’s the long list of shows struggling for solvency. The old saying that you can make a killing but not a living in the theater has never seemed more apt.

Visionary producers like Scott Rudin (who shepherded Stephen Karam’s “The Humans,” two Arthur Miller revivals by the envelope-pushing European auteur Ivo van Hove and the unnerving drama “Blackbird,” among other productions, to Broadway this season) and Oskar Eustis (the artistic director of the Public Theater, which helped launch to Broadway last year’s Tony winner “Fun Home” as well as this season’s “Hamilton” and the Tony-nominated drama “Eclipsed”) are not only fighting the good fight, but they’re scoring impressive victories.

Musicals with marketing hooks and plays with big-name stars are still the safest bets. Yet this season was unique in that four of the dramas in contention for best play were by writers younger than 40, none of whom was particularly well known.

The winner, Karam’s “The Humans,” dramatizes the emotional fallout of growing middle-class insecurity on family members fumbling to make sense of their lives after the American dream has faded. Broadway itself, however, is still caught in the cliffhanger of another economic story line — that of an art form trying to move into the future without being neutralized by commercial interests.

This is why the excitement over “Hamilton” is so vital. The show has the potential to be a game-changer, lighting a path that leads from diversity on the stage to diversity in the audience.

Sure, the news that the price of premium tickets was being jacked up to $849 as a way of dealing with the skyrocketing scalper market only solidified the sense that Broadway is the plaything of the ultra-rich. But “Hamilton” makes available $10 tickets for each performance through a lottery. And underway is a program, financed by the Rockefeller Foundation and the show’s producers, to bring 20,000 New York City high school students to matinees.

This is a money-printing juggernaut with a conscience — one that recognizes that the cultivation of a new generation of theatergoers must be part of the producing vision if Broadway is to survive as something more than a fat-cat commodity.

“Hamilton” has received an avalanche of press and I’ll admit that I’m nearly tapped out of praise. But it’s inspiring to see artistic innovation not only validated by the Tonys but embraced on such a popular scale.

Broadway has become reliant on tourism, but tourists don’t flock to New York for generic glitz and empty spectacle. They want what the theater can uniquely provide — a public confrontation with the cultural pulse, the gathering of marginal voices into a mainstream choir, virtuosity marshaled for a greater purpose.

Old hat is a losing business model, the mercenary pursuit of a dwindling tribe. Yes, even the classics need to be served with fresh inspiration, as the innovative productions of Miller’s “A View From the Bridge” and “The Crucible” attest. Not only did van Hove win for his direction of “A View From the Bridge” but this daring production — a rejuvenating feat of deconstruction  — won for best revival.  

A healthy art form shouldn’t have to rely on blockbusters. The movie business’ tent-pole strategy might work for studio shareholders, but it has driven serious adult drama to the small screen. Similarly, the zombie march of jukebox musicals and star vehicles threatened to banish more ambitious theatrical pursuits from Broadway.

Grand successes like “Hamilton” prove that art and commerce can join hands for their mutual benefit. More important, this once-in-a-generation hit reminds us that Broadway thrives when its soul is attended to.

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