On May 12, 2009, four months into the Obama administration, the president and first lady hosted the inaugural Poetry Jam Session at the White House. Among the performers were Lin-Manuel Miranda, who, with his collaborator and accompanist, Alex Lacamoire, premiered what would become the opening number for Hamilton. Introducing the musical exposition of Alexander Hamilton’s journey from Caribbean poverty to New York’s harbor, Miranda described his fledgling idea to write a concept album “about the life of someone I think embodies hip hop: Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton.” In response to the audience’s skeptical, somewhat nervous laughter, Miranda defended his decision, stating that “I believe that he embodies words’ ability to make a difference.”1 By the time Miranda returned to the White House with the show’s cast in the spring of 2016, Hamilton the musical had become a global phenomenon.
This special issue of American Music on music and the stage includes two appearances of Miranda’s paradigm-shifting work. Philip Gentry’s review essay on the Hamilton sensation in its many manifestations uncovers “the complex fluidity of Hamilton’s many texts” and the ways in which these “innovations seem poised to change the future of Broadway.” Hamilton also makes a cameo appearance in Elissa Harbert’s article, which profiles contrasting political attitudes toward 1776, the other enormously successful Broadway show based on the American Revolution, which premiered amidst the tumultuous years of the Vietnam War and the Nixon presidency. Underpinning both productions is the legacy of the Broadway show and the cradle of the modern American songwriting industry, Tin Pan Alley. Based on archival sources from industry insiders, Jane Mathieu’s article reexamines the traditional assignment of the original Tin Pan Alley to 28th Street in midtown Manhattan and offers a [End Page 141] counternarrative for a more fluid and collaborative exchange of music, personnel, and production beyond this locale’s borders.
Broadway represents only one type of music written for the American stage, however, as demonstrated in this issue’s other contributions. Gabe C. Alfieri investigates the collaboration between Tennessee Williams and Paul Bowles in The Glass Menagerie, as well as the relationship between music, stage, and film in redefining modern American theater. Andrew Granade’s profile of Harry Partch’s little-known theatrical work Water! Water! (premiered in 1962) illuminates the composer’s fraught relationships with such diverse and unlikely collaborators as a university student organization and jazz musicians within a larger interrogation of elitism, authenticity, and mass-produced American culture.
By focusing on music connected to the theater since the early twentieth century, the authors in this issue offer new perspectives on the diversity of compositional, performative, and industrial practices. Rather than dividing these practices into categories of popular and art spheres, these authors imagine the publishers, songwriters, composers, producers, and other participants, critics, and audiences standing on a continuum of dissemination, from the obscure and little known (Partch and Bowles) to the mainstream (Tin Pan Alley, 1776, and Hamilton). And in these thoughtful, innovative, and carefully researched articles, each author demonstrates again the magical ability of words and music, separately and in concert, “to make a difference.”