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  • Hamilton and History Musicals
  • Elissa Harbert (bio)

"History is happening in Manhattan," Eliza Schuyler sings with her sisters before she meets and marries the ill-fated eponymous hero of Hamilton: An American Musical. In this R&B-style number, the Schuyler sisters simultaneously hail the "new ideas in the air" of revolutionary era New York and remind the present-day audience that they are witnessing a Broadway musical make history by making history.1 Lin-Manuel Miranda's musical chronicles the deadly rivalry between Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr as they sing and dance their way through the Revolutionary War, the framing of the Constitution, and their intertwined personal lives.

When Hamilton premiered in 2015, critics and fans rushed to proclaim it a revolution on Broadway. Hamilton is undoubtedly a remarkable production and has become a powerful cultural phenomenon, breaking Broadway ticket sales records and winning numerous accolades, including eleven Tony Awards and a Pulitzer Prize in Drama. It quickly became a touchstone of contemporary culture, setting off a landslide of reviews, op-eds, and breathless commentary. It has inspired countless late-night television and YouTube parodies. Barack and Michelle Obama [End Page 412] even invited the cast to perform at the White House. Although its reception and cultural impact may have been exceptional, as a musical it is not sui generis.

Hamilton belongs to a relatively small group of musicals that have brought history to life on the Broadway stage.2 History musicals dramatize real people and events of the past with the goal of both entertaining and educating the audience. This article theorizes the subgenre of history musicals by exploring three key challenges they all face and focusing on how Hamilton navigates them. First, I discuss how each musical can be located on a spectrum between historical credibility and fictionalization. Second, I consider how history musicals balance dramatic realism and theatricality, particularly addressing the most essential part of the genre's theatricality: the moments in which characters burst into song. Third, I address how composers of history musicals rely mostly on present-day musical styles to engage audiences emotionally, drawing in quotations or imitations of period music only sparingly to help establish the setting and create an aura of pastness. Hamilton deftly manipulates the distance between past and present, immersing audiences in a gripping sung-through historical narrative while critically historicizing it. It has succeeded in part by achieving a skillful blend of realism and theatricality. It flaunts its historical credentials, but its sociopolitical relevance, narrative framing, casting, choreography, emotional realism, and musical styles keep the audience firmly in the present. The ways Hamilton and other history musicals approach each of these key challenges reveal the tendencies, capabilities, and challenges of the subgenre and also shed light on the larger question of how popular entertainment genres use and change the past.

Genres, as Larry Stempel writes, establish the "configuration of constraints and opportunities—the rules of the game, so to speak—by which creators create, performers perform, and audiences come to know what to expect." Broadway musicals constitute a diverse genre that "eludes easy definition," but at their core they present a dramatic narrative through live song and dance in conventional show-tune idioms and often the integration of popular music styles. Whereas the majority of American musicals alternate songs and spoken dialogue, others, including Hamilton, are sung-through. Furthermore, Broadway musicals have a "commercial, collaborative, vernacular character" and must entertain the public if they are to succeed.3

Much like the genre of Broadway musicals in general, the borders of the history musical subgenre are fuzzy and open to interpretation. The defining features of a history musical are that it is promoted and received as telling a more or less true story and that it emphasizes some degree of historical accuracy. If it is openly fictional, it can instead be termed a "period musical."4 Period musicals such as Oklahoma! and The Phantom [End Page 413] of the Opera far outnumber history musicals; they take place in a past era but present a fictional plot often centered on conventional themes such as romantic relationships. Although some history and period musicals fall clearly into one category or the...