The hit musical Hamilton explains why.
There are plenty of verbal acrobatics in Hamilton, the smash-hit hip-hop musical about the life of America’s first Treasury Secretary, but one simple statement has become a kind of battle cry:
“Immigrants, we get the job done!”
Sung by Nevis-born Alexander Hamilton and his French compatriot, the Marquis de Lafayette, the line refers to the duo’s role in helping Revolutionary soldiers triumph against the British. But in the fanfare surrounding the show, this line has developed a deeper resonance. This President’s Day weekend, show your patriotism by listening to the Hamilton soundtrack. In short order, you’ll realize that the Founding Fathers all had immigrant roots. Literally, most of their parents and grandparents were born abroad. Symbolically, each and every one of them followed the immigrant’s path in search of a better life.
The immigrant’s journey is fundamentally about leaving behind the old world to build one anew, often at tremendous cost. No one understood this better than Washington, Jefferson, Franklin, and their compatriots. These men may have died on American soil, but they were all born in the British colonies. In this way, these immigrant visionaries helped the United States become the world’s leading political, economic, and cultural power.
Hamilton’s creator, Lin-Manuel Miranda grew up in the Dominican enclave of Manhattan’s Washington Heights, an immigrant community he previously featured in his 2008 musical, In the Heights. It wasn’t until Miranda began reading Ron Chernow’s 832-page biography, the book on which Hamilton is based, that he began to recognize the founding father’s immigrant experience. As he told the Atlantic, when Hamilton “gets to New York, I was like, ‘I know this guy…it’s the guy who comes to this country and is like, I am going to work six jobs, if you’re only working one. I’m gonna make a life for myself here.’ That’s a familiar storyline to me, beginning with my father and so many people I grew up with in my neighborhood.” He continued, “Immigrants have been present and necessary since the founding of our country. I think it’s also a nice reminder that any fight we’re having right now, politically, we already had it 200-some odd years ago. The fights that I wrote between me and Jefferson, [in the show] you could put them in the mouths of candidates on MSNBC…It’s a comfort to know that they’re just a part of the more perfect union we’re always working towards.”
Hamilton seeks to remind us that, in many ways, the past is present. Warren Hoffman, author of The Great White Way: Race and the Broadway Musical, says that Hamilton “is very much about what it means to be an American today. The music and the point [Miranda] is making is extremely contemporary.” And this, he explains, is unusual for Broadway theater. In the 1970s and 1980s, “the contemporary musical was going one way, and pop music was going the other. And Broadway never caught up. There are nods [in Hamilton] to traditional musical forms, but it feels like a breath of fresh air. In this show, the music of today”—i.e. hip hop—can be the sound of musical theater.”
This is, itself, remarkable. Nobody would have expected that a musical number about the Federalist Papers could be riveting. Or that white theater-goers would flock to see minority actors play America’s Founding Fathers. (Eighty percent of Broadway audiences are caucasian). Or that the middle-aged audiences enamored of Rodgers and Hammerstein and Leonard Bernstein would pay hundreds of dollars to hear a rapping George Washington. There’s also evidence suggesting that Hamilton’s creators and cast aren’t simply belting to sold-out houses of East Coast liberals. Yes, the Democratic National Committee held a fundraiser at the show. But Broadway audiences largely comprise tourists—70 percent of all ticket sales—and the vast majority of these are domestic theater-goers.
The fact remains that Hamilton was huge from the get-go. Just five weeks after it opened last summer, the show had returned a quarter of its $12.5 million capitalization to investors and presales were on par with those for Book of Mormon and Miss Saigon. As one of the show’s investors told Deadline in October, “If you have a major hit, you might expect 10 percent in that short a time. Twenty-five percent is really unheard of.” To date, Hamilton has grossed over $39 million. This is remarkable given the fact that more than 75 percent of Broadways shows fail, according to the Deadline story.
It’s also surprising, given Broadway’s uneasy relationship with the immigrant experience. It’s true that many early musical songwriters were Jewish immigrants and first-generation Americans. But “they were creating the most red, white, and blue stuff imaginable,” says Hoffman. Russian-born Irving Berlin—his actual name was Israel Isidore Baline—“was writing patriotism and the army.” Fiddler on the Roof (1964) was the first widely popular show in which Jewish creators “talked about their own immigrant and ethnic pasts.” The musical Flower Drum Song (1958) dealt with assimilation in San Francisco’s Chinese community, but it wasn’t until the 2003 revival, which included a brand new book, that the immigration narrative was pushed to the forefront of the story. (The show received poor reviews and closed after six months.) Meanwhile, the star power of George Tekai wasn’t enough to draw audiences to Allegiance, a new show based on the internment of Tekai’s family during World War II. (The show will be closing soon, after running for a mere four months.) A third immigrant-themed show seems poised for greater success: On Your Feet, which recounts the careers of Gloria and Emilio Estefan. But Hoffman points out that the production is a “jukebox musical,” where well-known songs like “Conga” and “Rhythm is Gonna Get You” are fitted around a book. “The audience goes in knowing what the music will be,” he says. “From the producer point of view, it’s a safe bet.”
It’s worth noting that all of these shows have provided badly needed opportunities for minority performers. Broadway has long been slow to diversify. In 1978, the Hispanic Organization of Latin Actors picketed Evita for not hiring Latino actors. Today, Phantom of the Opera, Broadway’s longest running show, has only a one Hispanic cast member. In contrast, On Your Feet features immigrants from Venezuela and Cuba, and has a Colombian choreographer. Allegiance has been a welcome change for Asian-American actors repeatedly cast in Miss Saigon and The King and I. And Hamilton’s cast is almost entirely African-American and Hispanic. That decision was anything but a safe bet. As Hoffman explains, “Lin-Manuel is superimposing immigrants and people of color onto white history.” Without a little throat clearing, “he’s saying the Founding Fathers were immigrants—in case you forgot.”
Hoffman says this historical reframing is especially poignant today, given the bigoted rhetoric that some politicians are using to talk about Muslim asylum-seekers and the uncompromising stance that a few presidential candidates have taken toward immigrants struggling to access the American Dream. Those views are about exclusion. And yet in so many ways, our country is growing ever more inclusive. From The Great White Way to Main Street, we are more diverse than ever. We are striving to realize the vision of America that Hamilton espouses. As Alexander sings just before his death, it’s a vision where “even orphan immigrants can leave their fingerprints and rise up.”