After three years of waiting, I finally saw Hamilton this month. It was a touring production, sure, but that didn’t matter. It’s the pinnacle of the American musical art-form.
But it’s only been out for three years, you say? Perhaps it won’t age well, you predict? Can it really be that good?
Not all art ages well. The number of forgettable films that have won Oscars are the foremost example. Musical theater isn’t like that, however. A show has to be good enough to get on Broadway and stay there in order to get any accolades whatsoever. In other words, a musical has to be great already to stay in the conversation for more than a season.
That’s not to say some musicals don’t lose their luster over time. Tastes change and topics are no longer as relevant. While Rent seemed urgent in the 90’s and Oklahoma! was groundbreaking in the 40’s, the perception of those shows has changed over time.
Even so, to prove my point if you told a room full of musical theater scholars that Rent and Oklahoma! are two of the top ten musicals ever, few would disagree. Even musicals which lose their urgency or innovative feel with age don’t lose those aspects all that much.
Many the innovations of Hamilton might be so widely adapted that they disappear into commonplace like Oklahoma!, but its subject matter is practically evergreen. As long as there is an America, there will always be interest in the American Revolution.
That said, three years is more than enough time to assess Hamilton as one of the greatest musicals. But could it be the greatest? To assess that, you have to compare it to its fellow “greatest musicals.”
Before Oklahoma!, musicals didn’t exactly tell very robust stories. For example, Showboat is a series of vignettes, and Anything Goes! is a comic farce. Porgy and Bess is usually thought of as an opera. In any event the epic scale of Hamilton places it in a different category than early Broadway shows.
Most mid-century shows just aren’t as innovative as Hamilton, and many of the popular late-20th Century shows just don’t have its cultural impact. The 2000’s have been cluttered with jukebox musicals and adaptations of existing popular culture.
To cut to the chase, there are only a few shows with the scope, innovation, urgency, and quality of Hamilton: Oklahoma!, West Side Story, Les Miserables, and Rent.
We can eliminate Oklahoma! first. It is an important show with great songs. But let’s face it, it is a cheesy story.
Rent can be eliminated next. Don’t get me wrong, I love Rent, but it’s very much a creature of its time and place. Also the second act is kind of a mess.
It’s hard to rank Hamilton ahead of the last two, but they aren’t insurmountable obstacles. As great as West Side Story is, it suffers some of the same drawbacks as Rent. It isn’t as topical, but it is definitely a creature of the 1950’s in the same way that Rent is a creature of the 1990’s.
Les Miserables is based on what might be the greatest novel in the world, and that’s its greatest strength. How innovative is Les Mis, really, though? Its greatest innovative aspect is its success as an adaptation. Structurally and musically, it isn’t that distinguishable from other top musicals of its day, it’s just a better story. Besides, “One Day More” is basically “Tonight” from West Side Story.
Hamilton has a story anchored in history with staying power. It has great music, but also innovative music in how it blends new genres into the musical theater artform to tackle the scope of that story. Hip hop uses a lot of words, and you need those words to tell a story like Alexander Hamilton’s. Finally, it compares favorably with the other contenders for greatest musical.
So yes, Hamilton really is that good.
(C) 2018 D.G. McCabe