If you’re reading this I assume you have at least an inkling of knowledge about Hamilton and its massive popularity. Based on Ron Chernow’s biography of American founding father Alexander Hamilton, the smart, innovative, Pulitzer Prize and 11 time Tony winning rap musical has garnered thousands of fans and celebrity visits (as well as launching a sit-down production in Chicago and a national tour in San Francisco) since it’s open in August 2015 – and become infamous for not being able to get a ticket to it.
Personally, I had my eye on Hamilton since it’s Off-Broadway run at The Public Theatre in early 2015. With a score by Tony-winning Lin-Manuel Miranda and coming out of a theatre with such a great track record, I knew I was going to have to learn more once it made its inevitable Broadway transfer. I stayed up until midnight to get the cast album when it came out in September later that year. After that first listen, I couldn’t stop talking about it to friends, begging them to listen so I could have someone to talk about it with. I tried to coerce many of my friends who I’ll describe as “non-theatre people” (for purposes of this post, I’ll define as “people who don’t typically like theatre”) into listening by explaining, “It’s all rap, I swear it’s not boring! You learn about this in APUSH!” to no avail. Fast forward a couple months later – it seems like everybody from classmates, celebrities, and people I’ve never seen get excited about theatre in general, owns a T-shirt with the words “Young, scrappy, and hungry.” printed on it and has captioned at least one Instagram post with a lyric from “Wait For It”. How come no one believed me when I said it was good the first time? More to the point of this post, just how did Hamilton explode in popularity so fast?
I’m not sure if anyone else is dying to know the answer to this like I am. And of course, there’s a ton of factors that contribute to Hamilton‘s success. There can’t be just one definitive answer, as we saw with Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark.
Despite this, to aid in my quest of finding a plausible and believable answer at the very least, I created a Google Form that some of you might have taken to see if there’s any correlation between being a theatre fan and a Hamilton fan. The short answer to that is a definite yes. The long answer requires a bit more thought.
Let’s start here. As you can see, 37.3% of people responded “to an extent” when asked about being a theatre fan in general, but when asked about being a Hamilton fan, there was a significant drop, decreasing to 29.9%. Obviously, way more people enjoy theatre in general compared to enjoying Hamilton specifically – a result which was expected, since no one who likes theatre is bound to like everything. But with the people who answered “yes” and “to any extent” to being a Hamilton fan, that’s 76.2% of people who, at the very least, like the show.
When asked to explain their answer choice, those who said they are, or to an extent, a Hamilton fan, cited things like the shows innovative use of rap and the actual history behind it. This I can understand, as younger people who are my age and never really figured they would enjoy stereotypical musicals (as in, golden age musicals that are “long and boring”), but then are introduced to a musical that not only encapsulates a genre of music they find entertaining as well as subject matter that a lot of high schoolers and young adults have to learn about in school, their views change. What better way to study for your AP U.S. History exam than listening to a musical? From here, teens who are new to theatre can continue learning by getting into more contemporary and relatable musicals, like Dear Evan Hansen or The Book of Mormon.
All this can certainly apply to adults and older fans, too. By presenting musicals as something that’s genuinely entertaining, but are still serious enough to make one reflect on their life, it opens the door for new theatrical discoveries outside of Hamilton.
It’s not all in the numbers, though. I believe Hamilton’s popularity was definitely influenced by timing as well. By analyzing Google Search Trends, we can gain some insight.
As shown here, there are three main points in time where Hamilton peaked in interest on the Internet. The first being February 14th to February 20th, 2016. In fact, the 58th Grammy Awards where Hamilton performed and won the award for Best Musical Theatre Album took place on the 15th. Due to this, it’s pretty reasonable to assume that that this mainstream exposure is what catapulted Hamilton to recognition outside the theatre community so quickly. The same can be said about the other two spikes on the chart. The highest peak, in the middle, is shown as June 12th to June 18th, 2016; the 70th Tony Awards where Hamilton performed took home 11 awards were held on the 12th. Again, being apart of a mainstream awards show helped to increase talk surrounding Hamilton. Finally, the last and most recent spike in Hamilton interest happened around November 20th to November 26th, 2016. This, as you might recall, was when then Vice President-Elect Mike Pence paid a visit to the show, being booed by audience members and receiving a message from the cast, to which he later responded to. The controversy hit the media hard, even more so when President-Elect Trump tweeted about the event multiple times, rightfully causing people to research the show. While not a surefire way to justify the popularity of Hamilton to theatre outsiders, I think it’s more than possible to believe that some fans were introduced to the show thanks to its moments outside of solely theatre-based news coverage.
Of course, this analysis was an accumulation of the data I collected (which has the possibility of being biased) and search trends, all of which can be interpreted in many different ways. Perhaps Hamilton was just a phase that only briefly raised interest in musicals. Or maybe it did introduce a whole new generation to an underappreciated art form. Whatever you think Hamilton‘s contribution was, there’s no denying it’s a show no one will be able to stop talking about for a long time.
What you do think about Hamilton and its popularity? Did it introduce you or anyone you know to musical theatre? Tell me in the comments!