Musical Theatre as a Vehicle for Change

Night after night, audience members walk out of the Broadway production of Hamilton feeling inspired. People are talking not only about Lin-Manuel Miranda’s score and Alexander Hamilton’s life and legacy, but also about the intersection of identity and performance in American musical theatre. For many avid theatregoers, they are inspired by the change this musical presents to Broadway. What about this specific musical allows the piece to be a vehicle for change?

In a recent interview for American Theatre, Lin-Manuel Miranda discusses his own inspiration for Hamilton, the casting of the piece, and his process of creation. Miranda discuss the role of a Broadway production in setting a precedent for future productions, he states “I certainly hope that the casting of this show when it goes to high schools is as diverse as the blueprint we’ve laid out. […] The fact that we have such a diverse cast will hopefully set the precedent for future productions.” With this understanding in mind, we can view Broadway as a place to begin the change we wish to see.

Many musicals have come before Hamilton, and many more will come after that help redefine the canon of American musical theatre. I remember hearing a story from a theatre professor at Emerson College who was at one of the first previews of La Cage aux Folles in 1983. He recalled the tension in the room as the musical began, but went on to share with me that he could feel the room shift as the audience enthusiastically embraced the production and its inherent messages. Many would argue that La Cage aux Folles still remains a relevant show more than thirty years later.

Hamilton, like other musicals, helps us see the possibilities for change in commercial American musical theatre. As creators and consumers of musicals, we have the privilege to stop and consider the role of musical theatre within the American culture. What stories are we telling? How are we telling them? And, what intentional choices are we making in order to diversify the cannon or alter preconceived notions around what musical theatre is or can be?

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Take a moment to think about the power of a musical. Many of us have seen, heard, or generally experienced the 2010 Tony-winning Best Musical, Memphis, but how many of us can say the same about Red, the 2010 Tony-winning Best Play? Musicals are unique in that they have lasting power beyond a single Broadway experience. Beyond a national tour and regional productions, a musical can live on through a cast recording and a vocal selections book. With the help of social media and adapted books/scores for youth performers, a musical can have a limitless life after closing on Broadway.

Musical theatre has the power to change lives- we know this, we have felt this, and we have experienced this. Now the real question is, what do we do with this power? Change must come from within the theatre community itself. We must push for productions that promote sharing diverse and different stories on stage. We must consider the bodies we are placing on stage to play specific roles. And, we must become critically aware of the implications our choices have when working on new material. We hold the power to create the next musical that will change the field and change our minds.

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