The Broadway musical, to the distress of those of us who think of it as America’s own fine form, the thing we made first and still, Andrew Lloyd Webber be damned, make best, isn’t really pop culture anymore. It’s always too expensive, often too Disneyfied, mostly too strangely specialized a taste. But on rare occasions the American musical can still be central to what we should call our ceremonial culture. A song-and-dance show on Forty-sixth Street can occasionally touch so profoundly on some central preoccupation of a period that, even if relatively few of us actually get to see it live, it still becomes a kind of hearth at the center of a national celebration. Cast albums and downloads put the songs in every earbud, as LPs once put them on every basement hi-fi. Only five or six musicals over the past fifty-plus years have become true ceremonial phenomena of this kind: “South Pacific”; “My Fair Lady”; in another way after J.F.K.’s death, “Camelot”; “A Chorus Line”; “West Side Story”; and maybe “Fiddler on the Roof”—but it has certainly happened again with Lin-Manuel Miranda’s astonishing “Hamilton.”
At the simplest presentation level, it shows previously marginalized people taking on the responsibility and burden of American history. Washington and Jefferson and Hamilton and the rest of the Founding Fathers (and Mothers) are all played by black, Latino, or Asian-American performers using an African-American musical idiom—and within seconds this seems neither jarring nor even particularly daring: it just makes sense. Who else and in what other range? “Hamilton” is about the mutability of identity in American history.
We have often had stories about clerks who became heroes; this is, in tune with our time, the story of a hero who became a clerk—or, at least, a Cabinet minister. The same might be said of becoming a President. It is a still-nicer irony of our time that a work of the most extravagant creative audacity has given us a more sober sense of the actual than almost any other.