Why we love 'Hamilton'

Story highlights

  • "Hamilton" is a groundbreaking Broadway show
  • Musical uses hip-hop to tell historical tale, features diverse cast

(CNN)They don't call "Hamilton" "an American Musical" for nothing.

Lin-Manuel Miranda's hit Broadway show embraces the history and diversity of American culture like no musical before.
His songs blend rap, hip-hop, R&B, classic Broadway and even a little operetta to tell the story of the Caribbean-born, French- and Scottish-heritaged Alexander Hamilton, one of the founding fathers. The cast is multiethnic, including African-Americans as Aaron Burr, George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, and a Chinese-American as Hamilton's wife, Eliza. (Miranda himself is of Puerto Rican ancestry.)
    And, through the fast-paced music and energetic staging, "Hamilton" tells the story of America's founding and early years, drawn from Ron Chernow's award-winning 2004 biography.
    The musical was widely anticipated before its off-Broadway debut in January 2015, followed by a move to Broadway in August. Good luck getting a seat: The show is sold out until the fall.
    Much of America will get its first look at "Hamilton" on Monday's Grammy Awards, and Miranda couldn't be more thrilled.
    "We're going to do the opening number, scream with joy, and then celebrate the fact that we were just on the Grammys. Best night ever," he told USA Today.
    What makes the show so special? Here are five reasons:

    It puts rap and hip-hop center stage

    Broadway is usually slow to follow musical trends. It's taken decades for rock 'n' roll to make an impact, never mind other genres.
    So a show that brashly features rap battles, shoutouts to Biggie Smalls and Eminem, and a cast of color might not be the easiest sell for the, ahem, Great White Way. (The classic term refers to streetlights, incidentally.)
    But Miranda, who dazzled with the salsa- and hip-hop-infused "In the Heights," has created a show steeped in both urban sound and urbanity. He's a master of both intricate rhyme and hummable melody.
    "'Hamilton' is making its own resonant history by changing the language of musicals," wrote The New York Times' Ben Brantley in his rave review. "And it does so by insisting that the forms of song most frequently heard on pop radio stations in recent years -- rap, hip-hop, R&B ballads -- have both the narrative force and the emotional interiority to propel a hefty musical about long-dead white men whose solemn faces glower from the green bills in our wallets."

    It's been a mainstream hit

    It's not just New York's theater patrons who have embraced the show. The "Hamilton" cast album had the highest debut for any Broadway cast album since 1963, hitting No. 12 and selling more than 50,000 copies its first week. It's still on the charts more than four months later.
    Selling CDs is fine, but the coin of the realm these days is downloads and streams. "Hamilton" is no slacker there, either: Its songs were streamed 16 million times that first week, and the album -- which is more than two hours long -- was still in iTunes' top 25 as of February 10.
    But perhaps the real indicator is recognition. Daveed Diggs, who plays Thomas Jefferson, told GQ he was recognized by a teenager -- in the Bronx.
    "This, like, 17-year-old kid is crossing the street. I'm running past him, and he dropped his stuff on the ground. 'Oh my God, you're Thomas Jefferson!'" Diggs said with a laugh. "I was like, 'That's the first time anyone's ever said that to me, but yeah. I am.' And then, you know, he took a bunch of selfies, and we talked for a little while."

    It's history in the making

    "Hamilton" may be set in the 18th century, but it's just as relatable to today, Miranda says. The discussions of large vs. small government, of the value of immigrants, of isolationism vs. internationalism are as current as this year's presidential campaign.
    "The fact that you could take the rap battles of our show, put them in the mouths of different talking heads and put them on MSNBC tomorrow and they'd be just as relevant, gives me hope," he told "The New Yorker Radio Hour." "It's heartening to me to know that this was never a perfect union. ... The beefs between Hamilton and Jefferson are the beefs we're always going to have."
    Miranda enlisted Chernow, who wrote the biography, as an adviser and read voraciously -- other books about the founding fathers, biographies of Aaron Burr, Hamilton's writings.
    Observers have been impressed.
    "It's got a real vision of America and it takes our history very seriously," said New Yorker editor David Remnick on "The New Yorker Radio Hour."

    A winning crew

    Miranda is not only the composer and star: He's been "Hamilton's" best ambassador, relentlessly doing interviews, maintaining an entertaining Twitter account and enthusiastically celebrating his work.
    "There's lots of moments ... where I'm holding a sword and shooting a gun and it's 7-year-old Lin wish fulfillment," he told "The New Yorker Radio Hour."
    But he's the first to say it's not just him. There are his "teammates," as he calls them, including director Thomas Kail, scenic designer David Korins and cast members Diggs, Christopher Jackson and Leslie Odom Jr. (Miranda and Jackson are core members of the rap/comedy group Freestyle Love Supreme.)
    And he has a secret weapon: musical theater legend Stephen Sondheim, an acquaintance.
    "I was knocked out -- I thought it was wonderful," Sondheim told The New Yorker of hearing some early songs. "They seemed so fresh and meticulous and theatrical."

    You can see it for free

    Well, almost.
    Every day, the show has a lottery in which it sells 21 front-row seats for $10 each. Needless to say, that's an incredible bargain: you can't see a movie in New York for $10, much less a sold-out Broadway show.
    But that's not all.
    Miranda and his friends are inveterate performers, so a few days a week there's a performance of -- something. For a few months the performances were outside the Richard Rodgers Theatre, where "Hamilton" is staged, but when winter moved in and the crowds became too much, the quickie shows gravitated online.
    Now, that's entertainment.
    But maybe the reason everyone loves "Hamilton" is because the show loves them back, Miranda told GQ.
    "I think what people are responding to about Hamilton is that it's a musical, but it's not hermetically sealed," he said. "It has a lot of influences from the rest of your life in it. I think that's what people are responding to, just seeing themselves in the show. Seeing themselves reflected."