“Look around, look around at how / lucky we are to be alive right now!” sing the Schyler sisters in the musical “Hamilton,” a sentiment that has been echoed by many a theater kid for years. Broadway seems to be undergoing a revival with innovative and diverse shows that have reenergized the industry and art form. When people think Broadway, they primarily think of stodgy old musicals of bygone eras like “Grease,” “Bye Bye Birdie” or “Oklahoma!” While these musicals remain classics for a reason, the general public is far less likely to shell out $70 per ticket for a story you could watch on DVD. Broadway’s new diversity seems to be drawing the attention of a new generation of Broadway enthusiasts. “Hamilton,” a musical by Lin- Manuel Miranda, tells the story of Alexander Hamilton, the United States’ first Secretary of the Treasury, and his cohorts. But there is a twist: all the main roles are played by people of color and the story is told in rap.
The new Broadway seems to be evolving from the typical Gilbert-and-Sullivan-esque show tunes to something far more integrative, including modern types of music like rap and rock. While rock musicals have had some trouble, Lin-Manuel Miranda’s second hip-hop musical has proved to be a smash hit, bringing an important and incredible musical style to Broadway.
The importance of bringing rap to Broadway comes from the fact that Broadway fundamentally rewards raw talent. Unlike movies or television, there are no editors or cinematographers to help smooth over your performance. Unlike pre-recorded pop music, there is no auto-tune to help fix the high notes and those notes that went flat. On Broadway, there is only you on stage with your talent, and hopefully a quality script and soundtrack. Many Broadway stars are incredible triple threats who not only have to sing and act, but also dance. Now take all that pressure and imagine having to perform eight shows a week. This superhero-like skill is why many fans of Broadway are so incredibly passionate. Watching someone perform on such a grand scale is an incredibly intimate experience, and there is very little obstructing your connection to the performance of the actress or actor. By integrating more people of color, Broadway is given a chance to showcase more of the raw talent it yearns for.
In many ways, Broadway would benefit from expanding genres and including the music of cultures that embrace musicals. While movie musicals in the United States tend to receive with lukewarm results, the second largest producer of films in the world, India’s Bollywood, makes movies that are almost exclusively musicals. Countries around the world love Bollywood movies, and would be quick to embrace the musicals of New York if they were more relatable.
Hating Broadway is truly an emotion of the cynic who can’t stand the suspension of disbelief required for watching characters burst into song. However, for the dramatic and fanciful, Broadway is perfect because it results in heightened emotion. Happy dialogue pales in comparison to the joy of large choreographer Bob Fosse’s jazz numbers. Even on-screen crying can’t compare to the pathos involved in belting out “I Dreamed a Dream.” There is a reason many Broadway musicals include magic and fantasy, even though it’s difficult to convey on stage. Once the suspension of disbelief is there, it isn’t hard to stretch it. However, even the truest cynic has to admit that more grounded musicals have their charm as well. “Fun Home,” based on Alison Bechdel’s tragicomic graphic novel, tells young Alison’s coming-out story and her conflict with her father. Sparsity in both cast and set helps add to the starkness of the story and heightens the conflict between the main characters. The child actors in this musical don’t have complex dance numbers like in “Billy Elliot” or “Newsies,” but they demonstrate considerable talent nonetheless. Broadway plays often have this same degree of severe melancholy and sparseness. No matter what type of art you love, there’s now something for you on Broadway. Live performance is art at its most compelling, and Broadway is live performance of the highest caliber.