OK, I admit it. To most Americans of my generation, life started on Sunday, February 4th 1964. At 8PM, 73 million people tuned in to “The Ed Sullivan Show” on CBS and watched as four young men from Liverpool fired the first shot of a counter culture revolution. They didn’t write the Declaration of Independence for it; that was already in the works with Elvis, Betty Friedan, Dylan, and Dr. King. The Beatles were messengers, like a guitar-slinging Paul Revere with a saddlebag of songs, shouting “rise up!”
Arguably, the Broadway musical Hamilton is the most significant cultural event in America in the last fifty years. Like the Beatles, its influence crosses generations. It has: sparked the imagination of children; touched the hearts of adults; and most importantly, kick-started the minds of teenagers with inspiration that is truly needed at this time. Remember, the Beatles arrived here less than three months after the assassination of JFK. We were sorely in need of something to believe in.
I got the CD of Hamilton in 2015 and immersed myself in the songs but, like millions of people, I did not see the show until I watched the filmed version on July 3. We still don’t know exactly how many people watched it between July 3 and July 5 because Disney+ refuses to publicly reveal those numbers. However, Variety reported: “‘Hamilton’ Drives Up Disney Plus App Downloads 74% Over the Weekend in U.S.” We can be fairly sure the ratings were in the Super Bowl range if not higher. This kind of media moment, when an entire country experiences something simultaneously, simply doesn’t happen anymore. “The Ed Sullivan Show” was on CBS, which was one of just THREE national networks viewers could choose to watch. Today we have six broadcast networks, dozens of cable channels and streaming services, and billions of smartphones and tablets. Yet, on July 4th weekend it’s very likely that hundreds of millions of people watched Hamilton, not just in the USA but around the world.
Hamilton, like The Beatles, is more than just a commercial success or the winner of a popularity contest. Though it is musical theater, it was destined to go beyond that. The idea for the show was developed during the Obama era. (Miranda actually performed the opening song at the White House in 2009.) After opening on Broadway, it gained international prominence, winning an armful of Tony Awards in 2016 at the start of the Trump era. Its celebration of immigrants, enlightenment and the power of words, performed in the language of hip-hop by a cast of predominantly African Americans and Latinx actors, was a stark contrast to the new administration and its agenda. It put a spotlight on the battle lines being drawn. Like it or not, Hamilton became a totem for those fighting the regressive impulses of President Trump.
John Lennon (and Bob Dylan for that matter) resented being called “the spokesmen for their generation.” Still, they were innovators who studied the work of musicians, songwriters and producers from many genres and were inspired by other cultural heroes (see the Sgt. Pepper album cover) to create not just new music, but a new world view. The creative team of Hamilton did same thing. My wife Mary Ellen came across an interview they did with John Dickerson on CBS This Morning. Watching it inspired me to write this blog.
As you probably know, the writer is Lin-Manuel Miranda. The director is Thomas Kail, the musical director/arranger/orchestrator is Alex Lacamoire and the choreographer is Andy Blankenbuehler. As I watched the interview, it became clear that the four collaborated like a great band. Each has skills that complement the others. And like the Beatles at their peak, they share a generosity of spirit and mutual respect.
Let’s call them the Fab-Four.
- Lin-Manuel is John: the founder and motivating soul behind the band.
- Tommy is Paul: the craftsman who polishes the presentation.
- Andy is George: the mystic who renders sound into movement.
- Alex is Ringo: the joyous beatmaker driving the magic bus.
If you are of a certain age, watching the John Dickerson interview may remind you of all those early interviews with the Beatles, when their confidence and energy was on full view. For me, it was as exhilarating as watching A Hard Day’s Night.
Then, watch Hamilton, if you haven’t already. It’s an astonishing accomplishment that I expect will enlighten and entertain for generations.