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Singing and Dancing to the American Dream

Silence. A house once filled with echoing laughter and thudding footsteps had succumbed

to the nature of a broken home. Gone were the comforting sounds of the bustling household, and

in their place emerged a young girl in search of refuge.

Following my oldest brother’s departure for college and my parents’ separation shortly

after, I was desperate to fill the new void in my life. Mustering strength in a time of emotional

turmoil proved to be difficult, so I turned to a form of escapism. I clung to a world where

common people defy all odds, and better yet, they do it through intricate song and dance

numbers complete with gaudy lights and flashy costumes.

I was exposed to musical theatre from a young age. My mom, a musical fanatic herself,

would sing songs from George M! and Lil’ Abner, as I danced in the living room. While driving

in the car, our playlist included songs from of The Broadway Kids and Sirius XM’s Broadway

station. Meanwhile, I spent my time screaming “Tomorrow” from Annie at the top of my lungs

while I coaxed our poor dog to play along. My brothers emerged unscathed from the years of

Broadway exposure, but musicals quickly captured my heart. When the footsteps had

disappeared, the upbeat rhythm of show tunes remained.

Flash forward seven years. Feet propped up and head dangling off my bed, I am flipping

through pages of a book I received for Christmas, The Secret Life of the American Musical by

Jack Viertel, and a particular question jumps out at me: “If Shakespeare is England’s national

theater, aren’t Broadway musicals ours?” Viertel’s thought provided an excellent source of

inspiration.

Musicals were my personal source of solace, but it never occurred to me to view musical

theatre as an American art form. If Broadway is in fact our “national theatre”, then what

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element of the American musical binds the nation together? For over a century, musicals have

mirrored the changing ideas and social structures of society in the United States. American

people return to the stage time and again in search of reflection, discovery, and escape. Just as a

little girl relied on musicals to carry her through a difficult time, the American people have

always looked to the Broadway stage to find excitement and solace. This thought-process is what

ultimately led me to my question: How has the development of the Broadway musical come to

reflect American national and cultural identity?

Millions of feet pound against the glistening pavement. In the same direction, hundreds

of heads bob up and down as they move forward like fish swimming upstream. The Manhattan

skyline stretches out before them, but the grey and tan tones are bland in comparison to the

golden marquee that appears to be the main point of destination. Horns blare and people shout,

while the crowd continues in the direction of the sign. As they near, the image becomes more

clear. There is a black silhouette of man pointing up at the sky, creating the fifth point to a star

shape. Bright lights outline the marquee, attracting growing numbers of people. A mob begins to

form in preparation for what many consider to be the “hottest ticket on Broadway”. This is the

Richard Rogers Theatre on West 46th Street in New York City, home to Hamilton: An American

Musical.

Hamilton, the smash hit creation of Lin Manuel Miranda, opened on Broadway in August

2015 (Paulson). Although it opened fairly recently, the musical plays an imperative role in the

shaping of American musical theatre. Lin Manuel Miranda’s production tells the story of

Alexander Hamilton with a modern twist; nearly the entire cast is made up of African-American

and Latino actors who tell the story through rap music. The musical combines elements of the

American Dream while incorporating political statements and social issues present in modern

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society. It is the perfect mix of classic American theatre that embodies a patriotic zest and

reflections on modern society, which make Hamilton’s run on Broadway the perfect success

story (Umehira).

The show attained great popularity, in part, from characters and storylines that relate to

the modern audience. Alexander Hamilton’s immigrant status is frequently referenced

throughout the show. Meanwhile, the Black, Latino, and Asian American actors that share the

stage lead audiences to view America as a nation of immigrants (Perez). Renee Elise Goldberry,

the African-American actress who originated the role of Angelica Schuyler, stated, “We have the

opportunity to reclaim a history that some of us don't necessarily think is our own” (Paulson).

Hamilton transformed from a simple idea into a revolutionary representation of current American

culture and modern people.

Students and history teachers are especially finding the show material to be relevant. In

in introduction to the cast of Hamilton at the 2016 Tony Awards, former president Barack

Obama stated that the show had become, “not only a smash hit, but a civics lesson our kids can't

get enough of … where rap is the language of revolution, and hip hop its urgent soundtrack”

(McGorman). Across the country, teachers are integrating Hamilton songs into lesson plans. At

the Ethical Culture Fieldston School in New York, an elective course for juniors and seniors on

the musical was added to the school’s curriculum. A high school teacher from the Bronx noticed

that students were singing songs from Hamilton the way they would sing Drake or Adele

(Schonfeld). According to the news stations KQED, “Hamilton is especially galvanizing for the

students who believe that stories about 18th century America are distant and irrelevant, as it

shows the Founding Fathers were real humans with real feeling and real flaws, rather than

bloodless, two-dimensional cutouts who devoted their lives to abstract principles” (Robinson).

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In an interview with Stephanie Carson, theatre director at the youth company Poison

Apple Productions in Martinez, Carson spoke of Hamilton’s role in the context of the entirety of

American musical history. Carson explained, “I would argue that Hamilton, is perhaps, the first

musical to draw in such a wide range of audience members. People who have never set foot in a

theatre before are flocking to see this show, which I believe is a great testimony to the show’s

draw to American people.” Carson continued to explain that although unique in its casting

choices and musical style, Hamilton is not the first Broadway show to showcase patriotic spirit

and tie in national popular culture. Hamilton, however revolutionary, follows in the footsteps of

American musicals that pushed boundaries and attracted audiences within their own time

periods. In order to understand the creation of Hamilton, one must understand the development

of American musical theatre and its relation to the American people on a larger scale.

Early musical theatre developed at the turn of the twentieth century, largely thanks to the

influx of immigrants to the United States. In the 1890s, immigrants from around the world

traveled to the great ports of America, like New York City, in search of success. As they

developed their own neighborhoods and ethnic enclaves, many new arrivals took advantage of

the stage to offer ethnic comedy, dance, and song to their fellow immigrants as a much-needed

escape from the hardships of daily life (Cantu). The theaters would shortly move uptown from

the peddler’s markets to the newly coined Times Square in the early 1900s, and it is here that the

Broadway business began to boom. Working within the theatre industry (which at the time

included vaudeville, variety stages, minstrel shows, and musical reviews) only required talent

and drive rather than education, wealth, or family prestige. The idea that a “nobody could

become a somebody” is what attracted immigrants to the Broadway stage. Performers dreamed

of climbing their way up the ladder of show business and appearing in a Broadway musical,

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believing that it meant not only acceptance as an artist, but also as an American. Many

vaudeville artists would become some of the most successful and patriotic Americans by way of

Broadway, representing ultimate fulfillment of “the American Dream” (Kantor). The idea that

anyone could make it big in America launched the development of early musicals, and also

provided inspiration for future shows throughout the twentieth and twenty-first centuries.

While the stage brought together a variety of cultures, individual shows united the nation

through common themes of American patriotism and aspirations. Oklahoma! by Rodgers and

Hammerstein, which served as a transition from operetta to modern musicals, opened on

Broadway in 1943. Many theatre historians claim that it changed the course of American musical

theatre, and signified the beginnings of the “serious musical”, where the subject served a stronger

purpose than the songs. More importantly, the subject matter connected to the American people

in a personnel way (Rich). Oklahoma!’s subject matter involved a love story set on the backdrop

of the American West, and became a classic example of a show that touched on American values

and assets. In The Secret Life of an American Musical, Viertel describes the social context

behind Oklahoma!:

It placed its rather romantic story against the context of impending statehood. It asked

audiences to consider courtship (and marriage, and the inevitable next generation) in the

light of what it meant to be American, to become an American. Suddenly, sexual love

was joined to responsibility to the land, to fellow feeling and patriotism, to an implied

critical review of the democratic process itself…And in wartime America, it created a

new landscape for the musical theater, because in some profound way it was about the

birth of us-of the country we were defending. (Viertel 9)

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Oklahoma! was set at the end of the nineteenth century, but it appealed to the modern

audience at the time of its release in the 1940s. The musical opens with a middle-aged woman

churning butter in a barnyard, soon joined by a handsome farmhand who sings about the

beautiful morning (Hirst). Literally called “Oh, What a Beautiful Morning,” the song transports

audience members to a time and place that was “so splendid in its simple beauty and virtue that it

was worth defending: it was America” (Viertel 28). In 1943, the Second World War was raging

in Europe and the Pacific, while American soldiers fought for liberty in the face of tyranny.

Despite being set in a different period, Oklahoma! appealed to audiences of the time because it

reflected a country of national pride (Oklahoma!).

Long after the cast of Oklahoma! took its final bow, Broadway continued to showcase

musicals that touched on the American dream. West Side Story, which premiered on Broadway in

1957, narrated the love story of two teenagers that originated from rival gangs (the Puerto Rican

Sharks and white ethnic Jets) in New York City’s Upper West Side. The show, especially its

iconic song “America” elaborated upon the struggles that Puerto Rican immigrants faced in a

country dominated by whites, and expressed their desires to find a place within American society

(“West Side Story”). Further down the line, a show called Little Shop of Horrors (1982)

premiered on Broadway. This show expressed what the American dream means to the white

middle class of the early 1960s. The female protagonist, Audrey, sings about her dream of life in

the lower middle class with a matchbox house, chain link fence, and green lawn (Viertel 11).

More recently, In the Heights also by Hamilton’s Lin Manuel Miranda, ran on Broadway from

2008-2011. It is a more modern tale of American aspirations. Premised around the intersecting

lives of Latino immigrants and their children in the Washington Heights neighborhood of New

York City, the show deals with the desire for adults to make better lives for their children

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through the use of hip hop, salsa, and rap music to tell the story (Morris). Although theses three

shows were vastly different, they share the common theme of American people envisioning a

better life and future.

Musicals have experienced constant growth and development over the past century, but

one aspect of the American musical has always remained the same: reflection of social and

cultural issues within society (Rich). Monica Maddern, who taught music for twenty years and

has performed and studied professional musicals since the age of 18, talked about the influence

of society on musical theatre. “Musicals reflect society and history. Society reacts to situations,

but musicals react to society,” she shared. The ability to relate, according to Maddern, is what

makes the American musical so long lasting. Thus, musical theatre developed a formula for

success through the use of romance joined with current social issues, politics, and place.

Musicals of the 1920s for instance, reflected a nation that was rapidly modernizing. Jazz

music deriving from Harlem and popular dances of the twenties, like the Charleston (considered

cutting edge at the time) began to appear on stage (Maslon). Meanwhile, the language of

everyday people (slang, jargon, phrases from advertisements, radio, and the newspaper) was

being incorporated into the lyrics of shows (Viertel 22). Less than a decade later, the stock

market crash of 1929 ushered in a new wave of theatre that reflected an America plagued with

low spirits and unemployment. During this time, millions of unemployed Americans sought

relief from the government, including 20,000 theatre artists (Mordden 52). It was difficult to

keep theaters open for obvious financial reasons, and show subject matter turned towards the

Depression, union solidarity, and policies of the New Deal. Musical comedies that temporarily

relieved audiences of their troubles still had a presence on stage, but there was a significant

increase in shows with a strong sense of social criticism and political satire (Kantor).

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The Cradle Will Rock, produced by the Works Progress Administration in 1937, is the

perfect example of social change being reflected on stage. Introduced by President Franklin

Roosevelt, The Works Progress Administration was his response to the national unemployment

crisis. Under the program, 40,000 artists across the country were employed through music, art,

writing, and theatre projects. The Cradle Will Rock by Marc Blitzstein was a contemporary folk

opera set against the backdrop of a steel strike. While aggressive labor action spread across the

country, the show preached an extremely left-leaning, pro-labor message, which upset many

conservative members of Congress (Kenney). They attempted to cut funding for the show.

Worried the production would cause damage to the Works Progress Administration, federal

authorities shut the production down. The actors, however, were eager to preach their pro-labor

message to an audience, and performed the show 20 blocks across town in another theater. From

the seats in the audience actors voiced their parts, despite being warned that the show should not

continue (Trumble).

Following the Second World War, musicals that emerged mirrored post-war American

culture. The separate branches of escapism and social criticism that were the focus of Depression

Era shows, transitioned into an era of optimistic productions with an American spirit (Mordenn

78). During this time, Rodgers and Hammerstein established themselves as a successful writing

team and created musicals that reflected American ideals of the 1940s and 1950s. Many of their

shows (Oklahoma!, South Pacific, and the King and I for example) dealt with the eradication of

racial, ethnic, and cultural prejudices and the promotion of a more tolerant society (Kenney).

However, the plucky, optimism that dominated Rodger’s and Hammerstein musicals of the mid-

twentieth century, despite great success, was relatively short lived. As the country approached

the dawning of the 1960s, political topics including civil rights, the Vietnam War, and John F.

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Kennedy’s assassination in 1963 caused Americans to disregard the “naïve optimism that had

fueled the spirit of Broadway musicals” since the end of World War Two (Viertel 16).

Throughout the 1960s and 70s, Broadway struggled to adapt to the powerful culture shocks of

the era and break free from conventional musicals. It entered a period of provocative reinvention,

focused on social change and dominated by the musical genre of Rock and Roll. Hair, which

opened on Broadway in 1968, exemplified political unrest taking center stage. Directly from

Greenwich Village and with no specific plot, the musical represented America’s counterculture

movement and addressed hot topics like drugs, the Vietnam War, civil rights, space expedition,

and sex (Maslon). Broadway had opened its gates to a new generation of composers, writers, and

lyricists that responded to the end of postwar self-satisfaction and the beginning of a new age of

anxiety (Viertel 9). For the next several decades, the provocative showcases of political unrest

transitioned into blander musicals, often in the form of revivals or new works based on films.

Never the less, they continued to find inspiration from the nation’s social and political climate,

just as Hamilton is doing now.

Musical theatre, throughout the twentieth century, embodied and developed into a truly

American art form. The form of entertainment blended together a collection of cultures, stories,

people, and ideas, while inviting Americans to escape their troubles of the outside world. When

necessary, musical theatre was also informative of changing times and served the purpose of

making bold statements. The stage bound people together through shared feelings of American

dreams, patriotism, and sociocultural unrest within society. Today, musical theatre continues to

break down barriers and draw in audiences. From vaudeville to Oklahoma! to Hamilton, musical

theatre reflects national identity because it tells American stories.

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Works Cited

Electronic

Cantu, Maya. “Broadway Musicals and the American Dream.” Bennington College Fall 2016

Curriculum, Bennington College, curriculum.bennington.edu/fall2016/2016/04/18/broadway-

musicals-and-the-american-dream/.

Hirst, David. “The American Musical and the American Dream: from 'Show Boat' to Sondheim | New

Theatre Quarterly.” Cambridge Core, Cambridge University Press, 1 Jan. 2009,

www.cambridge.org/core/journals/new-theatre-quarterly/article/the-american-musical-and-the-

american-dream-from-show-boat-to-sondheim/E6B39C442E29031AD62FFF56AD0141BA.

Kantor, Michael, director. Broadway The American Musical Episode One: Give My Regards to

Broadway (1893-1927). Broadway the America Musical, Ghost Light Films, THIRTEEN, NHK,

and the BBC in Association with Carlton International., 2004,

www.pbs.org/wnet/broadway/about/.

Kenney, Kaleigh M. Life-Like: American Society and the Early to Mid-Twentieth Century Musical .

The Research and Scholarship Symposium, 2016, Life-Like: American Society and the Early to

Mid-Twentieth Century Musical ,

digitalcommons.cedarville.edu/research_scholarship_symposium/2016/podium_presentations/

Maslon, Laurence. “Elements of the Musical.” PBS, Public Broadcasting Service, 1 Oct. 2012,

www.pbs.org/wnet/broadway/essays/elements-of-the-musical/.

McGorman, Laura. “What Hamilton and Data Visualizations Have in Common.” Economic &

Statistics Administration, 12 Jan. 2017, www.esa.gov/content/what-hamilton-and-data-

visualizations-have-common.

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Morris, Catherine A. “‘In The Heights’ Channels the American Dream | Arts.” The Harvard Crimson,

20 Jan. 2010, www.thecrimson.com/article/2010/1/20/heights-new-york-american/.

“Oklahoma!” Rodgers & Hammerstein, www.rnh.com/show/78/Oklahoma!

Paulson, Michael. “'Hamilton' Heads to Broadway in a Hip-Hop Retelling.” The New York Times, The

New York Times, 12 July 2015, www.nytimes.com/2015/07/13/theater/hamilton-heads-to-

broadway-in-a-hip-hop-retelling.html?_r=0.

Paulson, Michael. “In the Heights: 'Hamilton' Reaches Top Tier at Broadway Box Office.” The New

York Times, The New York Times, 8 Sept. 2015,

artsbeat.blogs.nytimes.com/2015/09/08/hamilton-with-higher-prices-would-make-a-treasury-

secretary-proud/.

Perez, Adam, et al. “Hamilton Broadway: History and Diversity.” Time, Time, 15 Dec. 2015,

time.com/4149415/hamilton-broadway-diversity/.

Rich, Frank. “A MUSICAL THEATER BREAKTHROUGH.” The New York Times, The New York

Times, 20 Oct. 1984, www.nytimes.com/1984/10/21/magazine/a-musical-theater-

breakthrough.html.

Robinson, Ken. “How Teachers Are Using 'Hamilton' the Musical in the Classroom.” KQED, 14 Mar.

2016, www.kqed.org/mindshift/44137/how-teachers-are-using-hamilton-the-musical-in-the-

classroom.

Schonfeld, Zach. “'Hamilton,' the Biggest Thing on Broadway, Is Being Taught in Classrooms All

Over.” Newsweek, 20 May 2016, www.newsweek.com/2016/02/19/hamilton-biggest-thing-

broadway-being-taught-classrooms-all-over-424212.html.

Trumble , Eric W. “The Federal Theatre Project.” The Federal Theatre Project, Northern Virginia

Community College, 17 Nov. 2007, novaonline.nvcc.edu/eli/spd130et/federaltheatre.htm.

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Umehira, Kylie. “All Hammed Up: How Hamilton: An American Musical Addresses Post-Racial

Beliefs.” Boston University Arts & Sciences Writing Program, Boston University,

www.bu.edu/writingprogram/journal/issue-9/umehira/.

“West Side Story.” PBS, Public Broadcasting Service, www.pbs.org/wnet/broadway/shows/west-side-

story/.

Primary

Carson, Stephanie. Youth Director. Personal Interview. 1 March 2018.

Maddern, Monica. Music teacher. Personnel Interview. 12 March 2018.

Print

Mordden, Ethan. Anything Goes: a History of American Musical Theatre. Oxford University Press,

2015.

Viertel, Jack. Secret Life of the American Musical: How Broadway Shows Are Built. Sarah Crichton

Books,Farrar, Straus and Grioux, 2017.

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