LAST OF A SERIES: When the cast of Hamilton visited the White House on March 14, 2016, President Obama joked that the musical was the only thing that he and Dick Cheney agreed on.
The excursion was a PR coup at a bargain price. It cost just $85,000, according to a financial statement filed with New York State by Hamilton Uptown LLC, which presents the juggernaut on Broadway. That’s a fraction of what a production spends to stage a single number on the Tony Awards. Hamilton Uptown bused the cast to Washington and put them up overnight, but they weren’t paid extra to perform on their day off, according to three people familiar with the trip.
Actors were told their attendance was optional. A White House gig is traditionally an honor, and this one yielded wall-to-wall news coverage and YouTube videos that have been viewed more than 23 million times. A production spokesman declined to comment.
The visit was emblematic of an enterprise that has a knack for making news and making money.
Lin-Manuel Miranda debuted the opening number at a May 2009 poetry and spoken word event at — where else — the White House. The following night, Jon Stewart, referring to himself as “Old Man Stewart,” mocked Miranda’s concept and the comedian’s own closed-mindedness in a not-too-prescient Daily Show bit. (“You’re rapping about Alexander Hamilton! …’Dis is kind of ridiculous.”)
A White House YouTube video of Miranda’s riveting performance has been viewed more than 8 million times.
Six years later, the $1.1 million developmental production at the Public Theater did double duty as producer Jeffrey Seller’s marketing campaign. “He wanted to brand the show by associating it with what he called ‘the quintessential New York downtown theater laboratory,'” Jeremy McCarter wrote in the coffee table book Hamilton: The Revolution.
The book likewise did double duty — in promoting the show and earning Hamilton Uptown $1 million, as of July 2017.
The 2015 original cast recording is in its third year on the Billboard 200 of bestselling albums. It’s currently No. 23, above Taylor Swift and Bruno Mars, and has net Hamilton Uptown $2.6 million. It can’t hurt that last year, rap and hip-hop led music sales for the first time, according to Nielsen. “Kids never memorized the conventional Broadway songs of 1776,” said Isaac Kramnick, a Cornell government professor, referring to the 1969 Tony Award winner.
Nor has the election hurt box office. By dramatizing that Alexander Hamilton was an immigrant from the Caribbean before helping to ratify the U.S. Constitution and shape its financial system, the show has galvanized dissent. Said Kramnick, co-author of the book Godless Citizens in a Godly Republic: “Miranda’s emphasis on Hamilton‘s ambition and the theme of immigration caught the contemporary political moment with cosmopolitan theatergoers who applaud to renounce Donald Trump.”
President Trump tweeted in November 2016 that he heard Hamilton was “highly overrated,” after actor Brandon Victor Dixon addressed then-Vice President-elect Mike Pence from the stage of the Richard Rodgers Theatre. The following week coincided with Thanksgiving and the show grossed $3.3 million, a Broadway record.
A source of great press for the show, announced in October 2015, has been the Hamilton Education Program. More than 70,000 low-income public school students and their teachers nationwide have received $10 tickets to designated matinees, plus the use of educational guides created by the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History. As the initiative is subsidized by the Rockefeller Foundation and other nonprofits, it cut Hamilton‘s Broadway revenue by just 2 percent in 2017, according to our calculations.
A daily ticket lottery offers 46 seats in the first two rows of the Rodgers for $10 apiece. That accounts for 3.5 percent of the theater’s capacity.
“The producers’ outreach program is laudable,” said Jeffrey Eric Jenkins, a producer and theater professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. “But while they have the attention of young people who are so obsessed with Hamilton, and while the company is making so much pure profit, I would urge them to do more. Why not provide even greater access to the people who may be our future audience? I’m concerned kids are not developing the theater habit and are going to be glued to their screens.”
The Broadway producers of Harry Potter and the Cursed Child are setting aside 300 seats for $40 or less per performance. That’s 18 percent of the Lyric Theatre.
Since July 2016, Miranda has promoted online sweepstakes conducted by a company called Prizeo. The drawings are for trips to attend the show — usually the opening night on tour or in London — and raised more than $7 million for Planned Parenthood, the Natural Resources Defense Council and other nonprofits. The campaigns keep people talking about the show and appeal to millennials because they’re shared virally and accept donations as small as $10.
“He is doing for American philanthropy what Hamilton did for Broadway,” said Larry Lieberman, chief operating officer of Charity Navigator, which evaluates nonprofits and isn’t involved with the sweepstakes. “He’s engaging a new audience.”
Hamilton vastly elevated Miranda’s profile. Originating the title role led to acting offers rarely afforded Broadway composer-lyricists — and unparalleled opportunities to promote the musical that now pays him an eight-figure annual annuity. His guest spots on Curb Your Enthusiasm and virtually every major network television talk show — not to mention his 52,000 tweets to 2.3 million followers, and the new recordings known as Hamildrops — have made it impossible to forget about Hamilton.
In January 2019, two weeks after the opening of the Disney movie Mary Poppins Returns, which features Miranda, he’s set to return to the show for a three-week run in Puerto Rico, where he has family. That’s four years after Hamilton debuted off-Broadway. Most musicals at that stage are struggling to keep the media’s attention. Launching a new tour in San Juan combines Miranda’s priorities: helping Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria, philanthropy, family and, as he dramatized in In the Heights, returning home.
Sounds like a great story.
Editor: Alice Scovell