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'Rise Up!' Explores Broadway's Impact On American Culture

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The musical Hamilton is unlike many in its class. The show centers around the story of Alexander Hamilton, using a diverse cast to explore the founding of our nation, through rap and more classical musical theater melodies.

"It sort of had a diverse cast, and it made the diversity of its cast — the fact that the founding fathers looked like the rest of America — it made it one of its central calling cards. No show on Broadway had ever done that before, no musical," says Chris Jones, chief theater critic for the Chicago Tribune and the author of Rise Up!: Broadway and American Society from Angels in America to Hamilton.

The book makes the case for theater as a means to both respond to the cultural climate and provoke conversation. Jones argues that Hamilton: An American Musical is a singularly unique show when compared to other Broadway shows. In the book, he uses the play as a way of discussing the cultural impact of other shows like Angels in AmericaRent and August: Osage County

At its heart, Hamilton is about love, sacrifice, and dignity in the face of injustice. It is also a uniquely American show — perhaps that explains its unmatched, societal impact for live theater.

"It was about the first Secretary of the Treasury, so it had substance and gravitas. And politicians would go and see it, financiers would go and see it — people were interested in it, beyond the usual musical crowd," says Jones. 

"Most theater, I think, does best when it operates on the heart. In other words: it's one thing to be political, but theater, for the most part, requires emotional engagement."

He continues, "But it was also — you know, most theater, I think, does best when it operates on the heart. In other words: it's one thing to be political, but theater, for the most part, requires emotional engagement ... people want to be engaged, they want to hear a story, they want to care about characters. And what Hamilton had, of course, was that Alexander Hamilton lost his kid."

The show details Alexander Hamilton's loss of his oldest son, Philip Hamilton, who died in a duel defending his father's honor. In the play, and in life, Alexander Hamilton was irreparably changed by the loss of his son. 

"Hamilton, I think in reality and in the show, would have given away all the writing he ever wrote. He would have given all that up to get his kid back. So, it had that story of personal tragedy ... that operated on a different level from just the political," says Jones. 

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Joy Powers joined WUWM January 2016 as a producer for Lake Effect. Before then, she was a director and producer for Afternoon Shift, on WBEZ-fm Chicago Public Radio.