SXSW 2016
The week of March 6, 2016

Inside the fandom behind the runaway success of ‘Hamilton’

By Aja Romano

On a dismal afternoon in late November, roughly 500 people are huddled outside the Richard Rodgers Theatre in the heart of Manhattan. It’s raining, and we’ve already been standing in line for nearly 90 minutes. But we’re not waiting to get inside—most of us will never get that far.

“I’d be here every day if I could,” says the guy next to me.

We’re here for #Ham4Ham, the lottery pre-show for the Broadway sensation, Hamilton.

When Lin-Manuel Miranda finally appears on the 46th Street sidewalk, he looks a little shorter, a little slighter than you might expect for someone who looms larger than life over Broadway. The writer and star of Hamilton casually smiles and greets fans before launching into an impromptu performance for the hundreds gathered on the chilly pavement.

Offstage, Miranda has none of the pomp you might expect from someone who’s transformed the American musical. A precocious Latino rhymester from Washington Heights, he recognized themes in Hamilton’s story that echoed his own life. Both were immigrants—Miranda is the son of Puerto Rican immigrants, Hamilton spent years orphaned on the tiny Caribbean island of Nevis—with an underprivileged upbringing, natural genius, a feverish work ethic, and the unfailing ability to piss people off. Raised on hip-hop and show tunes, Miranda set about transforming Hamilton’s story—with its crew of Les Miserables-like revolutionary contemporaries and fractured relationships with Thomas Jefferson and Aaron Burr—into a sociopolitical pop musical.

s1The result has been unprecedented. Hamilton’s cast album is the first musical to reach No. 1 on Billboard’s rap chart. Its opening number was a showstopper at the Grammys and sent a flurry of people Googling to recall long-forgotten history lessons about Alexander Hamilton. (Hint: He was the first U.S. secretary of the treasury and appears on the $10 bill.)

Devoid of showy chorus lines or glitzy overtures, Hamilton has birthed a new kind of fandom. Fans have spent the last six months building a community in unique ways, poring through Revolutionary biographies, traveling to historical heritage sites, creating endless fanworks, and standing in line day after day for tickets to a lottery only a fraction of them will ever win.

And it’s all for a stage musical most of them have not yet seen.

A fully armed battalion (of fans)

IMG_0732_small Hamilton fans display a shrine of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s face at Broadway Con

Fandom is fueled by obsession: repeated watchings of beloved shows, critical analysis, and close readings of texts. Everything and anything fans have access to, they meticulously study and deconstruct, and enjoy on repeat.

But Hamilton, mostly unavailable to fans, was more difficult to lay hands on. When it began its preview run at the Public Theater in January 2015, Tumblr fans immediately began cataloging everything they could about the show. Someone created a Tumblr to mark the days until Miranda won a Pulitzer Prize. Fans started chronicling the lyrics, making hip-hop fanmixes, GIF sets, mashups, and fanart—all before the show had even been seen by more than a few thousand lucky New Yorkers.

By exploring what the story would look like if told from a different perspective, Hamilton challenges the cultural narrative we were all born into.

At the time, the country was reeling from the eruption of the #BlackLivesMatter movement. The climate was ripe for a cultural text tying traditional American values to modern radical politics of protest and rebellion. Hamilton depicts not only U.S. history, but the ongoing political struggle to ensure marginalized people are included in it.

With its cast of black, Latino, and Asian actors, Hamilton puts the American myth into the hands of those who still fight for equality. “This is not a moment; it’s the movement,” Hamilton raps, “where all the hungriest brothers with something to prove went.” In another verse, a character tied to the abolitionist movement vows, “I will pop-chicka-pop these cops till I’m free.”

A significant part of Hamilton’s appeal to online audiences is that it’s essentially fanfiction—that is, it’s a racebent Alternate Universe story based off historic events happening in a nebulous setting that could be modern-day America. Like all the best fanfiction, Hamilton honors the spirit of the original narrative while critiquing it, deconstructing the mythos that “American values” were forged in the singular cultural identity of whiteness.

Sensing that early online momentum, Miranda did something remarkable by most Broadway standards: He joined Tumblr to engage directly with fans and help steer the larger conversations taking shape there. His first Tumblr post urged fans not to circulate bootlegs of the production, and when Hamilton moved to Broadway last July, he started #Ham4Ham to further deter bootlegging by essentially giving fans exclusive, shareable content.

#Ham4Ham featured unique performances from the cast and guest stars, but its real genius was the hashtag. #Ham4Ham established Hamilton as part of Internet culture. “As theaters talk about how to engage audiences, there’s no question that #Ham4Ham is a sterling example,” Howard Sherman wrote in August. Sherman’s office is just down the street from the Richard Rodgers Theatre. When I spoke to him in December, he had attended 42 #Ham4Ham shows, uploading all but one to YouTube. “I started going because I thought it would make for an appealing blog post,” he told me. “Of course I just kept on going.”

As #Ham4Ham performances hit the Internet, Hamilton’s buzz grew. In September, the release of the cast recording sent excitement into the stratosphere on social media. Twitter remixed and memed the #Ham4Ham hashtag with #parksandham (a take on Parks and Recreation), #cap4ham (a nod to Captain America), and #force4ham (just in time for Star Wars: The Force Awakens). Tumblr and YouTube tributes grew endless:

Hamilton fans also took annotation website Genius and began explaining every line of the production. A single number from the show, “Right Hand Man,” contains more than 5,000 words of annotations. With 46 songs in the show and a flood of miscellaneous texts, the Hamilton annotation project has easily exceeded 200,000 words—making it 10 times larger than the already voluminous show itself. Like many fans, Elizabeth Ayme couldn’t afford Hamilton tickets but had been carefully tracking the show for months. She joined Genius with “a huge internal file of Twitter convos, meta speculation, and articles about the show” and quickly got promoted to project editor. She said Genius staffers were “super impressed with our output as a fan group.” The group’s goal of getting Miranda himself to annotate lyrics became a reality in November. Miranda guest-commented on multiple sets of lyrics to elaborate on background context and upvote other people’s comments about the songs. He even answered crowdsourced questions from the community: In January, Hamilton’s daily lottery moved online to spare fans the winter cold. More than 50,000 people jammed the servers, crashing the lottery website for all of Broadway. Miranda has since taken #Ham4Ham online and indoors, filming his own videos for fans. His “Digital #Ham4Ham” videos are more infrequent, but the payoff so far has been big—like the moment Jimmy Fallon showed up to do improv. These days, Miranda doesn’t just understand the power and significance of fandom. He actively participates in a way that’s both informative and endearing. He regularly shares fanart of his musical and asks fans to recommend Hamilton fanfiction to him. He teases the dedicated number of fans who pair him up with his many male co-stars but also embraces and encourages their love of queer relationships. At Broadway Con, a new convention for musical theater fans that took place in New York last month, Hamilton was subject of the headlining panel. During his appearance, Miranda worked references to Instagram and Hamilton cosplay into a freestyle rap for fans: You been rappin-slash-actin’ I been seein’ the Instagram Hamilton re-enactments All day I been prayin’ Imma see a little Eliza Schuyler cosplayin’ Miranda obviously knows how his way around Internet culture. By becoming such an integral part of the community himself, he’s given other Broadway creators a blueprint for how an industry which has frequently had its death knell rung can actually survive and thrive in the Internet era.

Look around, look around

lmmMiranda speaking at Broadway Con The spread of Hamilton fandom hasn’t only been virtual. New Jersey’s Schuyler-Hamilton Mansion, where Hamilton met and courted his wife, Eliza, saw a bump in visitors after the New York Times profiled a visit by Hamilton cast members. Though they’re little known in U.S. history books, Eliza Schuyler and her sister Angelica play a major role in shaping Hamilton’s legacy, and the fandom’s interest in them has been keen. The museum had typically received just a couple of visitors per month. Post-Hamilton, the visitor count jumped to four or five a week, and it’s remained more popular ever since. Pat Sanftner, the mansion’s tour guide, noted that visitors were focusing less on “the big picture of history” and more on Hamilton himself. On social media, Hamilton fans have been trekking across Manhattan and New Jersey, and even further, to connect with Hamiltonian history however they can.

Manhattan’s Trinity Church, where Hamilton and his relatives are buried, has become a mecca for fans bearing flowers and memorials. Even the Museum of American Finance has seen a Hamilton boom, and the U.S. Department of Treasury announced recently it will delay its previously announced removal of Alexander Hamilton from the $10 bill after tremendous outcry from newly minted Hamilton fans.

“It’s this amazing situation where this one founding father has been deemed to be cool,” Sanftner said.

Nicole Nadler would agree. Yet another fan who couldn’t get a ticket, she spent weeks brainstorming ideas for her Hamilton cosplay at Broadway Con. Dressed in a flaming blue jacket and homespun breeches, she carried a quill and inkwell that spilled all over her hands. She joked that that made the look more authentic; Hamilton wrote at breakneck speeds and probably spent lots of time with inky hands.

IMG_0697_smallNadler and friend pose in Hamilton cosplay at Broadway Con

For Nadler, Hamilton’s “fearlessness for what he believes in, no matter what” is the show’s main draw. “He was the definition of a self-made man; he created the American Dream.” Hearing the musical for the first time last fall inspired Nadler to resume her own theater dreams. “Hamilton reignited my entire life,” she says. “He is brazen and courageous and I decided to stop living in fear.”

Like Rent before it, Hamilton pays homage to musical theater tradition while using the language of modern music to speak to subcultures whose stories rarely appear on Broadway: the poor, minorities, immigrants. Hamilton reminds its audience that the history we are taught is not the full picture: “You have no control who lives, who dies, who tells your story,” George Washington sings, in a mantra that becomes one of the musical’s crucial recurring themes.

With its dual past-present sense of import, Hamilton argues that we’re each making history every minute, non-stop. Perhaps this, even more than Miranda and his inspirational immigrant muse, is the ultimate appeal of Hamilton: It encourages us to live, not for the moment, but for the movement—to think about how our lives can impact the world.

“We all relate to Hamilton,” Nadler says. “We all want to leave our mark. We all want to be fearless. It’s all only a matter of time.”


Correction: An earlier version of this article misidentified the late-night show who appeared in a #Ham4Ham video. It was Jimmy Fallon.

Illustration by Max Fleishman