Selecting “Hamilton” is in part the act of two institutions, the center and CBS, which broadcasts the taped ceremony each December, desperate to keep the Honors in the news and catnip for Nielsen families. (The event is also the center’s biggest fundraising event of the year.) Since first awarded in 1978, the Honors, after all, have made their reputation by annually pinning the word “classic” on the great performing careers in American life, as diverse as Fred Astaire and Yo-Yo Ma, Leonard Bernstein and Aretha Franklin.
Is the wildly popular “Hamilton,” unveiled to the world in 2015, a classic? Do we know yet if it is a transcendent touchstone of American culture, in the manner of a Sinatra, a Sondheim, or even a Dolly Parton? Does it merit this recognition before, say, Aaron Copland’s “Fanfare for the Common Man” or Lorraine Hansberry’s “A Raisin in the Sun” or Duke Ellington’s jazz compositions? Surely not. In this sense, the Kennedy Center is taking a risk with its long game, and messing with the mission of the Honors. Which is to say that the Honors have long sought to set in stone artistic achievement — not be part of the original, taste-making plaster.
And yet, if the Honors are branching out, there’s great pride to be taken in the American theater that the first new sprout is a musical. Musicals may have their roots in European operetta and English music hall, but they have been perfected on these shores and are a quintessential American art form. Like the nation itself, musical theater is a hybrid variety, and one shaped largely by immigrants — and it can be safely averred that nobody makes them better than we do.
It is therefore fitting that in broadening the Honors pantheon to include creation, and not just creators, the Kennedy Center is bolstering the notion of the musical as a form both popular and worthy of serious artistic consideration.
It so happens that “Hamilton” is ensconced for the summer in the Opera House at the Kennedy Center, which built an aggressive marketing outreach to potential subscribers around the three-month stay. This is also the second year in a row in which an Honors recipient has a tie-in with the center’s box office: last year, Gloria Estefan received an Honors a month in advance of the arrival in the Opera House of “On Your Feet!,” the biographical Broadway musical about her and husband, Emilio. But it’s also clear that the rationale for the extraordinary exception by the selection committee — six former Honorees, four Kennedy Center trustees, plus center President Deborah Rutter and Chairman David Rubenstein — has deeper justification.
In addition to the Honors, the show’s four creators who are decades younger than the vast majority of past Honorees — composer and book writer Miranda; director Thomas Kail; choreographer Andy Blankenbuehler and music director and orchestrator Alex Lacamoire — are being singled out for special awards.
Rutter, in a telephone interview, noted that in subject matter, fusion of musical and theatrical styles, and even in the casting of actors of color as the white men and women of the American Revolution, “Hamilton” has profound implications for the wider culture. “It has changed how we think about who is on the stage,” she said. “It changes how we think about storytelling. The more you see the show, the more you peel back the layers, you see that the social piece of it is really important, too. It has proven our collective point that the arts can help us understand ourselves, and where we come from.”
One would be hard-pressed to assert that we are in another golden era for musical theater; the costs, commercial pressures and an encroaching corporate mentality militate too often against the kinds of singular work that aspire to being classic. Still, in placing “Hamilton” on a perch normally reserved these days for Oscar-winning actors, pop legends and estimable jazz greats, the Kennedy Center is suggesting the American musical itself is a star in the national constellation.
The Kennedy Center Honors are bestowed Dec. 2. A taped broadcast airs Dec. 26 at 8 p.m. on CBS.