Memo to ambitious politicians: Never mind aiming for the history books. Set your sights instead on musical theater. But be mindful that as Broadway giveth, Broadway also taketh away when it comes to public image.
After all, how often does musical theater — and its wildly enthusiastic fans — help shape national policy when it comes to US currency?
An outcry from fans of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s blockbuster Broadway hit “Hamilton,” and personal lobbying of Treasury Secretary Jacob J. Lew by Miranda himself, are believed to have been significant factors in Lew’s decision on Wednesday not to jettison Alexander Hamilton’s likeness from the $10 bill, as had been planned, in favor of putting a woman on the nation’s paper currency.
Instead Hamilton will remain, while Andrew Jackson, who owned slaves, will be bumped from the face of the $20 bill in favor of Harriet Tubman, a former slave who became the leader of the Underground Railroad. Jackson will be reduced to a smaller spot on the back of the bill.
On one level, these remarkable developments can be seen as a tale of two musicals — “Hamilton’’ and “Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson’’ — that have molded public opinion with very different depictions of their protagonists.
It’s an exceedingly unusual role for musical theater, an art form that seldom finds itself in the red-hot center of policy disputes. But then there has been nothing usual about this year in public life, has there? Surely it’s only a matter of time before we’re treated to “Trump! The Musical.’’
Until then we have Hamilton, a Founding Father who is treated sympathetically — some historians say a bit too sympathetically — in “Hamilton,’’ which won the Pulitzer Prize for drama this week. The hip-hop musical’s portrait of Hamilton is that of a passionate, striving genius who is absolutely committed to the new nation and who will combat any foe in order to put that nation on a stable footing.
The show’s massive popularity — tickets are extraordinarily hard to get and very pricey, the cast album set sales records when it debuted late last year, and songs from the album have been streamed millions of times — led to a surge in Hamilton’s own popularity.
Lew took his wife to see “Hamilton’’ last summer for their anniversary, and he met the cast backstage. Then last month Miranda and other cast members performed selections from “Hamilton’’ at the White House. On that same trip to Washington, Lew gave Miranda a brief tour of the Treasury, during which Miranda asked him about plans for the $10 bill. After that meeting, Miranda tweeted out that the treasury secretary “told me ‘you’re going to be very happy.’ ”
Jackson has not been similarly smiled upon by Washington power-brokers, Broadway composers, or posterity.
Once considered a hero for leading troops to victory in the Battle of New Orleans in the War of 1812, he has since fallen far from favor. In “Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson,’’ which ran on Broadway in 2010-2011, Jackson was depicted as charismatic but violent and essentially vapid, relentless in his self-serving pursuit of fame, brutal in his treatment of Native Americans, and even a bit deranged. For many theatergoers, the rock musical was an opportunity to learn about the dark past of a figure few thought about much anymore.
While there is a less direct link between that musical (created by Alex Timbers and Michael Friedman) and Lew’s decision, “Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson’’ no doubt helped to undermine Jackson’s stature in the public mind. It has been presented at multiple regional theaters since it closed on Broadway, including a 2012 production at Boston’s SpeakEasy Stage Company.
Now Jackson is poised for another major downgrade, while Hamilton — “the ten-dollar founding father without a father,’’ as a lyric in “Hamilton’’ puts it — has managed to cling to his spot on the $10 bill. All in all, it’s been a curious little drama. Maybe there’s a musical in it.