The Cultural Power of New York City

Promotional image for Hamilton the musical.

Promotional image for Hamilton the musical.

I’ve never been a huge theater guy in general, much less Broadway shows. So I never paid that much attention to it.

But the smash success of Hamilton is something hard to ignore. And it really provides a window into the overwhelming cultural power of New York.

Hamilton is a play that is running at a theater that seats 1,300 people. You’d think that by its very nature as one play, in one city, in a not that big venue, it would be limited in the effects it could have.

But Hamilton turned out to be a sensation whose effects extended far beyond Broadway. President Obama saw it multiple times.  The Wall Street Journal reported that even in Washington, in political circles it’s embarrassing if people find out you haven’t seen Hamilton.  The cast album was a best seller, reaching #1 on the Billboard rap charts and #12 overall.

But the most interesting thing to me is the role that Hamilton the musical played in keeping Hamilton the man on the face of the $10 bill.  The Treasury secretary had previously announced that Hamilton was going to go, replaced by a female to be named later. Eventually he reversed course and decided to put a woman on the $20 instead. Various factors played into this. Some women’s groups lobbied for the $20 because it is more widely used than the $10.  Others decried Jackson for racism. But even the New York Times said, “nothing so roiled the debate as the phenomenon of the musical ‘Hamilton.’”

The idea that some play running in New York could affect the decisions of the federal government is pretty stunning, and validates the dictum that politics is downstream from culture.

What’s more, it shows the cultural clout of cities, and especially that of New York.  Broadway and London’s West End are the theater equivalent of major label record company or major Hollywood studios. In many such media and cultural fields, there are a handful of key entities, and those are overwhelmingly based in New York, London, and Los Angeles, which wield grossly disproportionate cultural clout compared to other cities.

from Aaron M. Renn


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