“Hamilton,” Lin-Manuel Miranda’s groundbreaking new musical about the life and times of the Founding Father whose face is on the ten dollar bill, is thrilling on at least three levels – as a series of exciting performances, as an entertaining history lesson, and as the first-ever hip-hop opera.
Now, the Public Theater, where the show has opened, would object to the phrase “hip hop opera”; it even avoids using “hip hop musical”, for two solid reasons:
1. There is much more than just rap in “Hamilton,” with Miranda composing a range of sparkling music, from R&B to jazz to Beatles-like pop to beautiful Broadway ballads, and even a snatch of light opera.
2. “Hip hop” is not good for marketing, since it could turn off regular theatergoers.
But “hip-hop” fits, and not just because of how much rapping there is in the show. Hip hop represents a culture that goes beyond just a specific meter in song, or identifiable physical movement. If the Hip Hop Nation is full of young outsiders, so was the budding American nation. Most of the cast of “Hamilton” are people of color – performers, many descended from slaves, portraying the 18th century founders, many of whom were slave-owners. “Hamilton” signals in effect a new generation saying: We’re America too. That alone is stirring.
And that is only part of the breathtaking accomplishment of this show written by and starring Miranda, who more or less reassembles the creative team from his Tony-winning “In The Heights,” including director Thomas Kail. “Hamilton” turns a nerd’s refuge of earnest civics lesson and a sing-through musical into something so hip and engaging that it seems destined not just to please traditional theatergoers and history buffs but to attract a whole new audience – fans of B.I.G. and Tupac Shakur, and other rap stars to which the score slyly pays homage.
A show that even before it opened received ecstatic praise from such gods of musical theater as Stephen Sondheim (“I was knocked out.”) and Andrew Lloyd Webber (“It raises and changes the bar for musicals”) is going to raise expectations too high. I feel it part of my civic duty, then, to point out that Hamilton is not a perfect show. Swirling with characters, crowded with incident, full of dense language, it’s simply too much to take in at a single sitting.
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An Orphan Raised in Squalor Becomes Hero and Scholar
Miranda’s choice to make this a sweeping biography is certainly at least intellectually justified by the fascinating figure at its center.
“In all probability, Alexander Hamilton is the foremost political figure in American history who never attained the presidency, yet he probably had a much deeper and more lasting impact than many who did,” Ron Chernow writes in his 2004 “Alexander Hamilton” a 700-page biography that inspired and informed Miranda’s musical. “Hamilton was the supreme double threat among the founding fathers, at once thinker and doer, sparkling theoretician and masterful executive.” At the same time, he was also at the center of America’s first political sex scandal; an antagonist as adept at making enemies as he was in forging friendships – sometimes with the same people (Exhibit A: Aaron Burr); the only founding father with both a tragic end and a startlingly miserable beginning.
“Hamilton” begins by summing up the first 17 years of his life (roughly the first 40 pages of the biography) in a single rap:
How does a bastard, orphan son of a whore
And a Scotsman, dropped in the middle of a forgotten spot
In the Caribbean, by Providence, impoverished, in squalor
Grow up to be a hero and a scholar?
The ten-dollar Founding Father without a father
Got a lot farther
By working a lot harder
By being a lot smarter
By being a self-starter
This is the same rap that Miranda composed six years ago to perform at the White House for President Obama and the First Lady that began the journey towards “Hamilton.” It goes on to explain how Hamilton’s father abandoned the family when Hamilton was 10, his mother died when he was 12, a cousin who then took care of him committed suicide. The rap has been altered somewhat, and it now is recited by a series of characters featured prominently in the story to come – three presidents, Jefferson, Madison and George Washington; Hamilton’s wife; his best friend…and Aaron Burr. Aaron Burr is the first and last character who speaks in the opening rap (“I’m the damn fool that shot him”), and the most frequent narrator of Hamilton’s life throughout the musical. It is one of the many fresh, smart choices in this show.
Indeed, in this first number, we get an introduction to many of the musical’s strengths: There is an energy and intelligence present in the principal performers, in the choreography by Andy Blankenbuehler, in the graceful, hard-working ensemble.
There is an in-your-face mix of contemporary and colonial styles – Paul Tazewell’s costumes include silk gowns for the principal women characters; breeches, brocaded coats with epaulettes and cloaks for the men, while he dresses the ensemble in what look like long johns, or outfits most apt for a modern dance concert. But somehow the mash-up never feels anachronistic. It is as if the language of 18th century colonial America were being translated into, say, modern Italian – whatever changes from the original are meant respectfully, and intended for better comprehension by the audience. Unlike “Bloody, Bloody Andrew Jackson”, “Hamilton” does not come off as campy (with one delectable exception.)
In almost three dozen songs over 160+ minutes, “Hamilton” proceeds to cover some three decades of a pivotal period in American history through the highlights and low points in Hamilton’s life – from newly arrived Caribbean immigrant to General Washington’s right hand man during the American Revolution to President Washington’s Secretary of the Treasury to post-Washington policy debates, political intrigue, scandal, tragedy. It goes more or less chronologically, with a combination of rap narration and sung-through dramatization. Some of the more memorable moments:
Christopher Jackson as George Washington presides like an MC over policy debates between Thomas Jefferson (Daveed Diggs) and Hamilton that are indistinguishable from a rap battle. It’s worth noting that Diggs plays Jefferson like a Cab Calloway-like jazz hipster — a dandy and a schemer. This seems intentional revisionist history, meant to upend the usual equation familiar to us from school books – Jeffersonian=democracy; Hamiltonian=aristocracy.
Phillipa Soo as Hamilton’s wife Eliza beatboxes while their son Philip (Anthony Ramos) recites a rap to make his father proud.
Brian d’Arcy James portrays King George III as a slightly effete figure in absurdly ornate (though probably historically accurate) regalia, singing songs that sound unmistakably derived from Beatles tune (The Beatles, let’s reluctantly acknowledge, were British after all.)
You’ll be back
You’ll remember that you belong to me
(This is the one campy interlude in the show.)
Leslie Odom Jr. portrays Aaron Burr with unprecedented sympathy and clarity. His theatrical training comes in handy; of all the performers, it’s easiest to make out what he’s saying when he raps. He is also given some of the pithiest rap phrases:
He advises Hamilton when they first meet
I’m a trust fund baby
You can trust me
when he tries to woo the woman who goes for Hamilton instead
Miranda’s enthusiasm for his subject has its downside. It’s interesting to note that Philippa Soo was the break-out star of Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812, Dave Malloy’s musical adaptation of a small sliver of War and Peace. Lin-Manuel Miranda doesn’t do…slivers. As terrific as d’Arcy James’s turn as George III, did he really need to sing three separate but similar numbers? Yes, Chernow makes it clear that Hamilton’s sister-in-law Angelica Schuyler (his wife Eliza’s sister) was a large presence in his life, and Renee Elise Goldsberry is exquisite, but do we really need three Schuyler sisters? Do we need two rap battles about public policy? Miranda the composer and book writer seems deeply generous to the performers portraying the other characters, giving each at least one extended number in which to shine. Perhaps this is to a fault; the show seems to be as much about the people around Alexander Hamilton as it does about Hamilton.
“Hamilton” is at its best, when it’s at its most distilled – at such chilling moments when, near the end, Aaron Burr says simply:
At the Public Theater
Book, music and lyrics by Lin-Manuel Miranda, inspired by the book “Alexander Hamilton,” by Ron Chernow; choreography by Andy Blankenbuehler; directed by Thomas Kail; sets by David Korins; costumes by Paul Tazewell; lighting by Howell Binkley; sound by Nevin Steinberg; hair and wig design by Charles LaPointe; arrangements by Alex Lacamoire and Miranda; orchestrations/music direction by Lacamoire.
Cast: Daveed Diggs (Marquis de Lafayette/Thomas Jefferson), Renée Elise Goldsberry (Angelica Schuyler), Christopher Jackson (George Washington), Brian d’Arcy James (King George), Jasmine Cephas Jones (Peggy Schuyler/Maria Reynolds), Lin-Manuel Miranda (Alexander Hamilton), Leslie Odom Jr. (Aaron Burr), Okieriete Onaodowan (Hercules Mulligan/James Madison), Anthony Ramos (John Laurens/Philip Hamilton) and Phillipa Soo (Eliza Hamilton).
Ensemble: Carleigh Bettiol, Andrew Chappelle, Ariana DeBose, Alysha Deslorieux, Sydney James Harcourt, Sasha Hutchings, Thayne Jasperson, Stephanie Klemons, Javier Muñoz, , Jon Rua, Seth Stewart, Betsy Struxness, Ephraim Sykes, and Voltaire Wade-Greene
Running time: 2 hours and 45 minutes including one intermission.
Tickets: $120 (but “there are currently no tickets available for this production. Please check back in the future as additional tickets may become available prior to each performance.”)
Hamilton is scheduled to run through May 3. But that is not the last we will have heard from this show, guaranteed.
Update Feb 24: Hamilton will transfer to Broadway, at the Richard Rodgers Theater (home for Miranda’s In The Heights.) Previews are scheduled to begin July 13, opening on Aug 6.