I recently saw Hamilton again on Broadway, during a rare open captioned performance, and it was a revelation in several ways.
When I had last seen Hamilton, about two years ago, the last remaining original principal cast member was just about to depart, and I was full of questions:
How would the show change with new leads?
Would the replacement cast members generate some of the same excitement as the original leads, whose roles brought them awards, fame, fandom and a promising future?
What would be the future of the show? Would it wind up being a Broadway institution like “Phantom of the Opera,” or would the seeming indestructible juggernaut simply peter out, like “In The Heights,” Lin-Manuel Miranda’s last big success on Broadway, which was a critical and popular hit, but lasted only three years?
Four years after its debut, some of the answers have become clearer. About 125 people, out of an audience of some 1,300, were able to buy tickets at discounted rates to attend Hamilton as part of TAP, the TDF Accessibility Programs, which has provided just such services for people with disabilities since 1979. Many of the audience members at the Hamilton open captioned performance were Deaf, and vigorously signing with one another before the show began.
In my first review of Hamilton, when it opened Off-Broadway in February, 2015, I found it groundbreaking and breathtaking, an astonishing show. But I also had a concern, which I expressed, half jokingly, as being part of my civic duty to make sure expectations weren’t raised too high: “Swirling with characters, crowded with incident, full of dense language, it’s simply too much to take in at a single sitting.” Why, I asked, was it necessary to have two rap battles about 18th century public policy rather than one, and three Schuyler Sisters, and three similar numbers by King George?
Four years later, I’ve had many sittings — watching the musical on stage, listening to the album, and reading the libretto — and I get the show in a way I did not initially. The reason for three Schuyler Sisters, even though Peggy doesn’t really figure in the plot, is so that the number “The Schuyler Sisters” evokes R&B/Soul girl trios like Destiny’s Child or the Supremes. And I now see it as part of the show’s genius that, in telling the story of the Founding Father who was the first Secretary of the Treasury, Miranda found several ways to unfold the larger history of the early years of the American experiment. The King George ditties threaded through the musical serve as entertaining reference points in the timeline. The most memorable of his three songs, “You’ll be Back,” uses a Beatles-like melody to present Great Britain humorously as a spurned lover reacting to America’s declaration of separation:
comes to shove,
I will send a fully armed battalion
to remind you of my love!
But then the character eventually follows this by “What Comes Next,” after the Americans have won the revolution, with an important question:
You’re on your own.
Do you have a clue what happens now?
And finally, “I Know Him”:
George Washington’s yielding his power and stepping away.
I wasn’t aware that was something a person could do.
The lyrics make fun of the second president John Adams (“That poor man, they’re gonna eat him alive!”) but it emphasizes what historians generally see as the most important action George Washington took as president on behalf of the fledgling democracy – quitting.
Having the same character sing the same tune is a way of orienting us, and the recurring phrase “Oceans rise/Empires fall” in all three iterations reminds us that the survival of the United States was not a given.
However, there is still the matter of the dense language. It’s only by reading along to the album that an ear untrained in rapid rap (e.g. my ear) could make out each and every word that Angelica Schuyler raps in “Satisfied,” or the 19 words within three seconds that Lafayette reportedly raps in “Guns and Ships.”
This is why the open captioning, scrolling on a LED screen beneath the stage at the far right corner of the auditorium, provided a level of clarity that might well make it possible to absorb the show’s layers in a single sitting. Finally getting every word during a performance makes Hamilton’s storytelling feel much more of a whole. It’s curious that audiences don’t push to make such captioning a more frequent occurrence.
The 2019 cast, too, is a revelation, though perhaps somewhat double-edged.
Some of the performers couldn’t be better. James Monroe Iglehart, who took over as the Marquis de Lafayette and Thomas Jefferson in April, 2017, after a Tony-winning three year run as the Genie in “Aladdin,” is spectacular. He has a beautiful deep voice, and a playful nature that draws us in. Mandy Gonzalez, whose performance already bowled me over when I first saw it a few months after she assumed the role as Angelica Schuyler, has grown in assurance. Jennie Harney, who is usually the standby for all three Schuyler Sisters, performed as Eliza Hamilton on the night I saw the show, and was spot-on in her mixture of anger and heartache in “Burn.” I like Euan Morton as King George; he’s toned down the campiness (which struck me in past performances as gratuitously and uncomfortably reading as gay) without losing the humor. Daniel Breaker is the latest of a baker’s dozen of Aaron Burrs (including standbys and understudies.) If he doesn’t particularly stand out compared to originator Leslie Odom Jr. or Brandon Victor Dixon, he continues the tradition of having the clearest diction in the cast, which is to the good, since he serves most frequently as the narrator.
It was seeing Christopher Jackson in “In The Heights” that reportedly convinced Carvens Lissaint, the son of Haitian immigrants, to become a performer. Jackson went on to originate the role of George Washington in “Hamilton” that Lissaint now portrays – first as a standby in the Broadway production, then full-time on the national tour, and since October at the Richard Rodgers. This is a compelling enough biography that I was disappointed how much Jackson’s performance overshadowed Lissaint’s. There’s less of a sense of natural ease and authority. Perhaps it’s a conscious choice to interpret Washington as more readily expressing his frustration, and I just needed to open my mind to a different conception of the first president of the United States.
I don’t think it helped that the new Washington is shorter than the new Alexander Hamilton.
In his Broadway debut, Austin Scott began last month as the bastard orphan born in squalor who became a hero and a scholar. Scott is a tall, handsome leading man with a fine voice. But he is the blandest of the Alexander Hamiltons I’ve seen so far, especially coming immediately after Michael Luwoye, who played the immigrant Founding Father with a fierce level of intensity, along with a look of hurt in his eyes that helped explain the man’s recklessness and his drive.
Perhaps the memory of the original cast will fade. Perhaps the new leads will grow into their roles. But one of the things the latest performance of “Hamilton” on Broadway made clear to me is that the replacement cast members don’t have to give star quality performances for the show to shine.
For more photographs, videos and writing on this show over the years, check out “Everything Hamilton”