When Hamilton opened Off-Broadway in February, I called it groundbreaking and breathtaking – and I was trying not to gush. Lin-Manuel Miranda’s hip-hop musical about the life and times of the Founding Father whose face is on the ten dollar bill has drawn exuberant bipartisan praise – from both Obama and Cheney, both Sondheim and Andrew Lloyd Webber.
Now that it has opened on Broadway, Hamilton has the potential to do something revolutionary – to help dissolve Broadway’s dependence on British imports, and throw off the tyranny of Hollywood adaptations.
There seems to be just one major danger ahead – that Hamilton’s early adopters have created such high expectations for this original musical that it will wind up disappointing theatergoers who are used to more conventional Broadway fare.
On the other hand, at a certain point in the life of a hit Broadway show, any individual opinion no longer matters; it’s a hit because it’s a hit, and people go because it’s a hit; those who don’t like it are likely to blame themselves.
Given its $30 million in advance ticket sales, is it possible that Hamilton has already reached that point?
From Orphan Immigrant to Architect of The American Experiment
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?
Those are the first words in the musical, and they are delivered as a rap by…Aaron Burr (Leslie Odom Jr.), Hamilton’s killer. John Laurens (Anthony Ramos), a friend of Alexander Hamilton’s who died during the American Revolution, answers:
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…
In rapid succession, three presidents – Thomas Jefferson (Daveed Diggs), James Madison (Okieriete Onaodowan) and George Washington (Christopher Jackson) – join Hamilton’s wife Eliza (Phillipa Soo) and the ensemble in telling the miserable and inspirational story of Alexander Hamilton’s first 17 years of life, up to the point of his immigration from the Caribbean island of Nevis to New York City. This first rap covers about the first 40 pages of the 700-page biography of Alexander Hamilton by Ron Chernow that inspired Lin-Manuel Miranda to write the musical – a six-year journey that began when Miranda performed an early version of this first rap at the White House for President Obama and the First Lady.
In nearly four dozen songs over three hours, we witness the extraordinary high points and peculiar low points in Alexander Hamilton’s life, and, through them, get something of an overview of three crucial decades in early American history. As Chernow points out in the biography, Hamilton had a “unique flair for materializing at every major turning point in the early history of the republic.” As a result “the foremost political figure in American history who never attained the presidency…had a much deeper and more lasting impact than many who did.”
So, in a combination of rap narration and sung-through dramatization, Hamilton talks revolution in a tavern with his buddies, including the Marquis de Lafayette (Diggs again); serves as General George Washington’s right-hand man during the revolutionary war; proposes a new form of government as a delegate at the Constitutional Convention; serves as first Secretary of the Treasury for the new nation. Hamilton engages in two debates with Jefferson, staged as rap battles complete with Washington as MC/moderator, over 1. Hamilton’s plan to assume state debt and establish a national bank, and 2. his insistence on maintaining neutrality in European wars. We see Hamilton as the perpetrator and victim of political intrigue, as the central figure in the nation’s first political sex scandal, and as a survivor of several tragedies – until the final one, death in a duel with Burr.
Woven into these public events are some scenes of his personal life – how he woos his wife Eliza, and is charmed by her sister Angelica (Renée Elise Goldsberry), smart, loyal daughters of an old powerful New York family.
But the most interesting relationship in the musical is between Hamilton and Burr. Miranda makes clear how much the two had in common – both were orphans, both ambitious, both ladies men — and how they were as much friends as rivals. Burr gets the bulk of the expository raps, and some of the best lines. When he tries to woo Angelica:
Angelica: Burr you disgust me
Burr: Ah, so you discussed me
I’m a trust fund baby, you can trust me.
What Makes Hamilton Groundbreaking
Musically bold and eclectic: Hamilton is far from the first successful musical to use rap, as some have absurdly claimed. Miranda’s own In The Heights, which won five Tony Awards and lasted 1184 performances (closing in 2011), included a healthy mix of rap songs. But Hamilton is the first to use rap to tell a story that has no direct connection to contemporary hip-hop culture – done so well that it never feels like a campy anachronism, but rather like a translation that adds clarity and even a kind of heft to the proceedings. This is clearest in those rap battles
Jefferson: Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.
We fought for these ideals; we shouldn’t settle for less
…Look, when Britain taxed our tea, we got frisky.
Imagine what gon’ happen when you try to tax our whisky.
Hamilton: Thomas. That was a real nice declaration.
Welcome to the present. We’re running a real nation. Would you like to join us, or stay mellow,
doin’ whatever the hell it is you do in Monticello?
If we assume the debts, the union gets
A new line of credit, a financial diuretic
how do you not get it? If we’re aggressive and competitive
the union gets a boost. You’d rather give it a sedative?
Rap, however, is not the only color on the musical palette. Miranda’s score features some delightful jazz, rhythm and blues, Beatles-like pop, contemporary ballads, and even a smidgen of light opera. This is a composer who takes in the world; like the songwriters of The Book of Mormon, he pays homage by alluding to (sampling) such greats in musical theater as Rodgers and Hammerstein and even Gilbert and Sullivan, but unlike them, he does the same for such revered rappers as Notorious B.I.G. Hamilton signals a possible return to the time when Broadway music equaled popular music.
Smirk-free history: Hamilton returns to a tone of respect towards American history – and indeed, to American politics – that became unfashionable more than half a century ago. It is diligent to matters of historical accuracy, rarely trying to make modern-day audiences feel superior to people in the past, but rather helping us to see some parallels. (There is one delectable exception. See below.)
Colorful casting: All but one of the performers playing the principal characters are people of color. This is not “color-blind casting,” as some have written. This was a deliberate aesthetic, and, dare I say, political choice.
As I’ve pointed out elsewhere, Alexander Hamilton was an impoverished immigrant who became a successful, assimilated New Yorker — a now-archetypical American story, but one rarely associated with a founding father. Miranda, the New York City son of Caribbean-born (Puerto Rican) parents, whose birthday is five days (+225 years) after Hamilton’s, makes him an explicit stand-in for the nation as a whole:
Hey, yo, I’m just like my country
I’m young, scrappy and hungry
And I’m not throwing away my shot
With these performers, some descended from slaves, portraying the eighteenth century founders, many of whom were slave-owners, Hamilton is in effect saying for a new generation: We’re America too.
How Hamilton Is Breathtaking
Analyzing the importance of Hamilton misses the main takeaway from the musical: It’s thrilling to watch. It seems always in motion, thanks to a creative team largely reassembled from In The Heights, including director Thomas Kail, and especially choreographer Andy Blankenbuehler, who keeps the sexy ensemble very busy.
They help enhance what are some terrific performances.
One of the great revelations of Hamilton is Daveed Diggs, making his Broadway debut, who plays Lafayette in Act One and Jefferson in Act II. Diggs is absolutely sensational as Jefferson returning to America after serving as ambassador to France, in “What’d I Miss?” a jazzy number that establishes Jefferson in this musical as a slinky Cab Calloway hipster with just the right moves, a huckster and dandy in too-frilly clothing.
It is an interpretation of Jefferson, given hilarious and riveting expression by Diggs, that is largely a reflection of the historical bias in Miranda’s source material, Chernow’s biography of Hamilton.
As Pulitzer-winning historian Joseph Ellis has astutely pointed out: “It is truly humbling, perhaps even dispiriting, to realize that the historical debate over the revolutionary era and the early republic merely recapitulates the ideological debate conducted at the time, that…historians have declared themselves Jeffersonians or Hamiltonians, committed individualists or dedicated nationalists, liberals or conservatives, then written accounts that favor one camp over the other.” In Hamiltonian accounts, Jefferson is “the culprit.”
In Miranda’s very Hamiltonian musical, Jefferson comes off as more of a knave even than Burr. This at least allows us to see a Burr of unprecedented complexity, and it is a pleasure to have him portrayed by the reliable Leslie Odom Jr., who is probably most familiar as Sam from Smash. He has one spectacular rhythm and blues number, “The Room Where It Happens,” that should make him a star, but Odom does much heavy lifting throughout Hamilton.
Christopher Jackson is a stolid and completely credible George Washington, who gets his own rousing r&b number, “One Last Time,” but is also clearly an experienced rapper.
Renée Elise Goldsberry’s showstopping number is probably “Satisfied” – you’ll notice that Miranda makes sure to give each of the principal cast a number to knock out of the park. The Schuyler sisters make for great reading in Chernow’s history book – Angelica in particular seems ahead of her time – but they don’t translate quite as well as some of the other characters to the stage.
Jonathan Groff represents the exception, in several ways. He’s a white guy. He’s fairly well-known (Spring Awakening, Frozen, Looking.) And he portrays the one totally campy character in the show – King George III. Every now and then, he walks delicately up to the lip of the stage in full royal regalia, and complains about America’s behavior as if she were a jilting girlfriend, in songs that sound exactly like the Beatles circa 1966:
You’ll be back
soon you’ll see
you’ll remember you belong to me
we have seen each other through it all
and when push
comes to shove
I will send a fully armed battalion
to remind you of my love
Groff replaces Brian d’Arcy James, who played it Off-Broadway but left to star in Something Rotten. His is one of the few cast changes; a few ensemble members are also new. For those who saw the musical Off-Broadway, there is otherwise little discernible difference, other than staging that takes account of the larger Richard Rodgers Theater; more of the action takes place on the lip of the stage. Rather than their trimming the show, as I had hoped, it actually runs a few minutes longer.
At least once a week, usually on a weekend matinee, Javier Muñoz performs the role of Alexander Hamilton normally played by Lin-Manuel Miranda, the composer, lyricist and book writer of Hamilton. (It was Muñoz who performed when President Obama attended.) I have seen both actors in the part now, and the difference is instructive. Muñoz seems to play up Alexander Hamilton’s ambition, and play down his charisma. Miranda has a star’s charisma, but when he makes his first entrance, head tilted down, eyes intense, like a hip bull (or a bullish hipster) and raps his first words:
My name is Alexander Hamilton
You can’t help thinking
That man is Lin-Manuel Miranda
He hasn’t shaped a new country. But he has reacquainted us with somebody who did – and in doing so may wind up shaping a new theater.
Hamilton is playing at the Richard Rodgers Theater 226 West 46th Street, New York, NY 10036 (between Broadway and 8th Avenue)
Details and tickets