The singular genius of Hamilton, the greatest musical ever written, is that it recognizes that the American Revolution did not end with Yorktown, but is ongoing, even today, and that there are Founders of America being born even as we speak.
At the conclusion of our other great origin musical, 1776, the signers of the Declaration are arranged en tableau — arranged, in fact, as they were in John Trumbill’s painting, which now graces the back of the two dollar bill. It is self-consciously static: the Declaration is signed, the die is cast, and the business of our evening of theater has come to an end.
Hamilton is different. It ends with Hamilton’s widow Eliza (the operatic Julia K. Harriman), who lived until nearly the Civil War, singing (to him; she believes in the immortality of the soul) about the advances she, and the country, made since Hamilton’s death: her battle against slavery; her founding of New York’s first private orphanage. One can imagine some young Founder of America — Frederick Douglass, perhaps — then singing about the struggle to establish racial equality; followed by Founder of America Elizabeth Cady Stanton singing about winning the vote for women; followed by Founder of America Martin Luther King…well, you get the picture.
Hamilton is by its nature kinetic: the story of a nation constantly in motion — “just like my country, I’m young, scrappy and hungry” in the musical’s iconic phrase — shown by a cast constantly in motion. It is in capturing this element that the superb touring production now at the Kennedy Center shines its brightest. Andy Blankenbuehler’s brilliant choreography, aided by scenic designer David Korins’ movable set (two concentric circles, the outer moving clockwise, the inner counterclockwise, are at the center of the stage) shows us a cast, a movement, a nation, which will not be still and will not be silent.
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Hamilton knits the past up with the present not only through its cast, multi-racial as now we are, and its language but with delightful anachronisms. (Hamilton’s close friend John Laurents [Rubén J. Carbajal], meeting Hamilton in a tavern, explains that he’s working on his third pint of Sam Adams.)
Founder of America Alexander Hamilton (Austin Scott), as you probably know, was born on the tiny Caribbean Island of St. Nevis to a couple who lived together without the legal sanction of matrimony. When he was about seven his father abandoned the family; four years later his mother died of Yellow Fever. He was adrift and penniless — and prodigiously brilliant. His fellow Islanders, recognizing the force of his searing intellect, took up a subscription and sent him to New York, where he could receive a proper education.
He did more than that. By the age of twenty-four he was Secretary to Founder of America General George Washington (Carvens Lissaint) — a position more like Chief of Staff today. After we won the war, he became a lawyer and a powerful advocate of a strong central government. With Founder of America James Madison (Chaundre Hall-Broomfield) he wrote The Federalist Papers, which not only convinced America to adopt its Constitution but serves, even today, as an important source of understanding and interpreting the Constitution. After Washington became President he appointed Hamilton Secretary of the Treasury where he founded the First National Bank, introduced a national currency and convinced Congress that the nation must assume state debts. He established the fundamentals of our economic system; they are still in place today.
He succeeded on ambition and brainpower. He had almost no political gifts, and by the time Washington’s second term was over he was back in the private sector. There, he helped establish the Coast Guard and the New York Post and seconded General Washington when the retired President was asked to lead a force quell a rebellion. But a colossal misjudgment — he admitted, in the infamous Reynolds Pamphlet, to having paid blackmail money to his mistress’ husband in order to avoid being accused of the worse crime of speculation — ruined his reputation, and the viability of his political career. Nevertheless, he greatly influenced the Presidential election of 1800, which became entangled in the remainder of his life.
He died at the age of forty-seven, in 1804, by gunfire. In a duel. With the Vice-President of the United States.
How can an artist do justice to such an overstuffed life? The historian Ron Chernow, whose “Alexander Hamilton” inspired the musical’s creation, does the job in 731 dense, intelligent pages. But how can this be a play, much less a musical? A mini-series would hardly be adequate; there is enough incidents for a hundred scripts, maybe more.
Hamilton‘s brilliant strategy is to steal an idea from another great musical biography. Like Jesus Christ Superstar, Hamilton is told from the perspective of the subject’s principal antagonist. In this case it is Aaron Burr (Nicholas Christopher), the New York politician who eventually brought Hamilton’s life to an end. Burr, in life as in the musical, was a charming opportunist and trimmer whose will to power was unencumbered by any political philosophy or, for that matter, any ethics. Aside from slaughtering Hamilton in a duel, Burr is best known for almost becoming President when Thomas Jefferson’s electors dutifully cast their two votes for Jefferson and Burr, each believing that someone else would throw his vote away so that Jefferson would become President and Burr Vice-President. The tie vote threw the election to the House of Representatives, where Burr campaigned desperately until Hamilton’s endorsement put Jefferson over the top. (Electors now vote separately for President and Vice-President). Burr also tried to get himself named emperor of Louisiana.
Burr’s point of view compresses and intensifies the play. We see not Hamilton’s life, but Hamilton’s life as Burr saw it — a combination of personal experience, historical knowledge (Burr survived Hamilton by thirty-two years), gossip and imagination. Christopher helps things along by imbuing Burr with a sort of savage nervous energy. While the explosive force of optimism and the sacred mission of birthing a new nation compel the other characters forward, Christopher’s Burr flits from project to project, a smile — sometimes ecstatic, sometimes sickly — plastered on his face. His immaculate bald head (Burr was also bald) shines with sweat. He is a man on his own mission, and Hamilton — who approached him as a friend, and believed him to be one for many years — is his principal obstacle.
I said earlier that Hamilton is the greatest musical ever written. This is not an impulsive reaction to last night’s excellent production, but coldly considered. Hamilton is better than any other musical, by roughly the same margin as Justify is better than any other three-year-old colt. Of course, I have not seen every musical ever written but I’ve seen most of the great ones. West Side Story has a score which is the equal of Hamilton, but the plot is borrowed from a play written more than 350 years before it, and is not more memorable. Sweeny Todd, which I consider to be the best of Sondheim’s magnificent oeuvre, is brilliant, hilarious and unpredictable, but its score is monochromatic next to Hamilton‘s. In the Heights, the playwright’s justly-praised (and Tony-winning) breakout musical, now seems like Rachmaninoff doing Czerny exercises. I’ve always had a soft spot for the meta-musical City of Angels, but next to Hamilton it seems a little gimmicky. Michelle Obama called Hamilton the best work of art she had seen in her life. I am not of the same school as the former First Lady, but I will say without hesitation that it is the best musical I have ever seen, and I do not expect to see a better in this life.
What makes the two hours, fifty minutes traffic of our stage such a moving, powerful, passionate piece of theater? I propose six ways of looking at Hamilton which will show how dense and wonderful it is.
I – The Love Always Out of Reach
It’s a love story — but not the one you expected or, I’ll wager, you’ll ever see again in popular art.
In the play’s first scene, the characters define themselves in relation to Hamilton. “We fought with him,” sings Hercules Mulligan (Hall-Broomfield) and the Marquis de Lafayette (Bryson Bruce). “Me? I died for him,” sings Laurents. “Me? I trusted him.” This is, of course, General and President Washington.
“Me? I loved him.” Yes, this is his loving wife Eliza, but, more softly, it is somebody else too: Eliza’s sister, Angelica Schuyler (Sabrina Sloan).
Angelica was — and is in this production — a brilliant woman, the intellectual equal to Hamilton. She is mesmerized by him in their first encounter. (“When you said ‘Hi’ I forgot my dang name,” she sings in “Satisfied”.) But she is also a woman of the 18th century aristocracy, and she knows her duty — which, as Phillip Schuyler’s oldest daughter in a family without sons, is to marry into wealth to assure the family’s continued comfort after Schuyler’s death. Hamilton is penniless, and on the make. And her beloved younger sister is, she can tell, fascinated too. So instead of encouraging Alexander’s obvious interest in her, she introduces him to Eliza, and then steps away to let nature take its course. “At least I keep his eyes in my life,” she sings at the end of a heartbreaking reverie which inserts itself into the toast she is giving to the bride and groom.
These deep feelings keep manifesting throughout the musical, and Hamilton reciprocates them. But for all the years of their lives, there is not a hint of anything carnal between them. And yet the desire is palpable. There is longing expressed over a single comma in a letter Hamilton sent to Angelica — “My dearest, Angelica” — in the musical as well as in history.
When Hamilton publishes the Reynolds pamphlet, however, Angelica stands behind her sister. Hamilton, seeking a sympathetic soul, reaches out to touch her arm, but Angelica slaps him away. “I will choose her happiness over mine, every time,” she informs him. But we already knew that.
The role offers the opportunity for schmaltz. Angelica martyrs her own happiness for her duty to society, and for the love of her sister. But most heroes are sublimely unconscious of their own heroism, and Sloan understands that. Her Angelica is businesslike, helpful, witty, compassionate, and reconciled to her own fate. Her take on the role makes Angelica’s sacrifice a dozen times more moving than if she had played her like a saint. She makes Angelica like any other soldier of the revolution: prepared to do what she must.
II – Hamilton and the American Stylebook
Critics have called Hamilton the first hip-hop musical, but it is more than that. There’s plenty of hip-hop, with a powerful beat and exquisite rhyming that falls on the notes spot-on. (My favorite: Hamilton telling Washington “I’ll write under a pseudonym/You’ll see what I can do to him”). But Hamilton uses the entire American songbook in its toolbox. There’s reggae (“The Story of Tonight”), blues (“What’d I Miss?”), ballads (many examples, the best being “One Last Time”), barbershop harmony (“Washington on your Side”). “The Room Where It Happens” begins as a pick-and-strum number Flatt & Scruggs would have been proud to call their own, but morphs into a powerful gospel piece when it reaches its climax. Probably the most beautiful song in the entire collection is an Irish lament: “Burn”, sung by Eliza when she reads, along with the general public, of Hamilton’s infidelity in a pamphlet which he published himself. This song allows Harriman to demonstrate her extraordinary pipes. Eliza is not a character with an enormous emotional range, being primarily sweet and loving, and “Burn” gives us a chance to see more of Harriman’s capability.
III – When Language Commands the Man
Lawyers and writers — and Hamilton was both — strive for the performative utterance. By this I mean words that are so powerful they cause the event they describe to come into being. “Let there be light. And there was light,” is a performative utterance. The Irish satirists were thought to be able to kill a person by writing a poem about him. Closer to our time, Harriet Beecher Stowe’s “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” may have been a factor in launching the Civil War. Lawyers know that an artfully phrased argument can win their case; legislators have the power to craft words which can change the way we live. And Hamilton, too, carries out a romance with words: you’re tipped off early on in the play, when Hamilton and Burr have a who’s-on-first exchange about a quarrel Hamilton had at college.
Hamilton is, in this production, in love with his own words. In “Hurricane” he recites his performative utterances: the poems he wrote in St. Nevis inspired the people there to take up a subscription to send him to New York for a proper education; the correspondence he wrote for General Washington helped win the war; The Federalist Papers won the battle for the Constitution; his love letters to Eliza won her heart. This inflates his regard for his own powers of persuasion and prompts his disastrous decision to issue The Reynolds Pamphlet, in order to avoid being accused of illegal speculation.
The raucous reaction, in “The Reynolds Pamphlet”, is enough to show the consequences of that decision. But it is Eliza’s reaction, in “Burn”, which makes Hamilton’s downfall complete. She acknowledges the thrall in which his words held her. (“You and your words flooded my senses/Your sentences left me defenseless/You built me palaces out of paragraphs/You built cathedrals”). And then she acknowledges their meaninglessness.
So Hamilton is a musical about hubris — Hamilton’s own hubris, and how his mistaken apprehension of his own compelling power brought his house down. He was the first Secretary of the Treasury, but he lacked the authority of the One who said “Let there be light,” and his mistaken pretense to power cost him the power he had, as it does for all such people.
IV – Thomas Jefferson’s Coming Home
Chernow writes that while Jefferson represented America’s poetry, Hamilton represented its prose. That may itself be too poetical; Jefferson represents the story we tell ourselves, but Hamilton represents our truth. Jefferson envisioned the Federal government as both small and weak and the States as the primary expressions of power over the government. Hamilton pressed for a federal currency, a federal assumption of state debts, and a national bank; Jefferson opposed him at every turn. Today, we know that America would be unimaginable if Hamilton had not prevailed. Yet we invoke Jefferson with more favor in our political debates.
It is the American politician’s stock-in-trade to call for less government, but in actual practice we are constantly making more, to accomplish the purposes we deem important – most recently, the Department of Homeland Security; before that, the Departments of Education and Energy. Politicians routinely vow to destroy this agency or the next. In the 2012 plebiscite, one candidate wanted in a crucial debate to promise to shut down the Energy Department, but he couldn’t remember its name; now he runs it. Jefferson’s call for small government may have been similarly cynical. He used Hamilton’s broad interpretation of the Constitution to permit himself to buy the Louisiana Territory for America, more than doubling the size of the country.
So in order to play Jefferson, the actor must be a man who is both realist and idealist, and who can inspire yet leave himself room to maneuver. Bryson Bruce plays him with cock-of-the-walk joyousness from the moment he walks into the room in “What’d I Miss?” at the top of the second Act until he delivers Hamilton’s valedictory at the musical’s end. Bruce’s Jefferson is a dancing, prancing, preening romancer who advances on his objective like a lion about to ravage some helpless prey. When he is stymied — as he is in a cabinet meeting about the conflict between England and France — it merely causes him to redouble his resolve. He recognizes Hamilton as his principal enemy, and makes Hamilton’s destruction his principal goal.
The element which defines Jefferson in this musical is confidence. The other Founders, including Hamilton, have doubts — if not about the rightness of their causes, then about their ability to prevail. Jefferson has none, which makes him an absolutely terrifying figure to Hamilton, and to us.
Bruce’s voice lacks the nasal, aggressive quality Daveed Diggs used in the original Broadway production, and so his Jefferson may be a tad less antagonistic than Diggs was in his iconic portrayal. Still, the irrepressible joy in his voice, coupled with his amazing physicality, makes Bruce both a memorable and a fascinating Jefferson.
V – Two Kings and a Man
Aside from the people I’ve mentioned, there are a few other astonishing performances in this production. Peter Matthew Smith appears three times as King George III, and provokes a riot of laughter each time. Part of it is the sublime cleverness of the lyrics; George — and thus the British nation — takes on the aspect of an abusive lover (“I will kill your friends and family to remind you of my love,” he sings in “You’ll be Back”). But part of it is Smith’s brilliant timing and gestures, which turn the British Monarch into a self-deceived bully, who richly deserves his comeuppance. Rowan Atkinson has written that the true comic character exudes selfishness, and Smith gives that to George in spades. Of course, the lines are waiting for him in the text, but Smith delivers them about as well as can be imagined. And though this is a comic character, there is some dark portent in it as well: in “I Know Him,” a song in which George ridicules America for replacing its leaders by election rather than keeping them in office until death, he suddenly falls fit to a series of falsetto giggles, which instantly show why the American system is better. The giggles portend the onset of an attack of porphyria, “the madness of King George”, which incapacitated the King and threw his country into crisis.
As the nation experiences dissatisfaction with the leadership of its chief magistrates we naturally turn to studying the leadership techniques of our past successful leaders. Carvens Lissant’s portrayal of George Washington is consistent with recent scholarship on our first President, and is moreover the boss we all want to have: honest about our condition, resolved to give everyone his fair say, concerned for his staff, and decisive once having made his decision. That is all in the text, but it is a hard thing to make it real — either on the stage or in life. Lissant has it down perfectly. Washington led through his authenticity and Lissant is at every moment not only authentic in his character but radiant in Washington’s authenticity. Hamilton craved Washington’s approval and, as Lissant portrays him, we do too.
But what about Hamilton himself, and Scott’s performance of him? He is subtly drawn in the text, and not saintly: he is arrogant and self-absorbed; he craves to hold a military command less out of patriotism and commitment to the new nation than as a way of taking a place ahead of his position as an orphan born out of wedlock on an impoverished island. He justifies his affair with Maria Reynolds (Isa Briones, playing her convincingly as a depressive, allergic to truth-telling) by claiming helplessness before her wiles; he appears to suggest God is to blame for not providing him with the willpower to resist her. It is only after he experiences a massive tragedy that he comes to a mature understanding of himself and his world. Scott must make that transition, but more than that, he must make Hamilton ingratiating to us — as a protagonist and as a man — while bringing the great man’s failings front and center. Scott does that, assuring us with his smooth strong voice while making himself fallible and forgivable.
VI – The America we hope to be
There are several historical inaccuracies in Hamilton. Here are a few: (1) although Hamilton was John Laurent’s second in his duel with the execrable General Lee (Robbie Nicholson), Burr was not Lee’s second. (2) Abraham Venable, Frederick Muhlenberg and James Monroe, our 5th President, confronted Hamilton about his payments to James Reynolds. Hamilton promotes them to Jefferson, Madison, and Burr. (3) John Adams did not fire Hamilton. Hamilton had left the cabinet long before Adams was elected. (4) The election of 1800 was not the cause of the duel between Burr and Hamilton, which they fought in 1804.
We can forgive these modifications to history, as they help the musical move and sharpen the conflict. But here are two things from history which could change the flavor of the story:
Hamilton deals with America’s original sin, slavery, by emphasizing Hamilton’s abolitionism and his close relationship with John Laurents, who heroically raised an all-Black regiment to fight the British and as evidence against slavery. But what the musical doesn’t mention is that Hamilton helped to secure household slaves for Angelica and her husband, John Church, when they moved from England to New York. (New York didn’t abolish slavery until 1827).
Hamilton underscores the contributions of immigrants to the foundation of this nation, principally focusing on the immigrants Hamilton and Lafayette. But it does not mention that Hamilton was an ardent supporter of John Adams’ anti-immigrant Alien Act, a terrible law which along with Adams’ Sedition Act helped bring about an end to the Federalist party.
Why the omission? I submit that it is because Hamilton is an aspirational story, which is designed to show us not just what we were but what we could be. We all understand that slavery was not abolished nationwide until Founder of America Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation; that segregation was not outlawed until Founder of America Martin Luther King persuaded us to do so; and that the Founder of America who will rid us of racism has yet to manifest herself. But America is a country which is constantly being born. There is much chaos and emotion and force behind this perpetual birth, and some error, too, but we will eventually get it right.
This makes Hamilton a musical for bad times. Just like my country, we are old, fat and dumpy, we think, but we need not always think that. Founder of America Lin-Manuel Miranda has shown us, with this masterpiece, that American was once great, and can be great again.
[Editor’s note: Photos of the cast appearing at the Kennedy Center were not available when this article posted. ]
Hamilton by Lin-Manuel Miranda, inspired by a book by Ron Chernow, directed by Thomas Kail, musical direction by Julian Reeve, with orchestration by Alex Lacamoire and choreography by Andy Blankenbuehler, featuring Austin Scott, Julia K. Harriman, Nicholas Christopher, Sabrina Sloan, Carvens Lissaint, Bryson Bruce, Chaundre Hall-Broomfield, Rubén J. Carbajal, Isa Briones, Peter Matthew Smith, Alexander Ferguson, Andrew Wojtal, Robbie Nicholson, Raymond Baynard, Dan Belnavis, Natalie Kaye Clater, Jeffery Duffy, Alexander Ferguson, Jennifer Geller, Francesca Granell, Jennifer Locke and Raven Thomas. Scenic design: David Korins . Costume design: Paul Tazewell . Lighting design: Howell Binkley . Sound design: Nevin Steinberg . Hair and wig design: Charles G. LaPointe . Musical arrangements: Lacamoire and Miranda . Music coordinators: Michael Keller and Michael Aarons . Production stage manager: Kimberly Fisk . Conductor and keyboard: Andre Cerullo (on the night I saw it; Reeve also conducts and plays the keyboard) . Orchestra: Vancil Cooper, Jake Wood, Aiden Moore, Adam Kornreich, Anna Luce, Greg Luce, Darcy Rindt, Kelley Maulbetsch, and Randy Cohen . Produced by Jeffrey Seller, Sander Jacobs, Jill Furman and The Public Theater at the Kennedy Center . Reviewed by Tim Treanor.