I was away in August when the musical Hamilton opened on Broadway so yesterday I caught up with it as it was about to enter its third month of sellout business at The Richard Rodgers Theatre. It is indeed the big one of the ’15-’16 season, so it joins The Book of Mormon as a “must see, can’t get tickets” event. It bills itself as “An American Musical” and it’s as scrappy, unpredictable and youthful as is our nation. By the time I got to it, I was of course aware of the critical acclaim that has been given freely as well as the enormous potency of its box office appeal.
I’m steeped and somewhat conditioned by the great musicals of the golden age, those that adhered to the requirements of audiences of their day. The breakthrough musicals which moved musicals from the early 20th century romantic operettas and George M. Cohan patriotic pastiches to more of the same with occasional infusion of substance in the 1920s, which could embrace Show Boat, a true ground breaker. The 30s brought antidotes to the Great Depression in the form of melodies and lyrics from the likes of Cole Porter, Rodgers and Hart, Irving Berlin and by the time the 1940s arrived, with six years of World War II, Oklahoma! led a pack of treasures that were hard to top. By the 50s we were coasting, but a new generation of tunesmiths that included Kander and Ebb, Bock and Harnick, Jerry Herman, and Frank Loesser once again made the USA the leader in the world of musical theatre.
As youngsters grow up, they invariably need to express themselves differently than those who came before, and so it was theat jazz, music of ethnic origin and finally rock ‘n roll hit Broadway stages. Hair spawned a dozen second rate imitations, Rent enjoyed a very long run but didn’t eliminate more traditional forms as exemplified by La Cage Aux Folles, Chicago, Wicked, humongous London imports of Lloyd-Webber and Schönberg-Boublil which in their way changed musicals into stories with wall to wall music, enormous casts, increased amplification, sort of pop operas that have attracted a new audience, a huge one.
After dipping his toe successfully into the Broadway scene with the amiable In The Heights several seasons ago, the triple threat talents of Lin-Manuel Miranda have now been put to work on yet another new form. A second generation American of Puerto Rican background, Miranda has been a fan of the traditional composers who have preceded him, but he hears hip-hop and rap in his head as well, and with Hamilton he’s been fortunate to find, quite accidentally, a character and a story to which he was immediately attracted.
While resting on a holiday from Heights, he read Ron Chernow’s biography “Alexander Hamilton,” and his reaction was instant — he’d found his next project. Hamilton lived from 1755 (some say 1757) until 1804 but Miranda identified with him at once. As a central character, Hamilton rose from a tarnished birth out of wedlock on the island of Nevis. He was orphaned as a child, but mirculously rose to become chief aide to General George Washington; he became an influential interpreter of the U.S. constitution, he was the creator of the national financial system, he was even the father of the U.S.Coast Guard. A Horatio Alger hero long before Alger created several of his own. Miranda felt the Hamilton story resonated with today’s world in which his work is to create musicals plays that will speak to the new young breed of theatre goers.
Clearly, he has succeeded, by his own admission far beyond his wildest dreams. Working again (as in In The Heights) with director Thomas Kail, he presents Hamilton’s story with a cast whose actors are more interested in capturing the spirit, the essence of the world of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Aaron Burr, and James Madison then they are in attempting to look like them or sound like they might have sounded. Each, and the women in Hamilton’s life as well, are up there letting us in on some 35 musical numbers, most of them flung at us with the power that makes rap so effective. It’s not what we’re accustomed to, and I had to make some adjustments, but half way through the long first act, I began to go with the flow and I became fascinated by this highly original way of presenting history. Where needed, Choreographer Andy Blankenbuehler keeps his principals and his large ensemble vividly moving, swirling, dancing to add emphasis to whatever is being sung (more precisely, “rapped”).
David Korins’ set and Howard Binkley’s lighting allow for vivid pictures all night long. The feeling is of great fluidity as most all of the skeletal set is on wheels and it does yeoman work as street scene, the halls of congress, and everything in between Costumes of the period, designed by Paul Tazewell keep us grounded in the 18th century, and add visual vitality to the evening as well.
It’s an ensemble piece, and even though Hamilton is the central figure, and has the greatest number of musical pieces, it’s not conceived as a star vehicle and each of the many principals has moments in which to take center stage.
Leslie Odom, Jr. makes a believable adversary in Aaron Burr, who will ultimately challenge Hamilton to the duel that will kill him. Christopher Jackson’s “Washington” is a force and we can believe that he overcame almost impossible obstacles in commanding the troops of the revolution and leading them to victory over the Brits, thus changing the course of history for our nation as well as for the world. I would be thrilled if he won a Tony Award for his exceptional performance. (Editor’s note: He did!]
Hamilton’s women; his wife Eliza, his sisters in law Angelica and Peggy are all well played. Mr. Miranda is in full command as Hamilton, and he’s certainly written himself a demanding and rewarding role. He does not play Sunday matinees, for the show is just under three hours long, and of the 35 numbers therein, I’d say he has at least ten of them. How he handles the Wednesday and Saturday two-show days has got to remain his secret. But he clearly loves the role and the show, and plays it with ease, energy and great appeal. As the writer, composer, lyricist, and star, this is his baby, and you can sense his great pride and joy in seeing it so well-realized.
There have already been three excellent actors to play the small but key role of King George III. Brian d’Arcy-James had it for a short while before the decamped for a starring part in Something Rotten. He was followed by Jonathan Groff who I’m told brought star quality to it, making his fans from Spring Awakening and the TV series Smash happy. At yesterday’s matinee, which was the performance I saw, there was Andrew Rannells (who had entered the cast the night before), and he positively sparkled. The King works alone, he doesn’t relate to any other character, but he’s absolutely on the nose hilarious as he tells us, with reference to the upstarts across the sea who are making trouble, “You’ll Be Back.” His reactions to the gloomy news as the rebels become stronger and ultimately win, are priceless.
To conclude on my one note of caution: to those of you not familiar with hip hop and rap, prepare yourselves for an evening in which you may have trouble catching the lyrics. The King George monologs I mentioned above prove that there are indeed words in them, some of them wise, witty, and very funny, but as the rest of them come at you throughout the long evening, I admit I missed most of them. The strength of the performances in most cases made it clear what they were getting at, but for the specifics I’m going to have to listen to the original cast CD. As for the music, it is used to set the words. I don’t think there will be much humming of the so-called tunes ten years from now. But the songs are very well-performed, and all in all I found Hamilton rewarding for a number of reasons. It’s original, and I hope it doesn’t encourage other ambitious but less gifted writers to give us pale imitations of it, as was the case when Hair was followed by Soon, Rockabye Hamlet and Via Galactica, all big time flops.
But for Hamilton, innovation is refreshing and theatrically valid, so it’s a winner.
Running Time: Two hours and 50 minutes, and one intermission.