In a great stroke of luck, some very generous friends took me to see Broadway’s juggernaut Hamilton this past Saturday night. Hamilton fever has been raging for quite some time in NYC, and the show is completely sold out for the foreseeable future. The show’s website kindly explains that there is absolutely no way to purchase tickets, it can only suggest the daily lottery. After failing at the lottery on and off for months, I figured I was just going to miss the boat on this one. So, when I got the serendipitous offer to actually go I wondered if the show would be able to deliver on all its hype and exclusivity. In short, it’s terrific.
From the opening number—a tight, energetic ensemble piece which deftly covers lots of expository ground, introduces the cast, and summarily presents the main conflicts in Alexander Hamilton’s life—to Eliza Hamilton’s quiet, grief-stricken denouement, I knew I was watching the work of a master. That would be Lin-Manuel Miranda, who conceived of the musical, wrote the book and lyrics, composed the music, and also plays the title role. I never saw In the Heights, his earlier Broadway hit, but I have been intrigued every time I have run across other facets of his talent: his impassioned NY Times op-ed about Puerto Rican poverty, his heartfelt Kennedy Center Honors tribute to Rita Moreno, his impressive free-style rapping on the late night talk circuit, and his bouncy music for the latest Star Wars’ revamped cantina scene.
Miranda’s influences in Hamilton are myriad, yet the synthesis of his disparate ideas and genres is seamless. Hamilton recasts the founding fathers as swaggering minorities engaged in epic, policy-focused rap battles. But then the music also ranges to almost calypso at times, with smooth R&B accents for Aaron Burr and sappy Brit-pop for the whiny King George. But even with all these competing ideas and energies, the show reminded me most of a completely different work in a completely different genre: the
In addition to Miranda’s lively Hamilton, the entire cast was superb. My three favorites were Leslie Odom Jr. as Burr (what a voice!), Daveed Diggs as the Marquis de Lafayette/Thomas Jefferson, and Renée Elise Goldsberry as Angelica Schuyler. I also lucked out in that I attended the farewell show of Jonathan Groff. He was hysterically impish in the role of King George. The crowd gave him an extra ovation for his final snarky solo and he cried through the bows. The ensemble was vital to the show’s energy. The choreography by Andy Blankenbuehler also flitted between genres, with the ensemble dancers occasionally performing lyrical arabesques or slow mid-height lifts on the sides and then joining the main characters for militaristic arm gestures and hip-hop moves during the rap songs. The dancing, though simple, was kinetic and kept the show’s energy up. David Korins’s brick and wood plank set was also minimal yet effective.
My only complaint with the performance has to do with the Richard Rodgers Theater. The awkward layout dumps everyone into a cattle-pen traffic jam, and the line for the women’s room snaked around through corridors and back through the audience like an amusement park ride. The line was so long and circuitous, and the intermission so short (15 min for a sold-out house during a 3 hour show!) that a great many of the women on the line did not make it back in time for the start of the second act. I think if you still have forty women waiting in line to pee the house manager should hold the curtain an extra ten minutes out of courtesy—courtesy to the ladies who waited and to the rest of the audience for whom the show was interrupted as the women groped in the dark for their seats. The seats are also small and uncomfortable, my legs were too long and my knees hit the back of the seat in front of me.
Why, with so much great press and so much demand, doesn’t the show move to a bigger house? The Richard Rodgers is serviceable for smaller shows and less avid crowds—like Movin’ Out, the last show I saw there—but it cannot comfortably handle Hamilton mania. Arguments erupted as everyone trying to exit the theater after the performance was hemmed in by the hordes flocking to the merchandise lines which blocked the doors. Families were separated and frantically trying to regroup, tempers were running higher than on the L train at rush hour. It was unfortunate how quickly that building could dampen the high of the performance! If the house were larger, maybe Mr. Miranda and company could also make more money than the resale hubs and scalpers who charge thousands of dollars for seats which are supposed to max out at $200. That, at any rate, is my Hamilton rant.
Hamilton has become such a phenomenon that I guess ranting and backlash is inevitable. Although my quibble is with the venue, most object to the show’s content and casting. I opened my paper this morning to find that an article on the scholarly rebuke to Hamilton had made the cover of the Times (below the fold, but still)! There was also a recent outcry that the show’s non-white casting call was racist! This is all a bit ridiculous, and I think these protesters miss Miranda’s point. The minority-based casting connects modern audiences to the fact that the founding fathers were all immigrants themselves. It also underscores the notion that the American dream was born of rebellion and must be continually reshaped and evaluated.
Also, if the Great White Men are only allowed to be played by other white men, so much is limited in the way of new interpretation and subtext. I remember being blown away when I saw Harold Perrineau’s drag-queen turn as Mercutio in Baz Lurhmann’s Romeo and Juliet (1996). It made me look at the famous Queen Mab speech in a different light, and it added layers of new meaning to a 400 year old play. Similarly, Daveed Digg’s turn as a flouncy, Francophile pimp version of Thomas Jefferson was wonderfully fresh and insightful. Hamilton makes the important point that history can be taught and interpreted in many different ways.
I did not find that the show overly glorified Alexander Hamilton, the charge of certain academics on which Jennifer Schuessler reported today. Though the first act celebrates how Hamilton’s early political successes dovetailed with the birth of our nation, the second act concerns his personal and professional failures as his life devolves into a shambles. The love triangle between Hamilton, his wife, and her sister, his impulsive affair with Maria Reynolds, and his son’s tragic death in defense of his father, do not scream glorification to me. At the end, Hamilton remains elusive to his peers and even to his wife Eliza (Phillipa Soo, wonderful). Actually, it surprised me that the show closed on such a sorrowful note, with his wife wailing downstage center.
I find it rather hilarious that anyone would even think of taking a musical about the founding fathers performing mic drops to task for inaccuracy! People certainly didn’t go to see Miss Saigon for accurate reporting on the Vietnam War. The fact that anyone takes the historicity of the show so seriously is a testament to Miranda’s complex and thought-provoking writing.
What is truly great about Hamilton is that no character, not even Burr, comes across as completely evil. As Jefferson and Hamilton battle it out on the Senate floor you can clearly see their biases and the underlying faults in both of their arguments. Everyone in the musical is flawed, and yet everyone has fairly good reasons for behaving as they do. Even King George gets a redemptive line when, after learning that Washington has resigned the presidency, he enviously exclaims “They say/ George Washington’s yielding his power and stepping away/ ‘Zat true?/ I wasn’t aware that was something a person could do!”
I loved the scene in which Christopher Jackson, as George Washington, is saddened to realize that his attempts to protect his protégé Hamilton have backfired. Hamilton indignantly rejects Washington’s mentorship; the orphan—to his repeated detriment—cannot bring himself to accept any hint of paternal love. It was a poignant indication that Aaron Burr wasn’t his only foe, sometimes Hamilton was (like most of us) his own worst enemy. And Hamilton’s fraught relationship with his wife Eliza is heartbreaking. After he publicizes his adultery so that he cannot be politically extorted, she is left ridiculed and hurt. She burns his letters so that history will not only be told from his point of view, but then when he is shot she becomes his chief defender and works tirelessly to promote his legacy and publish his extant papers. With tremendous innovation and meticulous attention to detail, Lin-Manuel Miranda reminds us that politics, like life, is often very messy.