History Has Its Eyes on You
The likelihood of a rap musical about often-ignored founding father Alexander Hamilton may seem ridiculous on its face, but subject matter alone can never make a play. Creator and star Lin-Manuel Miranda has found in this subject matter something in the guts of everyone: the struggle to rise above one’s station, to do something with the time that’s been given to us, and to leave a legacy behind. This story is not about the dusty ol’ white guy on the ten dollar bill, it’s about the “bastard, orphan, son of a whore and a Scotsman, dropped in the middle of a forgotten spot in the Caribbean,” who emigrated to the nascent United States and helped build the country by the power of the written word, before becoming embroiled in the country’s first sex scandal and dying in a duel at the hand of his friend. Suddenly the hip-hop/rap musical conceit makes total sense.
Working closely with Miranda’s visionary ideas, director Thomas Kail has made the past indisputably alive and relevant, both to the people of today and the political environment in which we live. Instead of going for strict realism, Hamilton’s creative team uses deliberate anachronism as a tool to bring the audience into closer identification with each character. While the scenic design and costumes firmly establish that the action takes place in the past, by the time a black Aaron Burr starts spitting infectious rhymes and an Asian Elizabeth Schuyler falls, Beyoncé-style, for a Latino Alexander Hamilton, every theatergoer is already eating up the concept greedily. Andy Blankenbueler’s vibrant and explosive hip-hop choreography infuses the extraordinarily diverse, Greek-chorus ensemble with all the energy and urgency that must have been necessary for overthrowing one government and creating another. The best directors not only know what to do with their actors, but how to encourage collaboration and cohesion among the entire creative team. It’s a beautiful thing to see the choreography, for example, come together so seamlessly with the lighting and orchestrations to become something more than any of them could achieve alone.
Effectively, Miranda has written the next great American musical by pushing the boundaries of the art form. But you can only write a great musical if you’ve loved the great ones all your life. Miranda, a fervent and unabashed lover of all of musical theatre since he first saw Les Miserables, takes the now-stale idea of a sung-through rock opera and replaces rock with hip-hop. This naturally replaces operatic recitative with rap, whose heavy reliance on internal rhymes and assonance becomes the perfect vehicle for Miranda to go toe-to-toe with the cleverness of the Golden Age lyricists. Cole Porter may have been a lyrical cheat, but we always let it slide because the cleverness of his lines brings us so much joy. Similarly with Miranda’s ubiquitous slant rhymes: he packs each line so tightly, we can’t help cheering him on in the theatre as he sets our heads spinning. He adds to this lyrical prowess an understanding of musical motifs rivaling that of musical theatre great Stephen Sondheim. Act I finale “Non-Stop” brings all the motifs together into a frenetic celebration of Hamilton’s accomplishments, warning that, as in that other famous Scottish tragedy, his vaulting ambition might just o’erleap itself in Act II.
Perhaps the most interesting thing about the musical is how it ably avoids both lionizing and vilifying Alexander Hamilton or any of the other founders, including both “the damn fool that shot him” and Hamilton’s political nemesis, Thomas Jefferson. Refreshingly, it presents men and women who are at once heroic, flawed, loving, adulterous, principled, reticent, and audacious and leaves the conclusions to the audience. When Hamilton and Jefferson have a cabinet debate in the form of a rap battle, the entire audience finds itself inside an illustration of Proverbs 18:17, with Washington as a moderator. This no-gloss portrayal forces modern political factions to see how we’re just spitting the umpteenth verse of this same political rap battle. It’s Ecclesiastes rapping in Revolutionary dress. The arguments are similar, but the lines are drawn in different places. Hamilton at once argues for Wall Street and big government, Jefferson argues for Main Street and states rights. Hamilton finds himself in the middle of our nation’s first sex
None of this can happen without the stellar cast. Aside from Miranda, of course, who’s burdened himself with the bulk of the lines, rapid-fire rapper Daveed Diggs is one of the stand outs, double-cast as Lafayette in the first act and swagger-filled Thomas Jefferson in the second. I missed out on velvet-voiced Leslie Odom Jr. as sometime narrator Aaron Burr and the show suffered for it. If the album is to be believed, he brings great complexity to a man who wants so desperately to be at the apex of political power that he refuses to take a position on anything. Chris Jackson’s “One More Time” will make a George Washington groupie out of the most practiced history hater. But it’s the Schuyler Sisters who steal the show. As Angelica, Renée Elise Goldsberry hits all the right notes, both musically and emotionally. Her own charisma threatens, at first, to overshadow the importance of Hamilton’s wife, Eliza. Not only is she one of those actresses who dazzles from the moment she walks on stage, there’s simply more early tension in the role of the dutiful daughter setting her attraction to Hamilton aside for the greater good.
But Eliza’s strength of character carries her through the musical and out the other side as its other hero. In the end, we find it’s Eliza’s story to tell. Phillipa Soo’s full-blooded characterization takes her from “helpless” teenage lover to moderating wife and mother, through the sorrow of adultery, the death of a son, and the unimaginable catharsis of true forgiveness. She’s the kind of feminine role model who operates from within her societal constraints to better those around her and bring about cultural change. It’s only fitting that the final moments of the show linger on such a remarkable woman, praising her for the strength of her character and lifelong work of caring for the helpless. “Who lives
Written by Lin-Manuel Miranda; inspired by the book Alexander Hamilton by Ron Chernow; directed by Thomas Kail; choreography by Andy Blankenbuehler; sets by David Korns; costumes by Paul Tazewell; lighting by Howell Binkley; sound by Nevin Steinberg. HamiltonBroadway.com. At the Richard Rodgers Theatre, 226 W 46th St, New York, NY. Running time: 2 hours, 55 minutes.
Cast Lin-Manuel Miranda as Alexander Hamilton, Javier Munoz as Alexander Hamilton (at certain performances), Daveed Diggs as Marquis De Lafayette/Thomas Jefferson, Renée Elise Goldsberry as Angelica Schuyler, Christopher Jackson as George Washington, Jonathan Groff as King George, Anthony Ramos as John Laurens/Philip Hamilton, Leslie Odom Jr. as Aaron Burr and Phillipa Soo as Eliza Hamilton; Also Jasmine Cephas Jones and Okieriete Onaodowan.