by Samuel Leiter
As anyone who’s been following the theater season lately is undoubtedly aware, Hamilton, Lin-Manuel Miranda’s new musical at the Public Theatre, based on the life of Founding Father Alexander Hamilton, is the hottest ticket of the new year. Visitors to the Public’s website seeking tickets, even at the Broadway-level price of $120 a pop, will discover that nary a seat is to be found for the duration of the run. But savvy readers also know that the show will be moving to Broadway later in the year.
This will be a risky move, given the current climate for Broadway musicals, what with the revival of Side Show having disappeared shortly after opening, and the box offices of two other critics’ favorites, On the Town and Honeymoon in Vegas, gasping for oxygen. Can Hamilton, a sung-through show, much of it performed in rhyming hip-hop verse, draw the tourist trade that supports the Great White Way? Remember, for all the imaginative contemporary vibes the show produces, this is a two hours and forty-five minute endeavor based on an 800-page doorstopper by Ron Chernow about the abundantly active life of Alexander Hamilton (1755-1804), America’s first Secretary of the Treasury, and the face on the ten-dollar bill.
There’s no disputing the show’s brilliance. Despite his extensive use of hip-hop rhythms, Miranda (In the Heights)—who’s responsible for the book, lyrics, and music, and also plays the title role—infuses his 34 songs with a large number of musical styles, including jazz, pop, R&B, conventional Broadway, and even the Beatles, all terrifically orchestrated by Alex Lacamoire. But, with no spoken dialogue, per se, conversations are necessarily cast as rap routines (including occasional profanity), which are used for biographical, historical, political, military, personal, and romantic communication. It’s a tribute to Miranda’s genius that his imagination never runs dry and that he’s capable of continual surprises in how well he uses his original approach to convey an incident-laden narrative with humor, passion, and historical accuracy (Chernow served as an advisor).
And history is definitely the big takeaway, since Hamilton covers so much ground concerning the man’s role in the American Revolution and the subsequent political turmoil surrounding the new nation’s birth. The action focuses on Hamilton and his friend and nemesis, Aaron Burr (Leslie Odom, Jr.), while also covering the wide sweep of events in late eighteenth century America, with a number of characters getting their moment to shine. It’s fascinating to see how effectively actors of varying ethnicities and skin colors embody such white leaders as Thomas Jefferson (Daveed Diggs), Lafayette (also Diggs), George Washington (Christopher Jackson), Hercules Mulligan (Okieriete Onaodowan), James Madison (also Onaodowan), and others. And then there are the women in Hamilton’s life, notably the Schuyler sisters, Angelica (Renée Elise Goldsberry), Peggy (Jasmine Cephas Jones), and Eliza (Phillipa Soo), whom Hamilton weds. The diversity of Hamilton’s America is made deliciously palpable during the several sequences devoted to the sneeringly self-satisfied King George, played with hilarious arrogance by the whiter than white Brian D’Arcy James (soon to be replaced by Glee and Looking star Jonathan Groff).
Just as Judas in Jesus Christ Superstar tells the story of the man Judas betrayed, Hamilton uses Aaron Burr as its chief narrative engine. Burr, of course, held the office of vice president when, in 1804, he and Hamilton engaged in a duel in Weehawken, New Jersey (duels were tolerated there, but not in New York), ending in Hamilton’s death. This notorious duel brings the show to its expected conclusion, but it’s not the only duel we see: three years earlier, Hamilton’s nineteen-year-old Philip (Anthony Ramos), suffered a similar fate.
Alexander Hamilton, born out of wedlock in the West Indies, and orphaned at 11, overcame the hardships of his youth after arriving in New York as a teenager. His involvement as a firebrand in the Revolution, his participation in the Revolutionary War as aide de camp to Washington, his postwar political career, his importance to the creation of the Constitution, his contribution to the writing of the Federalist Papers, his activities in President Washington’s cabinet, his creation of the Bank of the United States, the opposition he faced from Madison and Jefferson, and the enmity with Burr that led to their duel are among the many political events covered in this epic musical.
Miranda does wonders compressing and simplifying these occurrences while also finding room for highlighting the major personal issues in Hamilton’s life, such as his marriage, his son’s fatal duel, the death of his close friend, John Laurens (Anthony Ramos, again), and his involvement in the nation’s first political sex scandal. Many points relevant to contemporary politics—especially immigration—hit their bulls-eyes. There’s no question that audiences must absorb a great deal of information, regardless of how appealingly presented, but that challenge makes Hamilton a powerful and significant contribution to the American stage.
Working on David Korins’s set of brick walls fronted at the rear and sides by wooden scaffolding, director Thomas Kail does magnificent work in moving the relentless rush of historical events along, with extraordinary contributions from choreographer Andy Blankenbuehler. Lighting designer Howell Binkle continually creates magical moments timed to the percussive rhythms of the music, while Paul Tazewell’s costumes manage to be both historically accurate and historically suggestive, like the skintight undergarments worn by the female dancers when they’re not costumed in full-blown gowns.
Not one performance sounds a false note, each player delivering their machine-gun patter with crystal clarity, singing with depth and feeling, and moving with dynamic precision. Miranda and Odom are perfectly counterbalanced in the leads, while each supporting player, including the members of the ensemble, establishes one or more indelible images. Production values, music, and script blend into a seamlessly integrated whole, all of it stylistically unified.
Will Broadway audiences be hungry for a nearly three-hour history lesson? I have no idea, but if musical theater is ever going to move to the next level, it couldn’t have a better teacher.
425 Lafayette Street
Through May 3
Samuel L. Leiter is Distinguished Professor Emeritus (Theater) of Brooklyn College and the Graduate Center, CUNY. He has written and/or edited 27 books on Japanese theater, New York theater, Shakespeare, and the great stage directors. For more of his reviews, visit Theatre’s Leiter Side (www.slleiter.blogspot.com).