Musical written and starring Lin-Manuel Miranda
Public Theater, Feb 17 – May 3, 2015
Hamilton is the long-awaited follow-up to Lin-Manuel Miranda’s smash Tony and Grammy award-winning Broadway hip-hop musical, In the Heights. The show received raves from critics and pundits across the political spectrum alike (standing ovation from President Obama and glowing reviews by conservative polit ical commentator David Brooks and theater critic Ben Brantley from the NY Times).
From Feb. 17 – May 3 it was the hottest theatrical ticket in town – on or Off-Broadway. Hamilton was totally sold-out throughout its extended run at the Public Theater where a staff member revealed to me that tickets sold on the black market for the obscenely high price of $1100 a piece and ticket forgeries had been discovered. That’s an awful lot of hype, setting the bar at what could possibly be an unattainably high standard. So while I was eagerly anticipating seeing the show, I was a bit nervous that it would be difficult to live up to the standards of those incredible Heights.
In Hamilton, Miranda continues to build upon the hip-hop style musical genre he pioneered in his earlier classic. But here, it seems at first blush to be a mis-matched, force fit. What, after all could Alexander Hamilton possibly have in common with the likes of Tupac Shakur? While reading the 900 page (“doorstop” in the words of Ben Brantley) biography written by Ron Chernow, Miranda said he immediately made the connection to hip-hop performance stars because Hamilton’s story is of a self-made man who achieved fame and fortune based on his drive and determination. Like many hip-hop stars who emerged from poverty and broken lives, Hamilton made a new, successful life for himself through the incredible power of the word.
By the way, for those of you like me, who have never bought a hip-hop record in your life, no need for concern as Miranda, who has studied under Steven Sondheim is a truly well-rounded composer and includes many songs that broaden the musical horizon. He takes poetic license in casting the story of our “immigrant” founding fathers using Hispanic and African-American actors playing many of the lead roles which feeds into the modern-day musical format.
Hamilton, whose father was never in the picture and who lost his mother at an early age, was raised an orphan on St Croix and came to America as a teenager with big dreams of forging a successful future. He quickly became swept up in the movement for independence, writing prolifically, and organizing resistance. As the British cracked down with thousands of troops, this led to coordinating military strikes and he soon came to the attention of George Washington who invited him to become his right hand man.
The story is told through the narration of Vice President Aaron Burr who was Hamilton’s colleague in arms but eventual nemesis who shot and killed him in a duel. It traces his life through the days of the Revolutionary War, to influencing the Constitutional Convention and crafting a compromise with adversaries who promoted states’ rights in order to form a strong central government which became the basis of our democracy. He followed his role supporting Washington on the battlefield by becoming the first president’s Treasury Secretary and building a strong financial system for the infant nation. After the war was won, his battles were fought in the political arena (including continuing disputes with Jefferson and Madison over states’ rights and slavery), and his personal life where he fell victim to temptation (paying the price through blackmail), as well as suffering personal tragedy when his son was killed.
It’s a lot to cram into one show but even at a hefty run time of 2:45, the brilliant lyrics, upbeat and ballad musical numbers, creative and precision choreography of the talented ensemble, simple but effective staging, and occasional comic relief (in the form of the satirical jewel role of King George) combine to make this an exciting and compelling theatrical package.
The challenging task of bringing these storied figures back alive using modern-day language and an unconventional (for musical theater) musical format is brilliantly accomplished by the cast that includes Miranda (as Hamilton), Leslie Odom Jr. (Burr), Christopher Jackson (Washington), Daveed Diggs (both Lafayette and Jefferson), Okieriete Onaodowan (Madison), Alysha Deeslorieux (understudy for Phillipa Soo as Eliza Hamilton), Renee Elise Goldsberry (Hamilton’s sister-in-law Angelica) and Jonathon Groff (new to the cast as King George).
The bar was high but if this were the high jump set at 8 ft., Miranda clears easily. Hamilton is the rare type of show that is complex enough to warrant multiple viewings and I look forward to getting familiar with the cast album due out in several months and seeing it again. While it recently closed at the Public, fortunately it will soon be moving uptown to the Richard Rogers Theater on Broadway where hopefully it will enjoy the healthy run it deserves.