Hamilton continues at The Public Theater, New York, until 3 May.
Star rating: 5 stars ★ ★ ★ ★ ★
All the hubbub surrounding it might cause you to believe otherwise, but the new musical Hamilton may not be the most important event to happen in America since the signing of the Declaration of Independence. Nevertheless, this show recounting the life of one of the country’s founding fathers, Alexander Hamilton, is indeed an extraordinary piece of musical theatre.
Its multi-tasking creator Lin-Manuel Miranda – who’s responsible for the book, music and lyrics and performs Hamilton as well – moves in dazzling fashion beyond the ingratiating feelgood mood of his initial success, In the Heights.
That work won the 2008 Tony Award for Best Musical. In Hamilton, he delivers a viscerally exciting history lesson along with human drama that, if justice prevails, should – with its hip-hop and rhythm and blues score – ignite and inspire new audiences and potential American history buffs for a long time to come. As David Brooks, the conservative politic and cultural columnist for the New York Times expressed, Hamilton is “a piece of art [that] brilliantly captures the glory, costs and ordeals of public life”.
In late February it was announced that the show, which closes its sold-out Off-Broadway run at The Public on 3 May, will move to Broadway’s Richard Rodgers Theatre with performances starting on 13 July. There’s no big surprise there. The Public’s production had the support of commercial producers, most notably Jeffrey Seller, who led the mounting of In the Heights.
What made for a lot of print and conversation, though, was the debate between Seller and the creators as to whether the show should move to the main stem even earlier – before the 23 April deadline to qualify for the 2015 Tony Awards. Miranda and others argued for the longer wait to give the show more tweaking for Broadway. Hip-hop shows have not had it easy on the Great White Way, with such entries as Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson and Holler If Ya Hear Me meeting quick demises.
Still, whatever tweaking Miranda and his splendidly simpatico director Thomas Kail may do, I think they can rest assured they have already created something new and powerful in Hamilton. Miranda’s version of hip-hop and rap, backed by the throbbing orchestrations of musical director Alex Lacamoire, is surprisingly engrossing, giving clarity and drive as well as relevance to the storytelling. It makes hip-hop theatrically valid.
The score also includes some lovely ballads that should placate the more tradition-bound Broadway theatregoers, plus a couple of production numbers that vibrate with exhilarating Latin rhythms.
The plentiful choreography, angular and eye-grabbing, by Andy Blankenbuehler, further amps up the electricity of the musical numbers.
Based on Ron Chernow’s 2004 biography Alexander Hamilton, the script – marked by short, almost montage-like scenes and direct narration in hip-hop style – quickly sketches in Hamilton’s illegitimate birth and early years in the West Indies, then his arrival as a teenager in New York where his ambition, smarts and outspoken manner find him a place among the revolutionaries.
He eventually becomes a top aide to George Washington, and after the war works endlessly to pull the former colonies of Great Britain into a nation that can survive and thrive economically. At the same time, the show depicts in affecting terms Hamilton’s private life – his marriage to Eliza Schuyler, his closeness to Eliza’s older sister Angelica, and the sexual dalliance that almost destroys his political career and marriage. More than due diligence is also given Hamilton’s rivals and protagonists, including the autocratic Thomas Jefferson and the frustrated Aaron Burr, who eventually kills Hamilton in a duel.
What’s spectacular is how all this is invoked with great wit and sophistication in compellingly contemporary terms. For one, there’s the spirited recognition of the immigrant’s role in building America. When Hamilton and the Marquis de Lafayette from France combine to fight the decisive battle at Yorktown, their battle cry is: “We’re immigrants. We get the job done!”
Furthermore and most strikingly, to witness the mostly black and Latino cast cavort in Paul Tazewell’s handsome late 18th century costumes provides a foreshortening of this country‘s social history that is masterful.
And it is a superb cast. Miranda has a natural non-heroic affability, but he imbues Hamilton with convincing fire as well as intelligence and emotional depth. Phillipa Soo brings charm and poignancy to Hamilton’s wife Eliza, while Renée Elise Goldsberry bristles with intelligence and sublimated passion as her sister, who settles for a marriage of wealthy convenience.
Among Hamilton’s fellow revolutionaries, Christopher Jackson is a powerful Washington, even when riddled with doubts about the war, while Daveed Diggs raps grandly with a French accent as Lafayette and then portrays a Jefferson who takes the stage with the smugness of a rock music mogul. Getting nearly as much stage time as Hamilton and some near showstopping numbers to boot is Aaron Burr, whose portrayal by Leslie Odom Jr. has an Iago-like magnetism.
And of course, you can hardly overlook Brian D’Arcy James’ tongue-in-royal-cheek turn as King George, who periodically appears under an oversized crown to express his befuddlement as to why his subjects would want to rebel. He does remind them in his song that brilliantly echoes early Beatles that: “When push comes to shove/I’ll kill your friends and family to remind you of my love.”
(The performance reviewed was James’ last in the role. He’s pulling out to go into Something Rotten, a brand new musical comedy about Elizabethan playwrights, of all things, that will start previews this month. Something Rotten, by the way, is being produced by the very busy Jeffrey Seller. Meanwhile King George will be taken over by Jonathan Groff, remembered especially for his Tony nominated work in Spring Awakening.)
Finally, Hamilton captivates with the palpable dedication of Miranda and his creative team to the absolute importance of the material. Like a story about great athletes, it may well even motivate future statesmen. Certainly the performance I attended fairly thundered with political resonance on both sides of the footlights. Sitting in the audience at the end of the very row I was in was the 42nd President of the United States and the possible spouse of its next President, Bill Clinton. Who says musical theatre isn’t pertinent?
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