The Tiny Goddess and I finally saw HAMILTON at the Pantages Theatre here in LA – and, yes, it’s just as wonderful as everyone says it is: exciting, smart, challenging, and, most importantly, stupendously entertaining. It takes off like a rocket and never comes down.
Lin-Manuel Miranda’s ambitious, off-the-wall concept (a rap opera about one of our Founding Fathers) fuses contemporary slang and attitudes with a serious history lesson from Colonial times, all presented with old-fashioned Broadway razzle-dazzle. I’m not a big fan of rap but what Lin-Manuel Miranda has done is blend rap and hip-hop with conventional Broadway, R&B, soul, and pop music to create Something New. How rare is that?
On a long car trip, the TG and I listened to the CD—both discs—with the TG following the libretto. (And make no mistake: HAMILTON is an opera. It is almost completely “sung through.”) I am very glad we did “study up.” The words fly by so quicky in HAMILTON -- so many interior rhymes, so many creative anachronisms, so many fast jokes and sly references -- that I suspect that I might have been somewhat lost at times. Instead, I knew exactly what was happening onstage, which increased my enjoyment. Quite a few times during the performance, I told myself, “I’m so glad that I know this already.”
Miranda makes a lot of complex historical detail come alive in a thrilling, very-present way. The frequent anachronisms and modern attitudes only reinforce the parallels that Miranda implies between the chaotic Revolutionary Era and ours. Only the “colonial” costumes are specifically from the age of Hamilton. Everything else is timeless, or rather, in Miranda Time.
I was familiar with some of the historical material. I haven’t read the Ron Chernow biography, although now I might have to. But I’ve read about the period. (I recommend THE GLORIOUS CAUSE: The American Revolution, 1763-1789 by Robert Middlekauff and EMPIRE OF LIBERTY: A History of the Early Republic, 1789-1815 by Gordon S. Wood.) Miranda animates complex historical arguments in a way that I found astounding. Fortunately, rap allows for a lot of words – and there are a lot words in HAMILTON. But that’s a good thing: the show covers a great deal of history: thirty eventful years in the life of a very interesting man, his public and private lives, and of his country in revolution and rebirth.
But, of course, it’s not just Miranda’s work that makes HAMILTON what it is. Add to his brilliant, convention-shattering concept the fluid, fluent direction of Thomas Kail, the non-stop, expressive choreography of Andy Blankenbueler, and the ingenious setting by David Korins (scenic design) and Howell Binkley (lighting), and you take what’s on the rage to another level. I believe that their work together achieves that Wagnerian ideal of a “gesamtkunstwerk” – a total work of art.
Virtually everything in HAMILTON does work. There is always something interesting going on onstage: something visual or aural, or both. One thing that makes the play so kinetic is the use of two concentric turntables on which much of the action occurs. The turntables let director Kail spin the drama in many fascinating ways, creating cross-fades and sophisticated scene changes. HAMILTON covers the thirty eventful years in the life of Hamilton and the Thirteen Colonies, and they must keep things moving to tell the whole story. I heard an interview where Miranda said that, at first, he was against the two-turntable idea. But he was persuaded to change his mind and was very glad he did.
And finally, the cast of HAMILTON – the “HamFam” – is so enthusiastic and committed to their performances that their energy comes off the stage in great, powerful waves. Musical comedy is all about “strutting your stuff,” and this show gives all the performers a chance to perform at a blazingly high level. HAMILTON’s cast is multiracial, giving out the parts in a completely color-blind manner. Actors and actresses of color generally don’t get that many shots at roles this juicy, this multi-dimensional, this much fun to play. It’s clearly an ensemble play—the cast takes one, mass bow at the end; no individual ovations—yet the “star” parts are there.
To single out two peformers: we saw Joshua Henry in the key role of Aaron Burr, who “narrates” the show. (Yes, HAMILTON is a history lesson, a fourth-wall-shattering school pageant that explains much of its story straight to the audience.) Henry has a Sidney-Poitier aura of command and was the most riveting figure onstage. He’s a two-time Tony Award nominee (for VIOLET and THE SCOTTSBORO BOYS) and is going to star in the upcoming revival of CAROUSEL with Jessie Mueller and Renee Fleming. A black Billy Bigelow?? I bet he’ll be fantastic.
I also could not keep my eyes off Emmy Raven-Lampman who played Angelica Schuyler, Hamilton’s sister-in-law, whenever she was onstage. Watch for more from this beautiful, fiercely talented woman.
But, as a matter of fact, we saw one of the stand-bys – Ryan Alvarado – play the role of Hamilton. So, in the end, it doesn’t really matter who is in it: the show is the star. It’s all of a piece, yet there are stand-out numbers: the opening “Alexander Hamilton,” “My Shot,” “Helpless,” “Satisfied,” “The Room Where It Happens,” “You’ll Be Back,” “It’s Quiet Uptown,” “Say No To This” and a few others. I’ve been listening to the CDs (and the music on my streaming service), and as good as the recorded music is, every number was better live, that moment, onstage.
Great live musical theatre has always been one of the pleasures in my life. (I thank my parents for introducing Broadway to me at a very young age. I’m grateful that I grew up not too far from Manhattan at a time when live theatre wasn’t an occasional, high-priced treat for tourists and the affluent.) And HAMILTON is certainly one of the best musicals I’ve ever seen. It’s wonderful to be so excited by something new, at this time in my life.
My first Broadway musical was THE MUSIC MAN, with book, music, and lyrics by one man: Meredith Willson. It’s considered one of the best musicals ever written by a single person. The other good candidates are THE MOST HAPPY FELLA (Frank Loesser) and OLIVER (Lionel Bart). And now we have HAMILTON (Lin-Manuel Miranda) to add to that exclusive list.
I love the way that Miranda both honors and explodes Broadway conventions. It was good to hear him drop in “Sit down, John!” from 1776 and “You’ve got to be taught” from SOUTH PACIFIC at appropriate moments. Miranda knows exactly what he’s doing. How many works of such “cultural importance” are such “fun?” Not many.
HAMILTON is now more than just a great show; it’s a cultural phenomenon, for reasons beyond its sheer excellence. In its concept, attitudes, and racially neutral casting, HAMILTON brings us hope – hope that the US will persevere and survive difficult political times, and hope that fresh young talent will bring a new era of greatness to our deeply troubled country. In a world where so much is going wrong, HAMILTON goes right.
What a great accomplishment for Miranda – and what a high bar he sets for all other contemporary artists. All honor to him and his “top-knotch brain.” If it weren’t so damn expensive, I’d want to see it again.
Now, back to my rewrite on WHEN I GOT OUT: “I am not throwing away my shot!”
“HAMILTON” on the Tonys
Lin-Manuel Miranda performs “Alexander Hamilton” at a White House Poetry Jam
The cast of “HAMILTON” performs “My Shot” at the White House
“HAMILTON” featurette on CBS
“HAMILTON” featurette on PBS
“HAMILTON” – nine things that “Hamilton” got wrong
FIVE GREAT FACTS ABOUT "HAMILTON"