What I’m about to say about Hamilton won’t come across as a compliment, but I don’t mean it as it sounds.
The new smash-hit at the Richard Rodgers Theatre reminded me of shows I’ve seen at P.S. 161 in New York City, The Woodruff Middle School in Seabrook, New Jersey and Arlington High School in Massachusetts.
I’ll be quick so I can prevent you from clicking onto another site. Yes, Hamilton, concerning Founding Father Alexander Hamilton, has received near-unanimous raves and certainly deserves them. But the grammar, middle and high school analogy occurred to me because I recently saw a student production of Damn Yankees in which young girls played the male ballplayers. That brought to mind another production of Damn Yankees that had a white kid playing aging Joe Boyd until he was turned into young superstar Joe Hardy; then a black kid took over.
School directors often employ non-specific casting. Never mind if the Austrian von Trapp children consist of two white kids, two Asian, two African-Americans and one Martian. The main purpose of doing a show is to get everyone involved.
So too is it with Hamilton. When 1776 opened in 1969, every one of the 26 white characters (some of whom appear or are mentioned in Hamilton) was portrayed by a white performer. That made sense, for that was the reality.
But not long thereafter, Broadway started experimenting with “non-traditional” or “color-blind” casting. Now it reaches its apotheosis in Hamilton, where everyone in the great big Broadway “schoolyard” has been eligible for the show, and close to two dozen were chosen regardless of race, color or creed – and more.
That George Washington is played by a tall black man (the staunch Christopher Jackson) is one thing; that Okieriete Onaodowan is black and tall is another, for Madison only measured in at five-foot-four. Britain’s King George III – called “Fat George” by blaspheming colonists — is portrayed by the thin (and amusing) Jonathan Groff. Hamilton’s nine-year-old son is superbly played by Andrew Chappelle, who’s half-a-head taller than 1) bookwriter 2) composer 3) lyricist and 4) star Lin-Manuel Miranda.
Yes, it’s Miranda’s show, all right. To achieve even one of those tasks for Broadway’s biggest hit would be something many of us would talk about for the rest of our lives. But to do all four by yourself? That hasn’t happened since the days of George M. Cohan – and he was born in the same century in which Alexander Hamilton died. What’s more, Miranda remains a modest sort; he gets entrance applause, but plows through it to keep the story moving.
Miranda’s most daring move, however, is eliminating dialogue in favor of couplets – which isn’t so far afield, considering that Moliere, still popular during Hamilton’s life, used them, too. The difference is that these couplets are set to rap, hip-hop or some variation thereof. (There’s one exception: Hamilton’s domination of The Federalist Papers is spoken, probably because Miranda wants to make certain that we hear this important information without the distraction of the pulsating music.)
The idea of rap and the like may make Broadway traditionalists shake in their Thom McAn shoes (which is all they’ll be able to afford after paying scalper’s prices for Hamilton tickets). And yet, this atypical-for-Broadway sound does strangely fit the proceedings. Rap, after all, is inherently angry and agitated, which reflects the revolutionaries’ mood (the first act) as well as the controversial struggles they met as a new nation (the second).
Besides, Hamilton’s rap is a just a l-i-t-t-l-e bit slower and softer than the sounds that assault us as we walk down the street and hear them from cars with open windows (or, for that matter, tightly closed windows). The more leisurely tempo helps theatergoers to understand what’s being said, but even when they don’t catch every word (and certainly many won’t), they’ll get enough to keep them in the story.
The rap and hip-hop often stop to allow a true song to be sung. Some are beautiful, some exciting and some show-stopping – but there isn’t one that doesn’t beguile the ear. The most fun comes from George III, whose terrific song gets, happily enough, two equally effective reprises. “You’ll Be Back,” the King confidently predicts to a bubble-gum melody that, with just a few lyric changes, could be a big pop hit. If there are still boy bands around, here’s one for the lead who plays a spurned teenager who believes his girlfriend will someday be sorry and come to her senses. While Jonathan Groff sings it, he keeps a cocky smile on his face that sits well under his Imperial margarine crown.
Hamilton is one of many immigrants, who, as the show reminds us, do the hard work that profits a country. Although Hamilton recognizes (quite euphonically) that “New York City is insidious,” he also insists that “In New York, you can be a new man.” Because he sees possibilities, he proclaims “I am not throwing away my shot!”
Speaking of shots, he almost immediately meets the man who’ll eventually shoot him: Aaron Burr. Leslie Odom, Jr. plays him in the best possible way a villain can be portrayed: he doesn’t think he’s a bad guy. Hamilton, however, immediately has his doubts when Burr dispenses his political advice: “Don’t let them know what you’re against or for.”
No, that’s not our Hamilton. Fence-sitting, which is often profitable in politics, isn’t how he wants to proceed. Burr becomes increasingly frustrated in a song that’s the grandchild of Pacific Overtures’ “Someone in a Tree,” when Burr snarls that “I want to be in the room where it happens.” He can’t stand being excluded from important meetings that are shaping the nation. In a country that will soon represent the red, white and blue, is there room for a green-eyed monster? The nation’s just getting started, and already a conservative is being pitted against a liberal.
That Hamilton’s wife Eliza loves him so much makes us sad, for we know how the story will end. What we may not know, however, is that he had his eye (and other body parts) on someone else. That leads to some second-act complications that are soon upstaged by another family crisis.
If God is in the details, The Supreme Being has blessed Miranda. What a powerful line is “Your perfume tells me your father has money.” Musical theater writers are urged not to write “on the nose” – meaning “to say things in the most obvious way.” Miranda puts eloquence in every mouth.
Considering all the talk about how ground-breaking the show is, such a line as “A revolution is happening in New York” turns out to be an inadvertent and accurate comment. And yet, let’s hope that Hamilton isn’t a “game-changer,” as so many have professed. That more musicals may use rap and hip-hop won’t be the problem; they’ll just look so imitative after Hamilton, which deserves to remain sui generis. (It might not happen, anyway. More than a third-of-a-century ago, Dreamgirls handled its dialogue in a somewhat similar fashion, using R&B instead. No show followed.)
Hamilton does offer enough musical theater touchstones to please the purist. Miranda has the second act open with A Numba, as hundreds have done before him. In the great musical theater tradition, after a funny and charming song, he suddenly makes matters become deadly serious.
Tom Kail’s direction and Andy Blankenbuehler’s choreography make for a seamless, sure-handed musical replete with stunning stage pictures. While ensembles of Broadway musicals tend to be characters in production numbers – opera singers in Phantom, students in Les Miz, townies in Beauty and the Beast – here the dancers aren’t real people; they simply come on to reflect the moos of the person(s) who sing(s).
Howell Binkley’s extraordinary lighting must have taken long days of intricate teching, but the results are worth it. Take it from someone who’s witnessed about 85% of the Broadway musicals of the last 50 years: Binkley’s work may well be the best lighting I’ve ever seen in a musical.
So Miranda has become one of those comparatively rare musical theater writers who follows his first success (In the Heights) with a much greater triumph. And in an age when there’s talk of taking Hamilton off the $10 bill, don’t be surprised if Miranda’s show prevents that from happening. He’s reminding 11,200 people each week that the man who helped forge the Constitution and our banking system is deserves to be remembered and immortalized.
If Hamilton is removed from the sawbuck, some years from now bills sporting his likeness will be rare. In, say, 2065, the Richard Rodgers box-office should have a promotion that allows anyone who shows up with an ancient Hamilton bill to get free admission – subject to availability, of course, which may still be intense.