Word about Lin-Manuela Miranda’s Hamilton has been spreading, circulating, building to a fever pitch since May, 2009, when he performed the title song (and, at the time, the show’s only song) at a White House gathering hosted by the Obamas. I can’t think of another show since Les Miserables, in 1987, that’s generated so much pre-opening excitement. And I can’t think of another show since Rent, in 1996, at which I felt the thrill not only of a promise being fulfilled but of history being made.
Hamilton, which acknowledges its debt to both those musicals among others, is the rare show critics leave the theater thinking, This is the future of Broadway. We’re almost always wrong. Not this time, I think. Hamilton‘s going to move to Broadway very fast, and it will sweep the Tonys; the only question is whether that will happen in time for this year’s awards season or next year’s. Rent moved uptown just days after closing in the East Village. Hamilton is primed for the same trek (though from the Public Theater, not the New York Theatre Workshop).
No matter. As of-the-moment as Pitbull and yet timeless as Rodgers & Hammerstein, Hamilton also certifies the Public as the country’s premier incubator for new-musical talent. If there’s any justice, Hamilton will follow the same route as that earlier Broadway show about the American Revolution, 1969’s 1776, which was equally adventurous in its way, just as unlikely—and a Tony-winning box office hit.
So what’s all the noise about? Alexander Hamilton, for starters, probably the least known of the Founding Fathers but for the fact that he died after a duel with his political rival Aaron Burr and appears on the $10 bill. Unsurprisingly, Miranda, who wrote and starred in the Tony-winning In The Heights, found Hamilton’s story irresistible: illegitimate child of a French woman and Scottish man, born in Nevis and raised in St. Croix, orphaned as a child before being sent, penniless, to New York. Hamilton would become chief aide to General Washington, author of most of the Federalist papers articulating and defending the vision of the Constitution, and President Washington’s first Secretary of the Treasury, fighting for the consolidation of the young country’s financial institutions against the prevailing States’ Rights winds.
Sounds like spinach, but Miranda was gripped by the story as recounted in Ron Chernow’s biography. Here was the ultimate outsider/insider story, the ultimate immigrant story, the ultimate American story. And don’t forget about marrying into wealth; an indiscretion that would end his career in public service; and the raucous political birth pangs of a young nation where the stakes were simply survive or perish.
Those stakes set the tone of a musical that never stops moving (the cinematic staging is by director Thomas Kail, the kinetic choreography by Andy Blankenbuehler) and rarely pauses the story-telling to catch its breath. Like Les Miz, it’s sung through, from the opening number, in which Hamilton (Miranda) raps out the story of his upbringing (How does a bastard, orphan, son of a whore and a Scotsman / Dropped in the middle of a forgotten spot in / The Caribbean, impoverished, in squalor, grow up to be a hero and a scholar?) and early days, trading quatrains with the commenting Jefferson (Daveed Diggs) and Burr (Leslie Odom Jr.).
On David Korins’ atmospheric set, its wooden platforms, ropes, stairs and winches suggesting the backstage of a theater, masses of actors and dancers play out the events leading up to the Revolutionary War (more nods to Les Miz, especially in the repeated musical motifs and the rifle-brandishing crowd scenes). Hamilton is constantly being challenged: Washington (the excellent Christopher Jackson) wants him by his side, not charging into battle; his new wife wants him to stay home (the women in the show have little more to do than whine, when they aren’t actively thwarting their mens’ ambitions); Jefferson and Burr want him to disappear, until they need him.
In response, Hamilton keeps questioning himself and his purpose, much like the bohemian Alphabet City squatters of Rent (I am not throwing away my shot, yo / Just like my country I’m young, scrappy and hungry) and forging his own destiny. Until he no longer can.
For comic relief there’s King George (Brian D’Arcy James, having a ball) commenting at first with disbelief, then bemusement and finally with the stark realization that he’s lost big-time). Both King George and Jefferson are caricatures and it’s hard to know whether Miranda is drawing that from Chernow’s representation of them or simply sees them as foils to the determined outsider/insider Hamilton. Burr and Washington, by contrast, are far more nuanced.
Miranda has so much story to tell that he rarely steps back to take the long view or to go deep inside his character. That’s a flaw in the show—it’s breathlessly expository and resists self-contemplation despite a couple of tips of the hat to Miranda’s heroes Oscar Hammerstein and Stephen Sondheim (he even samples both in one lyric for Burr: I’m with you, but the situation’s fraught. You’ve got to be carefully taught, which manages to quote both A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Forum and South Pacific) whose songs drive the narrative while bringing us inside every main character.
And yet this phenomenal production honors the inexhaustible verbal wordplay and musical breadth that connects Miranda to Broadway’s greats. At unexpected moments the score just soars on choral wings (the brilliant musical director Alex Lacamoire is his generation’s Paul Gemignani, carbonating the music as Gemignani did for so many Sondheim shows). I left Hamilton not only exhilarated and eager to see it again but also full of anticipation about where Lin-Manuel Miranda will take us next.