Every great musical improves on second (and third, and fourth) hearing; Hamilton, which opened Thursday night at Broadway’s Richard Rodgers Theatre after an extended run last winter at the Public, is no exception. Lin-Manuel Miranda’s electrifying adaptation of Ron Chernow’s celebrated biography of the least-known U.S. Founding Father is not, to use that cliché, a game-changer. It is, in truth, the quintessence of a Broadway musical destined for the record books: Of-the-moment in its rolling, roiling waves of rap used to tell its tale yet timeless in its unembarrassed detours into the sentimental ballads and roof-levitating choral numbers that are Broadway’s stock-in-trade. Like Rent 20 years ago and A Chorus Line 40 years so, Hamilton is accessible without pandering and inspirational in sneaky ways that permeate a skeptic’s shell. Miranda has used well the interregnum between downtown and up, sharpening lyrics, shifting some of the relationships to achieve greater balance and, happily, ignoring suggestions that he trim the show (it clocks in at about two-and-three-quarters hours yet never feels long).
What I realized on second viewing was how much the show rests on Alexander Hamilton’s notion of life as a series of shots, or opportunities that are there for the grabbing. After the prologue — a classic curtain raiser describing the hero’s arrival in New York after a miserable youth as a fatherless and later orphaned child born in Nevis and raised on St. Croix — Hamilton seeks counsel from Aaron Burr, already the successful lawyer the younger man aspires to be. But Burr (Leslie Odom Jr.) is calculating and diplomatic, opposite in character to Hamilton, who throws off heat. “I am not throwing away my shot,” he repeats insistently, a mantra.
Burr’s bemusement turns rancid with jealousy as Hamilton seizes his shots, becoming General Washington’s formidable battlefield lieutenant, the key articulator and salesman for the Constitution through the Federalist Papers and ultimately the nascent country’s first Treasury secretary. In “The Room Where It Happens,” one of the show’s most memorable songs and Odom’s sexiest yet most scorching showcase, Burr bitterly laments his fate as an outsider, while Hamilton rises in power.
With Washington (Christopher Jackson) as his protector, Hamilton outmaneuvers other formidable opponents, notably Thomas Jefferson (Daveed Diggs) and James Madison (Okieriete Onaodowan). His rapped debates with the France-loving, slave-owning Jefferson are deliciously nasty, perfectly capturing the ferocious down-and-dirty attacks that make today’s political rumbles seem like kids’ stuff by comparison.
Jefferson pegs his rival as a low-rent opportunist, underestimating both Hamilton’s intellect and his drive (“Immigrants — we get the job done,” is one of the show’s great applause lines). Miranda takes full advantage of Chernow’s takedown of Jefferson, here caricatured almost as entertainingly as the intermittently seen King George III (played with agreeable petulance by Jonathan Groff, who replaced the more flamboyant Brian d’Arcy James during the earlier run).
All this unfolds parallel to the smaller canvas of Hamilton’s domestic life, centered on his society marriage to Eliza Schuyler (Phillipa Soo), a devoted partner despite the near ruin he suffers at the hands of his mistress Maria Reynolds (Jasmine Cephas Jones) and the long-distance epistolary romance he carries on with Eliza’s sister Angelica (Renée Elise Goldsberry). To my eyes and ears, the sisters’ roles have been heightened and Soo, especially, carries more of the show than I’d remembered, which is all to the good.
The casting could not be better and the company now wears a multiplicity of roles like second skins. The standout besides Miranda as his own leading man, is Odom, every bit his match as the complex Burr. Equally fine are Soo and Goldsberry as the sisters, Diggs doubling as exuberant Lafayette and Jefferson and Jackson as the stolid Washington.
Also to the good is how David Korins’ rough-hewn setting of planks, ramps and ropes suggesting a backstage or port, and Howell Binkley’s razor sharp lighting, have expanded to fill the larger stage without shrinking the performers within. And how the kinetic staging by Thomas Kail and choreographer Andy Blankenbuehler seem only to have grown richer in the transition. Major props also must go to musical director and orchestrator Alex Lacamoire, whose work is as responsible for the show’s exhilarating shape as any of the others on Team Ham.
The show begins, as I said, with its ambitious hero declaring that “I won’t give away my shot” but it ends, devastatingly and poignantly, with Hamilton doing exactly that in the fatal duel with Burr that has been the best known legacy of the man who, more than any other person, invented the financial institutions that united the fractious states and marched it into the future. It was up to Eliza to salvage the reputation Jefferson and Madison spent years besmirching after her husband’s unnecessary death. That’s one game that Hamilton actually does change brilliantly, satisfyingly and — given its $32-million advance and counting, you may be quite certain — commercially.