The cross-pollination of the culture of hip-hop and the Broadway musical has always been dangerous territory where artists rarely venture. The result has often been campy and embarrassingly cheesy, like when the gang from Saved By The Bell put on a rap version of “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs,” or just mediocre, like MTV’s Carmen: A Hip Hopera from 2001 (sorry, Beyonce). Enter Lin-Manuel Miranda, a modern-day Shakespeare who managed to defy the odds and create not one but two hip-hop musicals. Sure, In The Heights was an accomplishment for the Tony Award-winning artist, but Hamilton takes Miranda to an entirely different level. The stage musical transcends the Broadway culture and penetrates pop culture with subtle and overt social commentary like no other musical has ever done before.
Based on Ron Chernow’s biography about the titular founding father, Hamilton was a breakout hit on Broadway when it opened in 2015, selling out night after night at the Richard Rodgers Theatre in New York City. With the touring cast hitting major metropolitan cities across the country, many finally have the opportunity to experience Hamilton now that it’s landed in Los Angeles — but does it live up to all the hype?
If entertainment history has taught us anything, it’s that the original is always better. That said, there is a lingering amount of skepticism for certain Hamilton die-hards who have been listening to the Original Broadway Cast recording on repeat — myself included. When walking into this performance at the Pantages Theatre by a touring cast, Hamilton die-hards would expect everything to sound exactly like Miranda’s Alexander Hamilton or Leslie Odom Jr.’s Aaron Burr or Renée Elise Goldsberry’s Angelica Schuyler. Their flawless performances have been etched into the heads of fans so much that we can’t help but compare to the touring cast.
But once Joshua Henry steps out onto the stage as Burr and starts rapping, the comparisons immediately fade. This specific touring company on display Wednesday night exceeds expectations and feeds the deserved hype and cultural oversaturation Hamilton has been receiving since its inception. The cast makes the foreseeable legacy of the musical stronger and pumps even more soul into the brilliant narrative crafted by Miranda, director Thomas Kail, and musical supervisor Alex Lacamoire.
Henry shines with charisma as Burr to Michael Luwoye’s Hamilton, the titular forefather played with earnest, yet aggressive passion. True to history, the two play pitch-perfect frenemies as Burr unravels with overconfidence, anxiety and desperation as he sees Hamilton rise in the ranks. As the “villain,” Henry has numerous showstopping moments with numbers like “The Room Where It Happens,” but it’s his performance of the fate-defining “Wait For It” that is most memorable. Meanwhile, Luwoye is technically skilled with his vocal delivery and has an astounding ability to spit rhymes with effortless panache. From leading the company number “My Shot” to the Burr duet “Dear Theodosia” to the heartbreaking “It’s Quiet Uptown” with his wife Eliza, Luwoye is a non-stop force.
My endless appreciation of Henry and Luwoye does not diminish any performance of the rest of the company — particularly the core players. And if we’re getting even more specific, the ladies of Hamilton are as phenomenally played as they are written. As Eliza, Solea Pfeiffer injects some Mary J. Blige No More Drama realness into her performance as she plays a woman who falls for, is betrayed by, and ultimately forgives the man she loves. She doesn’t play her as a victim, but as a woman who takes control after her husband has lost it — and her stirring performance of “Burn” is testimony to that. Emmy Raver-Lampman, with her pure, soulfully pop vocal stylings, plays Eliza’s sister Angelica with a strength and independence that can be likened to mid-’00s Beyonce.
Each member of the core company has a chance to shine — some in dual roles. Jordan Donica, who plays both the suave Marquis de Lafayette and the cocky Thomas Jefferson, raps at a mile-a-minute with frenetic electricity, while Mathenee Treco calls upon the forces of Busta Rhymes to deliver his performance of Hercules Mulligan and downplays it with dry humor as James Madison. As John Laurens and Phillip Hamilton, Ruben J. Carbajal manages to maintain a boyish swagger, while Rory O’Malley enjoyably saunters in and out of scenes as a ’60s Brit pop-themed King George. Isaiah Johnson as George Washington had a glorious take-me-to-church moment when he belted out “One Last Time” with ’90s Brian McKnight flair, but it was Amber Iman who I want to hear more of. As the pushed-aside Schuyler sister Peggy, she is sweet, but as Hamilton’s mistress Maria Reynolds, she has a seductively rich alto voice that gave me life.
The music, precise choreography, outstanding staging and overall performances of Hamilton are one thing, but how the story is told is another. The narrative itself is about an immigrant (Hamilton) who comes to America for a better life after going through an enormous amount of struggle. After working hard, he betters his life and creates the national banking system, the Coast Guard, the New York Post and changes the political landscape. As the musical says, “Immigrants, we get the job done!” — a reminder that Hamilton was not white. And that brings us to the casting of people of color in roles of people who were historically white.
Using people of color in roles in Hamilton was an ambitious — and somewhat risky — move that Miranda made when conceiving his idea for the musical. By injecting racial politics into the casting process, Miranda challenged the status quo, and it received enormous backlash when casting calls were put out for “non-white actors” (with the exception of King George’s character). Despite the controversy, the casting of blacks, Latinos, Asians and other people of color in the core roles is Hamilton‘s lifeblood and mirrors identity politics — especially with the racial tensions as of late. Contrary to what some may think, the casting is not to take away roles from white actors, nor is it a clap back at entertainment’s history of black, yellow, and brown face — although it may have a tiny bit to do with that. Instead, it’s a way to include people of color in a history that is overwhelmingly white. By casting people of color in these roles, there is a sense of representation we would not see otherwise — and Miranda executed it with a thoughtful authenticity that makes Hamilton the groundbreaking spectacle that it is.
Fifteen years ago, the idea of a hip-hop musical on Broadway about one of our founding fathers would have sounded like a horrible history lesson from the lamest high school teacher. It would have been the antithesis of cool. But in 2017, Miranda has managed to make it an unforgettable musical that not only lives up to the hype, but subverts the landscape of storytelling and encourages diversity and inclusion on stage and off.