It’s rare enough to experience the shiver of revelation that comes in the first few minutes of a great show; rarer still to be blasted above the ordinary the second time around. That’s something great plays and musicals do: They expand with our consciousness. So it is with Hamilton, which turns two on July 13. The original cast members, led in the title role by the show’s author, composer and lyricist Lin-Manuel Miranda, have long since departed on a wave of recognition and riches beyond anyone’s imagining, topped by 11 Tony Awards and the Pulitzer Prize for Drama, not to mention the highest price ever legally demanded for a ticket to a Broadway show. As of this writing, it has played 789 performances and 26 previews at the Richard Rodgers Theatre, which followed a three-month run at the Public Theater, all of them sold out. Also rare: Hamilton arrived on Broadway a better show – sharper and more generous – than it had been downtown.
This weekend I returned to Hamilton for my fourth visit, the first since the turnover of personnel and the price hike. I was skeptical, because one of the secrets every reviewer knows is that while we haven’t attended shows on opening night in decades, we do have a different experience than the paying customers. We get to cut to the front of the security line. We get the best seats. The houses at critics’ previews typically are filled with supporters whose job is to make sure we know how wonderful this thing we’re seeing is. And generally, when we return to a hit, it’s a similarly stage-managed event.
On Friday night, however, it was just me and the paying crowd. I assume many had been holding their tickets for months, even among the high-rollers who’d come at the last minute (on the line outside the theater, someone was hawking $8,000 singles). And as with every performance, 46 extremely lucky lottery chancers were sitting up front in $10 seats.
Only the roar that greets Bette Midler’s entrance in Hello, Dolly! compares to the explosion in the Richard Rodgers Theatre when Javier Muñoz sings the words “Alexander Hamilton” in the opening number that bears his name. Granted, when you have waited so long, heard so much, and negotiated the soul-killing obstacle course involved in attending any Broadway show, you really want a spectacular return on your investment. In this case, however, the fact that I knew what was coming at almost every moment did nothing to diminish the feeling I eagerly shared with the audience. It was the exhilaration of collaborating, as every audience does, with a company on stage in creating something indelible, something transformative and something almost indescribably pleasurable.
Hamilton is in great shape. In the case of Muñoz, it’s not too surprising; he’s been with the show from the beginning as Miranda’s stand-by and performed the lead when the Obama family stopped by the Rodgers for a visit. Muñoz may be the better singer (Miranda is hardly shabby in that department). Miranda never let us forget the wince of an orphan’s insecurity buried deep beneath his layers of determination and self-confidence; Muñoz conveys tougher armor. I’m not going to declare one better than the other; they’re different and equally satisfying.
Indeed, it’s generally an odious critical gambit to compare performances. Who cares how many Uncle Vanyas I’ve seen, tell me about this one. There may be slightly more justification here because the original Broadway cast album is ubiquitous and many theater goers are familiar with the voices that created Hamilton. In this case they really are significant, but again, more because of their stylistic differences than because of any diminishment in the stature of the performances. Hamilton’s nemesis, Aaron Burr, is played by the exceptionally fine Brandon Victor Dixon replacing Leslie Odom Jr. The latter was steel cloaked in suavity, while Dixon is more severe in the opening number, which gives us both Hamilton’s back story and the seeds of a rivalry that will only conclude in a duel on the New Jersey shore many decades later. Delivering what is, to my mind, the show’s most astonishing number, “The Room Where It Happens,” Dixon’s another knockout.
The killer-comic dual roles of the Marquis de Lafayette and Thomas Jefferson, created by Tony winner Daveed Diggs, are now played by Tony winner James Monroe Iglehart, who originated the Genie in the stage version of Aladdin. Where Diggs was sleek and carbonated with energy, Iglehart exudes a crafty jollity that’s irresistible in its own way, not so much playing to the audience as coercing us into abetting his antics. Lexi Lawson and Mandy Gonzalez have the formidable challenge of replacing Phillipa Soo and Renée Elise Goldsberry as Eliza and Angelica Schuyler, respectively, and they’re fully up to the task, singing gorgeously and plaintively. (I still wish someone would tell me what the hell happened to Peggy Schuyler, the Schuyler Sister Who Disappears, but that’s an old gripe.)
One extremely felicitous cast change is the return of Brian d’Arcy James as King George III. He created the role but had to leave while the show was still running at the Public to go into Something Rotten!. (He was replaced by Jonathan Groff and others.) Now he’s back and he’s great, especially in some deft interplay with Iglehart as Jefferson.
The sole exception I must make to all this wonderfulness has to do not with any performance, but with the overall sound by Nevin Steinberg, which struck me this time as muddled and echoic. I’m relieved that so many folks come knowing the words, because you don’t want to miss them and too often – especially, to my ear, with the women – they were tough to make out.
On the other hand, this fourth visit to Hamilton allowed me to savor even more the truly astonishing work of director Thomas Kail and choreographer Andy Blankenbuehler (both Tony winners for the show, with Blankenbuehler repeating a few weeks ago for his choreography of Bandstand). Like Miranda’s score, which ranges restlessly from hip-hop to pop, blues to ballad to traditional Broadway belter, Hamilton itself is in constant motion, an organism whose multitude of parts (the company is fantastic) are seamlessly in synch in ways that just stop your breathing as one scene flows into the next, inventively, smartly, unexpectedly. That’s one of the things that makes Hamilton a truly great Broadway musical. But only one of them.