By Shari Lifland (@shariontheaisle)
“How does a bastard, orphan, son of a whore and a Scotsman, dropped in the middle of a forgotten spot in the Caribbean by providence, impoverished, in squalor, grow up to be a hero and a scholar?”
That’s the question that opens Lin-Manuel Miranda’s always passionate and often thrilling new musical, which opened tonight at the Richard Rodgers Theatre. The “orphan bastard” is of course the show’s namesake, American founding father Alexander Hamilton. Miranda, who wrote Hamilton’s book, music, and lyrics and plays the title role, spends the next 2 hours and 45 minutes answering that question—sometimes brilliantly, others with a curiously didactic undertone. The short answer, revealed in the show’s opening number, “Alexander Hamilton,” is this: “the ten-dollar founding father without a father got a lot farther by working a lot harder. By being a lot smarter, by being a self-starter.” (Much like Hamilton’s creator).
So, does Hamilton live up to the hype? Will it change your life (as some viewers have suggested)? The answer, like Hamilton himself, is complicated. As a whole, the show is brilliant—a unique artistic vision translated into a ground-breaking piece of theatre that is unlike anything seen before. Hamilton has its transcendent moments, especially throughout most of act one, when Miranda’s narrative and his cast hit the ground running in an epic swirl of energy. The opening number, “Alexander Hamilton,” followed by Hamilton’s stirring “My Shot,” and King George’s crowd-pleasing “You’ll Be Back” are a few notable standouts. However, act one eventually overstays its welcome, unwisely continuing for two additional numbers beyond what feels like a perfect, organic ending—the emotionally stirring “Yorktown.”
Act two, while engaging, doesn’t reach the heights of its predecessor, until the show’s plaintive “Finale.” In a hauntingly beautiful performance by the excellent Phillipa Soo as Hamilton’s widow Eliza, we learn that Eliza outlived her husband by 50 years. While dedicated to keeping his memory alive, she became a hero in her own right, founding New York City’s first private orphanage, speaking out against slavery, and raising funds for the Washington Monument.
Alexander Hamilton’s accomplishments are impressive. From humble beginnings as a bastard, then orphaned child in St. Croix, he rose up to become George Washington’s right-hand man, both during the Revolutionary War and after, helping fight for and establish a new nation. He designed the young country’s financial system, served as the first Secretary of the Treasury, wrote most of the Federalist Papers, founded the Federalist Party, and lobbied for a strong national government.
Yet, until Miranda became his PR man, Hamilton’s star was often eclipsed by his peers. Miranda’s opus focuses solely on Hamilton’s story. The rest of the characters, including Hamilton’s lifelong frenemy and eventual killer, Aaron Burr (Leslie Odom, Jr.), George Washington (Christopher Jackson), the Marquis de Lafayette and Thomas Jefferson (Daveed Diggs, in both roles), and James Madison (Okieriete Onaodowan) exist only as supporting players. Hamilton is the rock (or rap) star, and Miranda serves him well. He is a luminous performer, emitting a glowing life force that is both mesmerizing and completely authentic. (Javier Muñoz steps into the role at Saturday matinees through September 6 and Sunday matinees beginning September 7).
While each member of the non-traditionally cast ensemble gives a fine performance, special mention must be given to Broadway favorite Jonathan Groff, who makes the most of his delightful, scenery-chewing turn as King George. Although his actual time on stage is brief, Groff milks every moment, especially during his rendition of George’s riotously campy, “You’ll Be Back,” wherein he admonishes the revolting colonists by crooning: “You’ll be back, time will tell. You’ll remember that I served you well…And when push comes to shove, I will send a fully armed battalion to show my love.”
Although Hamilton has been called a hip-hop musical, its songs cover a broad range of musical genres, from rap to R&B, jazz, and even traditional Broadway melodies. For audience members who lack familiarity with the oeuvres of Miranda’s muses, a diverse group that includes The Notorious B.I.G., LL Cool J, Rodgers & Hammerstein, and Jason Robert Brown, the show’s Playbill provides a handy guide to the classic songs referenced in the show—from LL Cool J’s “Going Back to Cali” to Brown’s “Nobody Needs to Know” and Gilbert and Sullivan’s “The Modern Major General.” And in what may be a Broadway first, one musical number, “Ten Duel Commandments,” was evidently inspired by Biggie Smalls’ “Ten Crack Commandments.”
Hamilton reunites Miranda’s award-winning In the Heights team, with Thomas Kail at the helm, choreography by Tony Award winner Andy Blankenbuehler, and music direction and orchestrations by Alex Lacamoire. The staging has a stylized feel that manages to marry the show’s historical details with its modern music. And David Korins’ wooden, multi-leveled set provides a neutral, barn-like background that never overshadows the actors or the action.
Why has Lin-Manuel Miranda, a 35-year-old New York native of Puerto Rican descent, become so fascinated (one might say, obsessed) with a man born over 250 years ago? His Hamilton-mania was first sparked when he read Ron Chernow’s award-winning Hamilton biography. He immediately recognized and related to Hamilton’s life as a classic American immigrant success story. (Miranda has said that Hamilton reminds him of his own father, Luis, who, like Hamilton, left his Caribbean home as a teenager to forge a new life in New York). In Hamilton: An American Musical, Miranda tips his hat to the immigrant’s journey. As the Frenchman Lafayette and his friend Hamilton boast: “Immigrants. We get the job done!” Miranda also clearly admires Hamilton as a prolific writer and brilliant iconoclast who is driven to succeed against all odds—again, a man who sounds a lot like Miranda himself.
The overriding theme of Miranda’s Hamilton is, “Who tells your story?” In the show’s finale, Eliza considers her husband’s legacy: “Every other Founding Father story gets told. Every other Founding Father gets to grow old. And when you’re gone, who remembers your name? Who keeps your flame? Who tells your story?”
Fortunately for Mr. Hamilton (and Broadway audiences), a young New Yorker, also from immigrant roots, has made it his mission to keep Hamilton’s flame alive. By creating this passionate, ground-breaking, completely modern work of art, Lin-Manuel Miranda has made history in his own right.
For more information about Hamilton, visit www.hamiltonbroadway.com