New York City Theater
Wow! Just when the American musical theater seemed destined to become mostly film adaptations or jukebox extravaganzas, along comes “Hamilton,” the pulsating, whirling, fresh, hip-hop re-telling the life of a politician who never really got his due. The “ten dollar founding father without a father” began as an illegitimate immigrant and ended up being killed in a famous duel with Aaron Burr. His complete tale is one of the least known in history, a gap librettist/composer/lyricist Lin Manuel-Miranda is determined to close with this exciting musical.
Based on Ron Chernow’s biography, “Alexander Hamilton,” this is a show infused with the youthful vitality of the men who forged a new country by raising “a glass to freedom.” It’s also about the tireless spirit of New York, Hamilton’s acquired hometown (he’s buried in Trinity Church’s graveyard).
By blind casting, mixing races so that, for example, the preening Thomas Jefferson and the scheming Aaron Burr are played by African-American actors, the show is also a sharp rebuke to those who insist we were, are and forever will be a WASP nation. We may have started out that way, with slavery enshrined in the Constitution, but that document is a living, breathing one and the nation has – or should have -- progressed.
“I’d rather be divisive than indecisive” goes one of the lyrics of this sung-through work with its echoes of Gilbert and Sullivan patter. Indeed, Miranda, a lover of musicals, references not only G&S (George Washington is “a modern major general”) but Rodgers and Hammerstein. Thus, despite its contemporaneity, combining rap with melodic tunes, it is, in many ways, a traditional journey tale. It has a hero who, wanting his story told, will not “throw away his shot” but persevere in his quest to “turn the world upside down.”
That it should be overturned by Hamilton is even more significant when he joins with Lafayette, the Frenchman so vital to the success of the revolution. “Immigrants,” they say, “we get the job done,” an applause-getting line for a liberal, politically aware audience if ever there was one. He gets the job done all right, as Washington’s aide-de-camp and as the first Secretary of the Treasury.
Eager, ambitious, astute, he contracted alliances, even with rivals, arguing for a united nation against states-righter Jefferson yet supporting the Virginia gentleman for the presidency. It was as much the latter stance as any that caused enmity with former friend Aaron Burr who became vice-president under Jefferson, instead of the top spot he coveted. Not without flaws, Hamilton, author of the influential Federalist Papers, found time to have both a wife and a mistress, the revelation of the latter leading to his downfall.
Under Thomas Kail’s zestful direction and Andy Blankenbuehler’s vigorous choreography and movement, the evening shoots from the cannon without let-up, so much so that, at times, the pace is actually exhausting. David Korins’ all-purpose scenic design, Howell Binkley’s flowing lighting, Paul Tazewell’s costumes, Charles G. LaPointe’s wigs and Nevin Steinberg’s articulate sound design superbly enhance a show that spans several periods at once, an amalgam of old and new.
Miranda plays Hamilton as a charming, open, persistent go-getter. Matching him is a marvelous Leslie Odom, Jr. as the conflicted, fiery Burr. Daveed Diggs is both a dignified Lafayette and an egotistical Jefferson, with Phillipa Soo as the loyal Eliza Hamilton and an hysterical Jonathan Groff as the kooky King George. (“You’re on your own,” he warns the colonists. “Don’t come crawling back to me.”)
Richly layered, the production is also so terribly busy it puts up a barrier against the kinds of personal connections that would let us connect emotionally with the eponymous hero. It may take a second viewing to absorb all the nuances and get beyond the density of history. That would, in this case, be something to look forward to.
--David A. Rosenberg
March 16, 2015