Hamilton, the wildly unlikely new hip-hop musical about the “ten-dollar founding father without a father” based on the Ron Chernow biography, has been hyped so much I almost didn’t want to see it. But believe the hype: Lin-Manuel Miranda’s new musical is truly revolutionary – and also a deeply moving work of art, and a sincere love letter to a particular vision of America.
Start with the music. Yes, it’s been 20 years since Rent established the viability of the musical in a contemporary musical idiom, almost 30 years since a rap-influenced song from a Broadway musical first charted, and Mr. Miranda himself has done musicals before in a hip-hop/R&B mode. But Hamilton takes it to a whole new level, in part because the individual numbers don’t have sharp corners, but weave into each other. This is musical storytelling par excellence, and the music feels supremely at home in our world. And on top of that it’s really good.
That would be impressive enough an achievement in telling a contemporary story. But this is a historical play, about a period far removed from our mores as well as our music. Or is it? The most unexpected achievement of Hamilton is that it genuinely bridges that huge gap in time. It doesn’t make us feel like we are in a period piece, nor does it engage in cutesy anachronism. Instead, it makes us feel like what happened then, with these people, could be happening right next door; that the founding fathers were our close cousins in spirit; that we would know each other if we met.
We see the fetish for dueling not as some romantic archaism, but as very akin to the contests for honor and supremacy that bloody streets today; we see the tomcatting and consequent sex scandals and we know not just “it was ever thus with men in power” but that we could have a conversation with these 18th-century types, and we’d know what we were talking about. By the time Thomas Jefferson (Daveed Diggs) and Alexander Hamilton are engaging in rap battles about policy in front of George Washington (Christopher Jackson), it not only feels completely appropriate, the substance of discussion is actually clearer than it would be from, well, treating it like a seminar.
The sheer amount of territory covered is breathtaking. We start with a panorama of colonial New York, and Hamilton’s arrival from the West Indies. We have the drama of the revolutionary war. The debate over the Constitution. Then the conflict between Hamilton and Jefferson in the Washington administration. Then the “revolution of 1800” and Aaron Burr. It’s a huge canvas – and a vast amount of expository information is imparted at lightning speed. And we hear it. We take it in. Just as an educational achievement, it’s a wonder.
But this isn’t “Schoolhouse Rock!” There’s a beautiful, even heartbreaking three-sided love story with Hamilton’s wife, Eliza (Philippa Soo) and her sister, Angelica Schuyler (Reneé Elise Goldsberry). There’s a powerful story of fathers and sons, with Washington playing Hamilton’s surrogate father and Hamilton struggling to set his own son, Philip (Anthony Ramos) on an honorable path. And there’s Burr (Leslie Odom, Jr.), the chorus figure as well as the nemesis, who comes off as just as much an American exemplar as Hamilton, who poignantly represents the rage of the second-place finisher in a winner-take-all meritocracy, the would-be Gatsby who couldn’t quite pull off the trick of total self-creation.
And then there’s Hamilton himself. Played by Mr. Miranda (when was the last time that happened on Broadway – book by, music by, lyrics by, and starring), he is both perpetually young and prematurely old. (“I’m just 19 but my mind is older” he sings, and sounds like he’s about 12.) His story is a quintessentially American one, of a young guy on the make and determined to make it to the top on his own merits and in his own way, and because this is his story and America’s story that turns out to be what America was about all along. Yes, there’s lots of high-minded talk of revolution and freedom but what that comes down to when you strip away the pretense is a bunch of guys who didn’t want to wait, who were ready to take their shot and weren’t going to give it away.
That’s not the only way to understand America by any means, but it is a pretty good way in for a contemporary audience – and not just a New York audience. More to the point, Hamilton, a young hustler who couldn’t hide his own ambition if he wanted to, but who also had a profound sense of honor and integrity for which he was willing to sacrifice, well, ultimately everything, is the perfect figure to deliver the message that those are attributes that can coexist in a single person, and a single nation.
Oh, and a brief word about the casting. Nearly the entire cast is non-white (the big exception among named roles is George III, played by Jonathan Groff), but this isn’t exactly black Shakespeare either. This is emphatically not color-blind casting, nor (obviously) traditionally color-conscious casting. Every actor on stage plays his or her part(s) (there’s quite a bit of double-casting – some of it very clever) in his or her own skin, and voice, while also playing these characters from a very different era. But because the language moves so smoothly between the contemporary and the period, the actors can embody their characters without projecting double consciousness. It can almost make you believe in an America where, though we bear the monumental stain of slavery (which comes up repeatedly in the show), we’ve managed to wash out the twin stain of white supremacy, and see these founding fathers also as founding brothers. Almost.
The show isn’t perfect – nothing is – but I think it will only get better as it transitions to Broadway. They’ll have the opportunity to tighten up a second act that gets a bit episodic now (always a risk in a biopic). The show will benefit, I think, from the bigger sound you can create in a Broadway house, and some of the choreography will benefit from a bit more elbow room – though, honestly, what it would really benefit from is bringing it to the audience, Great Comet-style. (I get chills imagining how the duels would play if the audience were between the combatants.)
But they’ll really have achieved something if they bring it all the way to the audience – if schools from East New York to West Hollywood decide that instead of showing “1776,” this year they’ll have the kids perform the Hamilton-Jefferson rap duels. Then we’ll know Mr. Miranda didn’t just reach the bourgeois – he rocked the boulevard.
Hamilton runs at New York’s Public Theater through May 3rd, but good luck getting a ticket – it’s way sold out. Tickets for the Broadway run beginning July 13th at the Richard Rogers theater just went on sale.