Courtesy / Joan Marcus
When the Obama White House invited Lin-Manuel Miranda to perform a selection from his 2008 Tony Award-winning musical In The Heights, he surprised everyone by doing a rap song about Alexander Hamilton. The audience was initially bemused. Hamilton? Wasn’t he the man shot and killed by Aaron Burr, a sitting vice president? The same man in a wig on the $10 bill that the Treasury Department was reportedly planning to remove from circulation? But wait a sec – as Miranda began his narration, the political elite were mesmerized and ultimately gave him a standing ovation.
Few theater critics and aficionados of musical theater would have imagined that a play about an almost-forgotten founding father, set to hip-hop music, would turn out to be a juggernaut that has given new life to the American musical form.
Hamilton, which runs at the Majestic Theatre on Wednesday through May 26, has won 11 Tonys and grossed $463.3 million from its Broadway debut in August 2015 through the end of 2018, landing it in the top 10 of Broadway’s all-time highest-grossing musicals.
It was my good fortune to be in New York City when Miranda’s Hamilton opened off-Broadway at the Public Theater in early 2015. On a dare, a friend and I entered the daily lottery drawing. I scored two seats to the show.
The show began with the same number that Miranda had performed at the White House. Only it was Leslie Odom Jr. performing as Burr. Miranda was Hamilton. The small Public stage seemed a bit crowded when all the actors, the dancers, and chorus were on. The producers refused to label it “a hip-hop musical” for fear that a typical Broadway audience wouldn’t accept nonstop hip-hop throughout the nearly three-hour musical. After all, the Public Theater’s earlier production of the emo-infused bio rock musical Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson had garnered great critical reviews but closed quickly once it moved to Broadway.
As Ron Chernow, on whose 741-page prize-winning biography of Hamilton Miranda based his musical, told attendees at a recent San Antonio Book Festival event, “Lin-Manuel covered the first four chapters of my book in that opening rap at the White House. It was uncanny and amazing.”
One of the criticisms of the hip-hop in the musical is that the performers perfectly enunciated their lines rather than deliver them in the raw style typical of hip-hop. But within the lyrics and style are references and homages that Miranda included for those versed in hip-hop and rap history.
In an early number at a tavern where the young revolutionaries introduce themselves, it’s like an emcee battle as the future rebels engage in braggadocio: “I’m John Laurens in the place to be! / Two pints o’ Sam Adams, but I’m working on three,” echoing Run-DMC’s “I’m DMC, I’m in the place to be / I go to St. John’s University.”
Miranda uses 1960s Beatles-era pop for King George III (who almost steals the serious musical with a touch of levity and camp) and the R&B of Destiny’s Child for the Schuyler Sisters. Best of all is Thomas Jefferson’s jazzy riff when he returns to his home in Monticello, “What Did I Miss?” As the members of his commune gather around him, he even gives a short nod to Sally Hemings. Miranda has skillfully given each character an individual music style that is pure genius.
Still, Hamilton doesn’t dwell on the fact that many founding fathers were slaveowners. Some critics have faulted the musical for not making this a larger concern. The New Yorker magazine quoted Christopher Jackson, the actor who played George Washington, as saying: “The Broadway audience doesn’t like to be preached to.”
Miranda is not above borrowing (or paying homage to) the musical’s dramatic structure from the trifecta of the hit contemporary musical: Les Misérables, Rent, and Jesus Christ, Superstar. The overhead scaffolding set apes Rent, and like Jesus Christ, Superstar, the story is narrated by the main character’s nemesis, Burr. The revolving stage comes from Les Miz and the earlier founding-fathers musical 1776, which won the Tony for best musical 50 years ago. (Harvard’s American Repertory Theater will mount a revival later this year, undoubtedly heading to Broadway).
On the night I saw Hamilton on Broadway, a group waited almost an hour for Miranda to sign autographs. Everyone wanted to offer praise and ask questions. How did he come up with this idea? He said Hamilton was a classic hip-hop story and that he had Tupac Shakur and Biggie Smalls in mind as he wrote it. Someone noted that a hip-hop musical about Tupac, Holler If Ya Hear Me, had been a flop the year before. Miranda mentioned his love for Stephen Sondheim.
“You’re a Puerto Rican Sondheim, ” a fan said. He smiled. “I get that a lot, but I’m three-quarters Boricua [Puerto Rican] and one-quarter Mexican-American.”
The casting of actors and dancers of color has been considered a game-changer by those who keep track of opportunities afforded them on the Great White Way. Unfortunately, the Broadway scene didn’t change as a result of Hamilton‘s success. There wasn’t a rush by producers to cast actors of color in leading roles. Case in point: This year’s 2019 Tony nominations – dominated by white men – belie the effect Hamilton has had on Broadway casting.
One of my quibbles with the show is that its themes, motifs, and foreshadowing are a bit heavy-handed and overused. “Immigrants, we get the job done!” “In New York, you can be a new man!” and “I’m not throwin’ away my shot.” I find the use of “Wait for it!” the most vital refrain throughout the show. Another issue is the way women are portrayed, with sexual liaisons aplenty.
Additionally, Miranda’s apologia for Hamilton comes across as a dated Horatio Alger pulp novel. In “Who Lives, Who Dies, Who Tells Your Story,” Hamilton’s widow laments him as a tragic hero: “You could have done so much more if you only had time.” But in fact, Hamilton left his family to deal with a sex scandal, died so deeply in debt that his widow had to struggle to pay it off, and he was killed in an illegal gun duel. One can hardly imagine how much more damage he could have done if he “had more time.”
If you can afford tickets to Hamilton, then by all means go. Or you can enter a lottery to purchase $10 tickets. However, even inveterate theatergoers can miss half the fusillade of rapid-fire rhyming couplets and Shakespearean iambic pentameters the first time around. Even after seeing the show three times, I’m still finding gems in Miranda’s lyrics. And be forewarned: Hamilton – like Rent, Les Miz, and Jesus Christ, Superstar – is sung throughout.
If you can’t afford to see Hamilton, read Chernow’s book. Better yet, read the book first and then see Hamilton. If you still don’t have enough on the founding fathers, then rent the film version of 1776. It’s been reissued in an extended director’s cut. (President Nixon had Warner Bros. censor a scene that he felt was critical of his administration.)