HAMILTON: An American Musical
by Nancy Salz, October, 2015
Book, Music and Lyrics by Lin-Manuel Miranda
Directed by Thomas Kail
Choreography by Andy Blankenbuehler
Musical Direction and Orchestrations by Alex Lacamoire
Starring Lin-Manuel Miranda, Leslie Odom, Jr., Phillipa Soo, Renée Elise Goldsberry, Jonathan Groff, Christopher Jackson, Daveed Diggs, Okieriete Onaodowan, Anthony Ramos, Jasmine Cephas Jones,
It is daunting to attend Hamilton. The expectations are overwhelming: raves in all the papers including two in the New York Times – and hip-hop! Rap! Many of the songs and dialogue are in rap, that popular and often angry form of music, where every other word rhymes with truck, and the melodies are few and far between. What is a classical music lover to do? If one loves Hamilton, will it be true love or is one just going along with the crowd? If one doesn’t love it, is one incapable of expanding one’s horizons?
Rest assured. Hamilton’s ingenuity, passion and energy will seize your mind and your musicality at the first beat. Hamilton is far closer to Shakespeare than rap heard on the radio. It has a libretto born of intelligence and wit with a rhythm that grows out of the words. Try reading these first lyrics out loud and you’ll get the idea, even if you’re not a member of the exceptionally talented cast …
How does the bastard orphan, son of a whore
And a Scotsman dropped in the middle of a forgotten spot in
The Caribbean by providence impoverished to squalor
Grow up to be a hero and a scholar?
Hamilton is what opera might be if the libretto was dominant instead of the music. In Hamilton, everything and everyone serves the lyrics – and the lyrics serve the story of America’s birth and the lives of Alexander Hamilton and his jealous friend-then-foe Aaron Burr. From the first beat – loud and amplified as this form of music requires – this show fills the theatre and its audience with excitement, humor, and sadness. It had me at “How does….” It was impossible not to listen closely.
The show, based on the book Alexander Hamilton by Ron Chernow, is the story of Hamilton’s close friendship with and ultimate murder by Burr, and his marriage to his long-suffering wife, Eliza Schuyler Hamilton. Hamilton was devoted to George Washington, America’s new government (the show reminds us that Hamilton wrote 51 of the 85 Federalist Papers) and its banking system. The show is brimming with American History – so much so that at times, especially in the second act, it drags.
The book, music and lyrics are all by Lin-Manuel Miranda, who has won every major theatre award. His musical, In The Heights, was a Pulitzer finalist. Hamilton will surely win one this year. And, in addition to all Miranda’s creative gifts, he also stars with great intensity and bravado as Hamilton.
In fact, the entire company, with color-blind casting, is outstanding. Leslie Odom, Jr is riveting as Burr. Philippa Soo* is strong and empathic as Hamilton’s wife Eliza. Renée Elise Goldsberry* is exceptional as Angelica Schuyler, Eliza’s sister, who has a special bond with Hamilton, Jonathan Groff stopped the show three times as a delightfully snarky King George, a character Gilbert and Sullivan could have created. Miranda, like Shakespeare, appreciates the importance of comic relief.
A small dancing chorus is onstage in most scenes. Dressed in white, they serve as townspeople, soldiers, or they simply and powerfully underscore the music and emotion of the show with dance much the way music can underscore a movie. The choreography is hip hop, modern or just movement as the score requires. Sometimes the chorus seems to serve no purpose at all, and yet the stage and most of the story would feel empty without them.
The action takes place in front of the theatre’s back, brick wall, under a narrow wooden balcony, alongside a wooden, moveable staircase and on top of a wood-like stage with two moving circular platforms. The costumes are of the period with only King George’s being particularly memorable. This show is not about the costumes or the scenery. They importantly serve the story.
Lin-Manuel Miranda has taken a musical form that began in urban areas, despised by some as much as it is loved by others, and adapted it for everyone. He has extraordinary talent for picking the quintessential emotions to embody in song and mount as big production numbers. The opening, “Alexander Hamilton,” of course. “My Shot” the ironically titled song dramatizing Hamilton’s ambition. He sings and says often “I’m not throwing away my shot.” Burr’s ambition and jealousy of Hamilton is embodied in the song, “[I want to be in] The Room Where It Happens.” Eliza Hamilton asks in song lyrics after Hamilton’s death “Who lives? Who dies? Who tells your story?”
Thomas Kail directed these three hours of ground-breaking energy, spirit, and passion.
Hamilton is unlike anything seen before. It is an original, wise, and exciting evening or afternoon in the theatre. Yes, I truly loved it, even though at times I wished that it was shorter.
*In a 2014 Berkshire Review review, Phillipa Soo was described as “believable and charming” as Anne, the naïve wife, in A Little Night Music at the Berkshire Theatre Group. Renée Elise Goldsberry was called “particularly compelling” in BR’s review of Animal Crackers at the Williamstown Theatre Festival a year earlier.