Some time back, there was this growing presence in my Twitter feed of references to something titled “Hamilton”. It isn’t at all unusual for my Twitter feed to be full of people squeeing over some new media property, and Twitter doesn’t include a lot of room for context and nuance, so it took a little while for me to pick up enough details to know that what had everyone excited was a new Broadway musical that most of the tweeters had encountered only through the cast recording and You Tube clips. (Shh, don’t tell anyone there are You Tube clips. You all know you’re not supposed to be recording performances, right?)
So when L asked if there were anything in particular I’d like to go see while I was in town, I said, “I hear there’s this popular new show called Hamilton.” And she said, “OK, I’ll see if I can get tickets.” That was when I knew that the enthusiasm was a bit broader than my Twitter feed. “I’ll see if I can get...” But I had every confidence, and in the end a couple of phone calls got us aisle seats in the sixth row (and a chat with the
company manager before the show because, of course, he and L are old friends).
When possible, I like to go into shows “unspoiled” so I didn’t check out the album in advance, although I figured it would be a good idea to check out the plot summary on Wikipedia. (At which my reaction was: How in the world are they going to fit all that into three hours on stage?) So here’s as much as I knew: it’s a musical (though actually more of an opera in structure), in a rap / hiphop style, with almost all the cast being people of color in a way that can’t at all be considered “color blind” because of how the entire concept is used to comment on themes of race, culture, colonialism, and immigration.
Although the surface plot is the biography of Alexander Hamilton, there is an immense amount of social commentary on the current era woven through. (Just as a random example: the line where Hamilton and Lafayette look at each other in the middle of the Revolution and say, “Immigrants, we get the job done!”) And I think a lot of the energy around the show is precisely due to this interweaving, as well as the musical idiom -- which should not be as startling a choice as I confess I first found it. (I think it took me about five minutes to go from, “well, that’s an interesting statement” to “well, duh, musicals have always
translated historic milieus into the idiom of the composer’s times.”)
In point of fact, the music draws on a wide variety of idioms, highlighting character and setting (e.g., King George’s songs are in a more traditional almost music hall style) and ranging from driving energy to mournful contemplation. By one of my personal metrics of success, there are several songs still playing in my head though I’m not yet at the point where I could sing any from memory. Let’s just say: the music, it’s wonderful. Listen. My brain is still thinking about comparisons between the rapid-fire rap numbers and an operatic recitative style, and how they drive the narrative forward with a bit more freedom than the pieces with a more structured verse style.
But I want to talk a bit about the staging as well. It’s a single fixed set -- essentially a two-story open atrium around the central stage, with ladders and balconies to play off of, with both furniture and a few other structural pieces moved in and out as needed by the chorus/ensemble. The main stage area has a two part rotating floor that adds to the dynamism of the already very dynamic dance numbers. My favorite use of both aspects is in the piece “Hurricane” where Hamilton sings fixed in the center while chorus members dance/rotate in slow motion around him holding pieces of furniture up to represent the storm debris. As with the music, there is a regular contrast between frenetic motion and calm. Interestingly, the overall tone moves from a very energetic/loud/fast-paced first half, winding down into a slower, contemplative, mournful finish. Given the overall story arc, this fits perfectly, and I wasn’t at all disappointed when the finale left one stunned and thinking rather than ending in a rousing crescendo.
For the costume aficionados, I think you’re going to like this. The representation is stylized, of course, rather than documentary. The chorus/ensemble is dressed in neutral beige, the women with a 18th c style corset over leggings, then men with a waistcoat-like object over the same. This allows them to take on various roles for the various armies, townspeople, etc. by adding appropriate coats or gowns. (The female ensemble members often fill male roles in the martial scenes.) The progression of styles worn by the central characters follows the appropriate historical silhouettes, which provides a useful reminder of the significant passage of time across the storyline.
Without meaning in any way to ignore the stellar performance by author Lin-Manuel Miranda as the title character, I have to give my heart to Renée Elise Goldsberry’s Angelica (the Schuyler who steps aside to let her sister marry Hamilton). I’m left wanting an entire story about her. A number of comments I'd seen in advance noted the prominence of the female characters, and especially Eliza Hamilton's role in curating her husband's legacy. My own impression is that this "prominence" is mostly in contrast to the more typical erasure of women's roles in historic stories. Yes, the Schuyler sisters were given an active place in the plot, but this is still very much a male-dominated story. Also noteworthy is Daveed Diggs’ dual over-the-top roles as the Marquis de Lafayette and Thomas Jefferson. (Let’s just say that Jefferson does not exactly come across as a revered statesman in this version of history.)
OK, so in summary? I loved it. You probably will too. And assuming it continues to sell tickets as solidly as it currently is, you may even have a chance to do so. I’d go so far as to use the phrase “game-changing” for this show.
(Footnote: This may also be the only occasion when you will see the Museum of American Finance take out an ad in Playbill.)