More than two years after “Hamilton: An American Musical” had its world premiere at New York’s Public Theater, becoming the biggest theatrical sensation in at least a generation, it’s still up for grabs whether it was the brilliant hip-hop inflected score or the inclusive vision of American history or the kinetic ensemble production that turned Lin-Manuel Miranda’s creation into a pop cultural powerhouse.
At the Hollywood Pantages, where the show was greeted with pomp, stardust and boisterous love at its official Los Angeles opening on Wednesday, the musical revealed another quality in its stunning repertoire: perfect timing.
After the deadly violence in Charlottesville, Va., last weekend exposed the rise of extremist groups and their hateful ideologies, we could all use a reminder of what it means to be an American. “Hamilton” offers healing balm for the country’s bruised soul. The show might be prohibitively expensive, but its embodiment of pluralism and diversity will touch anyone who longs to see America live up to its ideals.
The excitement in the house was sparked by the arrival of the best new musical in decades, but the emotion came from a deeper hunger. Miranda turns the story of our nation’s birth into a singing drama that channels and celebrates, in the words of Walt Whitman, “the varied carols” of our democratic experience.
For those concerned about how this tour production might play in the vast and not always acoustically friendly Pantages, let me assure you that the show looks and sounds perfectly at home. The Hollywood Walk of Fame is the right address for this supernova musical, whose biggest star is the dynamic company itself. The electricity generated by the cast could light all of Southern California and part of Mexico.
“Hamilton,” which sprung from the unlikely source of Ron Chernow’s biography of Alexander Hamilton, retreads the life of this lesser-known yet profoundly influential Founding Father in the context of the country’s emergence from its revolutionary infancy to its constitutional toddlerhood. Americans have a reputation for not caring all that much about history, but “Hamilton” lures us into caring by centering the action on an immigrant “self-starter” whose drive for freedom is matched only by his desire to leave a lasting legacy.
The first secretary of the Treasury who masterminded our financial system, Hamilton was the most prolific author of the Federalist Papers, the series of essays defending the Constitution. Exceptional as his story is, it can’t help but resonate with every American underdog chasing after a dream of greatness.
Jealously watching this human whirlwind on stage is Aaron Burr, Hamilton’s rival turned bitter enemy. Burr shares Hamilton’s ambition but lacks his integrity. He’s portrayed here as a slick politician who will say anything to win votes. The conflict between them is more personal than partisan, but it broadens the scope of a musical that homes in on some basic schisms in the American character.
Miranda, a prodigy whose first major effort (“In the Heights”) won the Tony for best musical, wrote the book, music and lyrics for “Hamilton,” which monopolized the 2016 Tonys (taking home 11 awards) and picked up just about every other accolade you can think of, including the Pulitzer Prize for drama.
Story and score are inseparable in this sung-through show that mixes rap and R&B in a Broadway package that could only be wrought by an artist steeped in musical theater tradition. Rodgers and Hammerstein are as embedded in the show’s DNA as Grandmaster Flash. Miranda has even acknowledged a debt to Andrew Lloyd Webber for the initial concept album idea that evolved over time into the best book musical since, I don’t know, pick a Sondheim.
The production, under the propulsive direction of Thomas Kail, seizes hold of the audience from the opening number. “Alexander Hamilton” introduces the show’s protagonist by recapping his rocky start in life and asking how an immigrant of low birth from the Caribbean could grow up to become one of the architects of our system of government.
Miranda’s lyrics are a good deal funkier than my polite paraphrasing. And the music (which has retained all its vitality under the expert music supervision of Alex Lacamoire, Miranda’s orchestrator and right hand music man) communicates directly the relentless determination of a striver who works like he’s “running out of time.”
The numbers come fast and furious in a score that has become so popular that even first-timers to the show are mouthing the lyrics. The rapping may not be as sharp as it was with the original cast, but the men eventually step up their game, and the women are flawless in their flow.
Michael Luwoye, who plays Hamilton, has grown into the part. Short of stature, he lends a scrappiness to the character, who is perpetually fighting to overcome the hurdles of his underprivileged background.
In San Francisco, where this tour began, I worried that the show might need to be renamed “Burr,” so overpowering was Joshua Henry’s performance in the role that won Leslie Odom Jr. the Tony for lead actor in a musical (beating Miranda, whose hands were already full of trophies). But the balance is more even now. Henry (so memorable in “The Scottsboro Boys”) still brings the house down with “The Room Where It Happens,” but Luwoye impresses with his versatility.
One moment Hamilton is trading barbs in a hip-hop contest with Thomas Jefferson (Jordan Donica, employing all his lanky body English in his two foppish roles, the other being the Marquis de Lafayette, who departs after the first act). The next he’s venting his grief after tragedy strikes home. Luwoye lets the music transform him while maintaining that sense of a man on a mission who dimly intuits that his days are numbered.
“Hamilton” is a true ensemble musical, and I found myself admiring more than ever Andy Blankenbuehler’s choreography, which unifies the cast and translates the drama into physical language that’s as lyrical as any of the songwriting. The dancing is heart-stoppingly coordinated with Howell Binkley’s lighting, and the tableaux on David Korins’ nimble set of exposed brick and wooden scaffolding are etched with rousing bodily fluidity.
Three performances deserve special commendation. Solea Pfeiffer captures the soul of Hamilton’s wife, Eliza, in her sublime voice and sympathetic demeanor. (She’s as exquisitely tuneful as Phillipa Soo, who originated the role, and every bit as affecting.) Emmy Raver-Lampman, sporting a chic mohawk, is a fierce Angelica, Eliza’s devoted sister who concedes Hamilton though her heart is always with him. And Rory O’Malley is such an ingenious chuckle as King George tooting out British pop as his colonies go rogue that I was secretly hoping Miranda would have written a few scenes for the character in the months that have passed since I last saw the show.
But wait, I’ve left out Isaiah Johnson, who performs George Washington’s farewell address, “One Last Time,” with the grave showmanship the song and our first president deserve. Even when the storytelling occasionally seems cluttered, the cast restores the show to clarity through its magnificent singing.
Before the fatal duel with Burr, Hamilton refers to America as “you great unfinished symphony.” He appreciates the opportunity of having been part of the founding of a nation where “even orphan immigrants can leave their fingerprints and rise up,” but he knows that the work is just beginning.
In these dark times when the definition of America is once again being tested, I am grateful that “Hamilton” is continuing the legacy of these early patriots who enshrined and defended our most sacred democratic values. The multicultural future is now in this watershed show that extends the music of this never-to-be-completed American symphony, bending the notes toward the sound of justice.
♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦
‘Hamilton: An American Musical’
Where: Hollywood Pantages Theatre, 6233 Hollywood Blvd., L.A.
When: 8 p.m. Tuesdays-Fridays, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 1 and 7 p.m. Sundays; ends Dec. 30
Tickets: $85-$650 (subject to change; up to $750 for Thanksgiving and Christmas weeks); daily lottery for $10 tickets
Running time: 2 hours, 50 minutes
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