Critic’s Notebook: Through ‘Hamilton,’ the Founding Fathers might once again make history
The Founding Fathers famously had a way with words, but as reincarnated in Lin-Manuel Miranda’s sensational musical “Hamilton,” they can now bust a rhyme with the legendary MCs.
These revolutionaries still wear frock coats and breeches, but when they open their mouths, sound and sense intermix with the modern-day flash of a Kanye West or Drake track.
This is American history translated into rap and R&B by a composer whose love of musical theater tradition is matched only by his passion for writing songs you can actually imagine hearing — and liking — on the radio. The result is one of the freshest musicals to come around since “Rent” burst onto the scene two decades ago.
“Hamilton,” having its premiere at New York’s Public Theater before moving to Broadway this summer, doesn’t have the same topicality as Jonathan Larson’s transplanting of “La Bohème” to New York’s East Village in the age of AIDS. But Miranda’s sung-through show is poised all the same to become a landmark work through its sophisticated melding of urban music styles and bold historical reclamation.
If it hasn’t fully realized its potential, it may be that it’s figuring out the balance between its artistic soul and its commercial prospects. Both are prodigious. This show has the best shot of any I’ve seen on my watch of synthesizing the innovative impulses of the modern musical into an exuberantly satisfying whole.
In Thomas Kail’s kinetic production, George Washington (Christopher Jackson), Alexander Hamilton (Miranda), Thomas Jefferson (Daveed Diggs), James Madison (Okieriete Onaodowan) and Hamilton’s rival, Aaron Burr (Leslie Odom Jr.), are played by actors of color. This is an ironic maneuver, given the institution of slavery, but it’s not performed with the winking postmodern drollery of “Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson,” another musical improbably inspired from the pages of American history.
Miranda, a co-creator of the Tony-winning musical “In the Heights,” not only wrote the book, music and lyrics for “Hamilton” but also stars as the title character. His portrayal of Alexander Hamilton — a portrait guided by Ron Chernow’s biography — is suffused with affection for this immigrant go-getter, who, lacking money and connections, hustled harder than his pedigreed peers to become a chief architect of American democracy.
Ask any fourth-grader who Hamilton was and you’ll likely hear about the duel with Aaron Burr that ended his life. A still somewhat obscure figure in the popular imagination, Hamilton was George Washington’s right-hand man during the Revolutionary War, the country’s first secretary of the Treasury and the author of the lion’s share of the Federalist Papers, still the best guide to the U.S. Constitution.
Born out of wedlock in the British West Indies and raised in impecunious circumstances in St. Croix, he suffered the loss of his mother at a young age and bore the brunt of a fate that was Dickensian before Dickens. Precociously intelligent, he eventually came to America for an education and a chance to prove himself. He died before he turned 50 but accomplished enough in his relatively short life to be commemorated on the $10 bill.
Miranda’s lyrics sum him up better than any Wikipedia entry: “The ten-dollar Founding Father without a father / Got a lot farther by working a lot harder / ¿By being a lot smarter / By being a self-starter.”
As played by Miranda with long, flowing hair and a look of almost feral determination, Hamilton resembles a Romantic poet who instead of writing verse about his revolutionary ideals enacts them on the battlefield and in Cabinet meetings. His theme song is the Eminem-inspired “My Shot,” in which he lays out his ferocious mission: “Hey yo, I’m just like my country / I’m young, scrappy and hungry / And I’m not throwing away my shot.”
Career on the rise
The first and more propulsive half of the musical is devoted to Hamilton’s rise from his harsh beginnings and his role in the Revolution. This act could be trimmed, but it is easy to get swept up in the idea of Hamilton’s personal narrative as a crystallization of America’s story.
This section also delves into a complicated marital saga in which Hamilton falls in love with one of the wealthy Schuyler sisters (Angelica, magnificently played by Renée Elise Goldsberry) but marries instead her sister, Eliza (the captivating Phillipa Soo). A third sister, Peggy (Jasmine Cephas Jones), adds to the vocal beauty of these scenes, with Miranda composing trios and choral numbers of Mozartean hip hop and soul for these women.
The second act is handicapped by being more about governing and the ensuing internecine struggles — topics that are not quite as dramatically invigorating as revolution and romance.
Hamilton and Jefferson’s battles over national banks and state debts play out as a rap contest. Foppish, Francophile Jefferson wants to protect the liberty and rights of Virginians, who don’t like their money being funneled off to other parts of the union. Hamilton, at this point a more conservative figure in his demeanor, recognizes, however, that a sturdy financial system, even one based on a British model, is essential if the country is going to have a long-term future.
Issues of slavery are touched upon but not stressed. Race, however, is implicitly in the fore of “Hamilton,” which through its casting and inclusive spirit extends the democratic American experiment both backward and forward.
Miranda has decided not to rush the production to Broadway so that he can work on the show before it opens uptown this summer. If “Hamilton” were to move as it is, it would no doubt sweep the Tonys, but a great hit isn’t the same thing as a musical for the ages, and the second act could use fine-tuning.
The problem is that after the English are defeated the show falls into biographical storytelling, a series of episodes concluding with Hamilton’s death. The thematic vision driving the drama isn’t as honed as it could be, and it seems as though Miranda’s identification with Hamilton as an outsider turned marked hero prevents him from wanting to critique his political legacy or complicate our sympathy.
The neat dichotomy that is set up between Hamilton and Burr isn’t developed sufficiently to hang the plot on. Hamilton is shown to be a man of complete conviction while Burr is an opportunist, always testing the political winds.
Burr, who is portrayed by Odom with a cocky edge and dangerous charisma, fails to become Hamilton’s chief antagonist. That role is played by time itself in a drama that turns Hamilton less into a political casualty than a tragic though still inspiring figure.
“I’m running out of time I’m using my goodbyes up,” Hamilton sings before his fatal duel. He reflects on his legacy (“I wrote some notes at the beginning of a song someone will sing for me / America, you great unfinished symphony”), but not too mournfully. Miranda wants us to leave feeling good about ourselves, so he’d rather celebrate a country “where even orphan immigrants can leave their fingerprint and / rise up.”
There’s nothing wrong with uplift — it sells — but Miranda could perhaps more deeply consider how Hamilton’s story is larger than this optimistic message. What, for instance, does his career in politics suggest about today’s partisan squabbles? What does it say about a society that exacts agonizing costs for self-made success? What might it tell us about the true nature of democracy and the reality of “equality”?
The musical concludes with Eliza devoting herself to the dissemination of her husband’s story. She recognizes that there are significant consequences over who gets to tell his tale, but Miranda might want to probe a little further into his own relationship to Hamilton’s biography. One question I’d like him to pursue more rigorously: How does this life, in all its stark difficulty and glory, reflect on the state of the nation today?
Can it be still more?
On purely theatrical terms, “Hamilton” is an overwhelming success. Kail, who directed “In the Heights,” has staged “Hamilton” with breathtaking fluidity on David Korins’ simple set of wooden scaffolding. The geometric drills of Andy Blankenbuehler’s choreography enhance the dramatic fleetness. But it’s Miranda’s score that’s the engine of this show, and Alex Lacamoire’s music direction ensures that the production never idles.
Some have complained that Miranda as an actor doesn’t have the necessary star quality, but I found myself rooting for him as much as for Hamilton — the two stories of overachieving underdogs becoming entwined in my mind.
“Hamilton” treads a tricky line not just between fact and fiction but between the commercial musical and something more independent if not radical. Right now the show’s urban style is edgier than its politics. With some strategic refinements of the book and sharpening of the thematic vision, this exhilarating 21st century musical — a blockbuster out of the blocks — has the opportunity not just to tell history but to artistically make it.
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