“Hamilton” has finally planted its flag in California.
The unofficial Broadway musical of Barack Obama’s presidency has arrived in San Francisco, America’s bastion of liberalism, at the dawn of a very different political era.
How does Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Tony-winning blockbuster, a retelling of the nation’s founding in rap and R&B, play in the contentious age of Trump? The boisterous crowd let its jubilation ring out at Thursday’s official opening at the SHN Orpheum Theatre, where this national tour production of “Hamilton: An American Musical” runs through Aug. 5 before heading to the Hollywood Pantages for its Los Angeles debut.
Many theatergoers were rejoicing that they were at long last in the room where “Hamilton” happens. But the excitement wasn’t simply about getting to see a show a good percentage of the audience already knew by heart from the cast recording.
Yes, tickets are expensive and formidably difficult to come by. The squeals of some hard-core fans hit a decibel level hitherto reached only by a few winning contestants on “The Price Is Right.”
But the deafening din crackled with the spirit of a communal rally. The musical’s full-throated affirmation of diversity, inclusion and tolerance has taken on new urgency now that these values have fallen under sharp attack. “Hamilton” has become part of the resistance.
Parts civics class, part hip-hop extravaganza, part town hall, the show celebrates in rapping flow the ideals our Founding Fathers battled to define and defend nearly 2½ centuries ago — ideals that are still being vociferously fought over today.
The never-ending project of forming a “more perfect Union,” as the Preamble to the Constitution puts it, is what separates “Hamilton” from the other 21st century Broadway juggernauts (“The Producers,” “Wicked,” “The Book of Mormon”) that have given theater a sugar rush of popularity.
Hamilton and Lafayette’s high-five moment on the battlefield acknowledging the contribution of immigrants to the cause of freedom (“We get the job done”) has been provoking thunderous applause since the show’s off-Broadway start at the Public Theater in 2015. But the cheers at the SHN Orpheum were tinged with the ironic recognition of President Trump’s immigrant-phobic policies and proposals. In loudly endorsing the sentiment of the characters, the audience seemed to be rooting on its own activism and dissent.
Similarly, the song “History Has Its Eyes on You” takes on an even more mournful resonance than before. The image of George Washington shouldering with grave dignity his responsibilities as leader of the burgeoning democracy stands in stark contrast to the partisan shenanigans going on in Washington today. History not only has its eyes on us but it also helps us to see how far we are falling short.
“Hamilton” simultaneously highlights some of very real strides that have been made in the struggle for liberty and equality. The musical’s multicultural cast, portraying seminal figures in the story of America’s founding, is part of the show’s progressive message.
I’ll have more to say about the virtuoso spell of Joshua Henry’s Aaron Burr, the swaggering vigor of Emmy Raver-Lampman’s Angelica Schuyler and the intelligent if somewhat muted presence of Michael Luwoye’s Hamilton when the production opens in L.A. But the kinetic charge of the show comes in large part from the teamwork of this diverse and dynamic ensemble.
“Hamilton” is a generational phenomenon, a box office sensation that has been critically hailed for its groundbreaking style. The only Broadway musical in the last 25 years that remotely compares to it in terms of cultural impact is “Rent,” but Miranda’s masterpiece has a wider reach. Not many shows can claim former Vice President Dick Cheney and Jay Z as fans.
The New York company’s controversial curtain call speech to then-Vice President-elect Mike Pence, who caught the show after the election, may have provoked twitter thunderbolts from Trump, but “Hamilton” is open to all who uphold bedrock democratic principles. No American musical understands better the ideological combat that goes into governing. Patriots from both sides of the aisle have sung the show’s praises.
The San Francisco audience was raucous in its enthusiasm, but I suspect the volume won’t be all that diminished when “Hamilton” eventually ventures deep into Red State territory. Music has a way of bringing people together, and Miranda’s catchy hooks and insinuating beats are hard to resist.
Miranda has written a musical that even millennials who wouldn’t be able to find Broadway on a map think is pretty cool. The nature of the musical storytelling may owe a debt to Andrew Lloyd Webber, but it’s the influence of Biggie, Eminem and Destiny’s Child that comes through loud and clear in the score.
Rarely have I attended a musical that has felt so much like a concert. The 2009 Tony-winning revival of “Hair” had audience members singing in their seats, but that swaying seemed largely nostalgic. In San Francisco, folks were lip-synching along with songs they had just been streaming en route to the theater. My advice to Pantages ticket-holders: If you brush up your Miranda, you’ll double your pleasure.
My only regret about the show is its inaccessibility. A daily lottery makes a small number of $10 tickets available, but it’s the well-heeled who are driving up prices. Tech millionaires in the Bay Area, like their investment banking counterparts in New York, are happy to shell out thousands of dollars for orchestra seats. But just because “Hamilton” revolves around the nation’s first Treasury secretary doesn’t mean it should belong to the rich and super-privileged.
My friend, an elementary school teacher, thanked me profusely for inviting him. “How else would I have seen it?” he said, before heading home on a cloud of “Hamilton” euphoria. The battle for American democracy continues.
Follow me @charlesmcnulty