Back when I was teaching Intro to American Politics to college students, one of my favorite sections to teach was on the creation of the U.S. Constitution. That’s partially because I am a public law scholar at heart, but I always enjoyed walking my students through the many issues that the Founding Fathers faced when redesigning their new government. The Federalist Papers were a key part of that discussion and the lesson that I most looked forward to; it was so rewarding to watch the students initially struggle and then come to understand the persuasive essays that were penned to convince the people of New York to support the new Constitution. Since Alexander Hamilton wrote the bulk of these missives and was a key figure in the early foundation of America’s government, I thought that I already knew quite a bit about him.
The new Broadway show Hamilton proved that I still had to lot to learn about the titular Founding Father. The musical tells his story in an innovative and creative way – through the use of hip-hop (as well as jazz and r & b) – and uses many actors and actresses of color to play the roles of the white founding fathers. The show is dazzling and intoxicating; two days later, I still have many of the songs running through my head and if I were lucky enough to score tickets again – no easy feat – I’d see the musical again in a heartbeat. It’s rare that a Broadway show is as informative as it is entertaining, but Hamilton was able to easily pull off making history exciting and compelling.
I had first heard rumblings of Hamilton when it was still off-Broadway at The Public Theater earlier this year. The praise of the show was nearly universal and the concept of taking early American history and telling it in a very modern way appealed to me. As more and more praise was heaped on the show, I started to stalk it; I knew this was going to be a hot ticket once it hit Broadway and word of mouth really got out about the show, so I wanted to get tickets as soon as they were going to be on sale. Since I was already going to be in the city the weekend of August 22-23 to attend Yankee games that seemed like the perfect weekend to squeeze it in. I recruited my Broadway buddy Amanda and we were lucky enough to secure tickets for our desired show time, within the first three weeks of the show’s run. I was so excited that I was determined to see this show even with the added complication of my sprained ankle.
I was a little concerned with all this buildup that the show wasn’t going to live up to expectations; I really didn’t know a ton about it other than the basic concept and I wasn’t all that familiar with the cast. I had vaguely heard of Lin-Manuel Miranda, who not only play Hamilton but who also did the music, lyrics and book, but I wasn’t all that familiar with him or his previous show, In The Heights. When the play first started I was having a little trouble initially following along as they were speaking so quickly and I hadn’t fully adapted to the style yet. I got a little nervous, worried that this did not bode well for my overall enjoyment (and comprehension) of the rest of Hamilton. However, whatever part of my brain needed to lock in kicked into gear after the first song and I had no issues following along the remainder of the show. I’ve had this problem with other shows as well – understanding what people are singing is sometimes an issue for me, especially in large group numbers – so it wasn’t an issue with the hip-hop style of the show. If anything, my familiarity with that genre probably helped me get myself acclimated more quickly.
Hamilton addresses the entire life of Alexander Hamilton, but picks up after he has immigrated to the United States and his role in the Revolutionary War. I actually didn’t know as much about this period of Hamilton’s life, so this was all very informative to me. One of the first people that Hamilton meets is Aaron Burr (Leslie Odom, Jr.), who will obviously be a pivotal figure in Hamilton’s life (history spoiler). The musical also covers Hamilton’s relationship with George Washington (Christopher Jackson), his wife Eliza (Phillipa Soo), his sister-in-law Angelica (Renee Elise Goldsberry), Thomas Jefferson (Daveed Diggs) and James Madison (Okieriete Onaodowan) as well as an occasional appearance by King George (Jonathan Groff) to comment on what is happening in his former colonies. The performances are uniformly stellar; the cast is able to deftly move between different musical genres effortlessly and easily creates fully realized characters. The choreography is impressive as well. Lin-Manuel Miranda is particularly captivating, but the rest of the cast definitely holds their own. Jonathon Groff only appears sporadically in the play, but he was a definitely highlight of the production. I was also especially fond of Diggs’ portrayal of Jefferson and Odom, Jr.’s Aaron Burr was great as well. It’s worth noting that several of the actors pull double duty in this show and play one character in the first act and another character in the second. They do this seamlessly and it allows them to fully take advantage of the talented cast that they have. It would be a shame to leave some of these people on the bench for half the show. It’s really an embarrassment of riches that they have assembled.
One problem that some people have with musicals is the idea that people spontaneously break into song at any given moment; that’s not a worry in Hamilton because the entire show is done with songs. The use of hip hop means that there aren’t really any conventionally delivered lines; everything is part of the greater rap and therefore there are not the jarring tonal shifts that some people find off-putting about traditional musicals. So this show might appeal to a wider audience with its non-traditional conventions. The husbands and boyfriends who don’t dig musicals might find Hamilton more to their liking, especially if they like hip hop. There’s a lot that I loved about Hamilton, but I found the idea of cabinet meetings being structured as rap battles especially inspired. Actually, throughout the entire show, I was dazzled at the creativity and vision that allowed Lin-Manuel Miranda to read Ron Chernow’s biography of Hamilton and then create this show. I’ve read plenty of biographies about similar historical figures (occupational hazard) and the leap that he makes from page to stage is nothing short of genius. It’s hard to compare Hamilton to other Broadway shows that I’ve really enjoyed (like Book of Mormon, Hand to God or Hedwig and the Angry Inch) since it is just so different, but I can say without reservation that Hamilton is easily one of my favorite Broadway experiences ever. I’m probably driving everyone I know nuts about it since I won’t shut up about this musical; my morning briefings with my boss usually take ten minutes and today it took twenty as I raved and raved about Hamilton.
It’s rare that anything can live up to the hype that proceeds it, but Hamilton is the rare case where it actually exceeded expectations. If you have the opportunity to see Hamilton, you should seize it. The show is long – nearly 3 hours with an intermission – but it is absolutely worth your time investment and the musical honestly flies by. If possible, make sure to see the show when Lin-Manuel Miranda is in the lead; he’s sharing the role with Javier Munoz and while I’m sure the latter does a great job, I can’t imagine anyone topping Miranda’s performance. I don’t even know what else may come out or what will be nominated, but if Hamilton doesn’t take home all the Tonys then there has been a miscarriage of justice. Simply an amazing night of theater.
Hamilton is currently running through May 2016.