If you saw the PBS broadcast that documented the behind-the-scenes development of Hamilton: An American Musical, you’ll know where and how writer and performer Lin-Manuel Miranda got the idea for his next show. He was away on vacation, taking a break from In The Heights, resting by the beach, reading a copy of the 2004 biography, Alexander Hamilton by historian, Ron Chernow. And now, fourteen years later, if there’s any Broadway musical hardly in need of more superlatives, it’s safe to say, that would be Hamilton.
What in theatre parlance used to be referred to as a pop/rock opera, Hamilton is a sung-through musical with no stand-alone dialog, other than a sentence or two that might appear in the middle of a song. Miranda’s musical style for his biographical drama incorporates a wide range of influences, including rhythm and blues, soul, even some sixties pop presented with a Broadway flair. But its main source of music is stylized hip-hop, making Hamilton a principally rapped-through musical.
Despite some areas of criticism noting that historical accuracy is not at the forefront of Miranda’s book – many of the early scenes depicting exchanges between Aaron Burr (Nicholas Christopher) and Hamilton (Austin Scott) never happened, plus there’s considerable embellishment regarding John Adams, who did not fire Hamilton – biographer Chernow acted as the show’s historical consultant. Covering such an expansive story line and making it dramatically acceptable, adjustments are often required to tell a tale – real life has a habit of not adhering to riveting story-telling rules – so while things are simplified, and Burr’s relationship is exaggerated, plus neither Burr, Thomas Jefferson, nor James Madison ever approached Hamilton about his adultery, having the man presented as a kind of villain is acceptable license in order to maintain dramatic interest. After all, as Burr states in the introductory number, Alexander Hamilton, “I’m the damn fool that shot him.”
The diversity of the show’s cast (where white figures of American history are played by black and Hispanic actors) is reflected in the diversity of the show’s score. Many theatre-goers already aware of the songs long before seeing the show (and through repeated plays of the CD) will go in wanting to hear certain favorites performed live. Others completely new to the production, and particularly for those who have never attuned to or have little interest in hip-hop, may feel somewhat overwhelmed and bemused by the hype and the accolades. For them, after awhile, the tendency for one rap to sound like another might be an issue. With a running time of roughly two and a half hours, that’s a lot of new back to back, non-stop materiel to cover. But even for those whose eyes may glaze over as they lose the narrative and never fully adjust, there should still be standouts.
The show’s opener acts not only as an introduction, a prologue required to unveil the importance of what is to come – the immigrant status of Hamilton, where he was born, his future relationships, and his eventual demise, all mapped out – it also sets the tone and rhythm of what lies ahead for the next couple of hours, where the lyrics are both rapped and sung, performed with drama and humor. It’s a strong beginning.
Burr’s character is lucky to have two of the show’s best songs; Wait for It, and even better, The Room Where It Happens, a stylish, upbeat, toe-tapper with a catchy hook for a chorus, depicting the secrecy of political bargaining. Behind closed doors, Jefferson, Madison, and Hamilton discuss where the capital city of the United States will be, but Burr is left on the outside, away from the secret deals. He sings, ‘No one really knows how the game is played/The art of the trade/How the sausage gets made.’
Then there’s the gospel-inspired One Last Time, powerfully sung by President George Washington (a stand out Isaiah Johnson) depicting Washington’s decision not to run for a second term. The climactic movements are potent, delivered with powerhouse vocals from Johnson. “If I say goodbye, the nation learns to move on/It outlives me when I’m gone.” It is quite superb, and deserving of the lengthy roar of approval from Wednesday night’s ASU Gammage audience.
But the crowd-pleaser has to be King George’s belief that the colonies will return to his control, You’ll Be Back, a sixties-inspired pop number with a sing-a-long chorus full of da-di-da’s that can’t help but please, even for those who might have, by this point, lost interest in the show’s overall style. The king’s role has little to do with Hamilton’s story, but the song is so full of dry, sarcastic humor with clever lyrics, some even prophetic – “When you’re gone, I’ll go mad/So don’t throw away this thing we had” – it becomes a hugely welcomed moment of comic relief, delivered with a somewhat sly, nasty edge, inspired, no less, by a conversation that Miranda had with actor Hugh Laurie. The tune is repeated twice with different lyrics; once as What Comes Next, when the king asks the new nation if it knows how hard it is to lead, and again, the particularly funny I Know Him, where the mad king can’t believe that Washington will be succeeded by that little man, John Adams. George may feel his colonies were stolen, but he steals every moment he’s on stage. Peter Matthew Smith as the king brings the house down.
The set is full of rickety timber, backed by fake brick walls on a stage consisting of revolving turntables used to superior effect, smoothly gliding props and characters into the following scene, wherever they need to be. The ensemble in their stretchy jodhpurs never quit moving. It’s a hugely impressive and handsome looking production.
For theatre-goers who keep up with current events, Hamilton will be everything you’ve heard, and maybe even more. For others who have only a passing interest and were attracted by a curiosity, stirred only because of the incredible level of hype depicting the musical as being the greatest thing since sliced bread, the show and it’s hip-hop score may not produce the same response. There could be a tendency to feel unengaged, even distant. But you cannot fail to see that there’s something uniquely and positively different here in the making, whether it’s to your taste or not. In that same PBS documentary, Stephen Sondheim stated that the funny thing about history is you don’t realize it’s history while you’re experiencing it. Like its form or not, a musical of this nation’s past is making history of its own, and we’re witnessing it as it happens. With Hamilton, a new style of theatrical story-telling is born. Lin-Manuel Miranda has given musical theatre a different direction.
Hamilton: An American Musical continues at ASU Gammage, Tempe until Sunday, February 25
Pictures of the Hamilton National Tour Courtesy of Joan Marcus