Theatre reviewing is turning out to be a lot harder than I thought. Originally, I was hoping to see the show and write up a review immediately afterward like a bona fide make-believe reviewer. Dawn came up and I was still writing so I had to break it into parts one and two.
Some people have called Hamilton a “rap opera.” That is not quite accurate since hip hop is only one of several musical styles that the writer, Lin-Manuel Miranda, utilizes. As for the opera half of the phrase “rap opera,” if you accept Anthony Tommasini’s distinction, “in opera, music is the driving force; in musical theater, words come first,” then it would seem that Hamilton might fall on the musical theatre side of the line. While there are few, if any, lines of spoken prose, and recurring musical themes permeate the score to make if feel more musically unified than a typical musical, the words remain paramount. Both the book and the score were written by Miranda, and they form an integrated whole. Ultimately, the line is thin and the distinction is academic, but to my mind it fits comfortably in the tradition of Broadway musicals.
The musical was inspired by Ron Chernow’s biography of Alexander Hamilton. Miranda says that while he was reading the book he felt that songs were just coming off the page and the finished product still retains the excitement of that initial inspiration. Scores have always been written using the musical forms of their time no matter what the era of the subject might be, and we should be no more surprised to find elements of hip hop in a musical about a founder of the United States than we should to find elements of 1970s pop accompanying a story about Pepin the Hunchback or Jesus Christ. The rap form does give Miranda a wonderful advantage at many points. The point is made throughout the musical that Alexander Hamilton wrote a torrent of words throughout his life. A line that repeats is “why do you write like you’re running out of time?” Hip hop allows Miranda to give musical form to this torrent of words. The conceit of staging the opposing viewpoints of Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson as a “rap battle” during a meeting of George Washington’s cabinet works very well and allow us to hear the substance of the argument in a way that is in keeping with the musical and remains entertaining.
Besides writing the words and music, Miranda also plays the lead role of Alexander Hamilton. This could have felt too much like one man’s show if it hadn’t been for the prominence of the character of Aaron Burr.
Leslie Odom Jr., along with the ensemble, opens the show with the song “Alexander Hamilton” which summarizes Hamilton’s beginnings, “bastard, orphan, son of a whore and a Scotsman.” At the end of the song he says, “And I’m the fool who shot him.” (I’m quoting from memory, so please forgive inaccuracies.) It was momentarily jarring to see what a prominent place Burr had been given in the story. However, Odom’s dynamic, but smooth and polished, Burr proves a necessary ballast for Miranda’s impetuous Hamilton. Odom delivers what may become the classic lines for a politician:
Don’t let them know
what you’re against
or what you’re for.
Miranda is far from the first to see Hamilton and Burr as a study in contrasts. In most retellings of the story, Burr suffers from the comparison. Although this is Hamilton’s story and he gets by far the largest share of our sympathy, by giving Burr such a prominent place he keeps him from becoming a cardboard villain. (An interesting titbit I recently learned: Aaron Burr was the grandson of the famous preacher Jonathan Edwards.)
Telling an historical story is inevitably an act of interpretation. In recent years, conservatives have been especially active in promoting an interpretation of the founding years of the United States in a way that supportive of their current goals. While Miranda’s play does not make any overt references to the positions of current political parties, it most certainly has a point of view, and not one that the extreme right will find useful. Miranda makes much out of the fact that Hamilton was an immigrant, including an embarrassing high-five with the Marquis de Lafayette, whom I had never heard called an immigrant before since he was only here temporarily.
Another point that is highlighted in Miranda’s version is the importance of the orderly transfer of power that occurs when Washington steps aside. Perhaps it stood out to me because I’ve many times thought that an under-appreciated moment in U.S. history was when, at the close of the Revolution, “some political factions wanted Washington to become the new nation’s king. His modesty in declining the offer and resigning his military post at the end of the war fortified the republican foundations of the new nation.” (Source.) Miranda does not cover that moment, but he does include the fact that George Washington declined to run for a third term. Hamilton is credited by Miranda with being the principal author of Washington’s Farewell Address and, as Washington tells Hamilton some of the points he would like to make, many in the audience will recognize points like a warning against foreign entanglements from high school.
I haven’t taken the opportunity to check the historical accuracy on most points. One that did make me wonder was the prominence of Hamilton’s sister-in-law, Angelica Schuyler, played by Renée Elise Goldsberry. I couldn’t help wondering if he had exaggerated her importance in order to have some balance between the sexes. According to Wikipedia, it seems that he may have actually downplayed it.
Angelica never failed to enchant the famous, intelligent men she met; and in Paris she soon befriended the venerable Benjamin Franklin, U.S. Ambassador to France. She also developed lasting friendships with Franklin’s successor, Thomas Jefferson, and with the Marquis de Lafayette.
Besides her extensive correspondence with Hamilton which is mentioned in the play, she also had an ongoing correspondence with Jefferson. Goldsberry brings to the role, along with a stunning voice, a necessary intelligence and charm.
Many news articles on the show have fixated on the hip hop musical elements and the multiracial cast which I think is a shame. I’ve already mentioned that musicals have always reflected the music of the times in which they were written. In 2015, I would hope that open casting would no longer be an interesting topic. Back sometime around 1988 a friend once said to me that the worst thing about being a black actor was knowing that he could never play Iago. I thought of him a few months ago when I read that the Royal Shakespeare Company had cast Lucian Msamati as Iago in this year’s production of Othello. Can we stop raising our eyebrows now? The fixation on these two elements makes the show sound gimmicky, and that is a very wrong impression to have. It feels fresh and original, but it is a not simply a novelty.
The ensemble is notably tight. The choreography is highly competent.
The direction, the costuming and the scenic design all worked very well to support the story. I thought the lighting design was excellent.
It’s really no surprise that this is the hot new play.