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It, perhaps surprised no one, but the Grammy Award for Best Musical Theatre Album went to “Hamilton.” However, it gives me another opportunity to repeat what a wonderful show it is. At the award ceremony, the cast of the show, who all appear to be the same people who were in the show when I saw it on Broadway a few months ago, performed the opening number, “Alexander Hamilton.” It tells of Hamilton’s early life prior to his arrival in New York. Born in “a forgotten spot in the middle of the Caribbean,” abandoned by his father, his mother died of a fever when he was less than thirteen years of age, leaving Hamilton impoverished. Hamilton was then taken in by a cousin who committed suicide. He found employment as a clerk with an import export company. “A hurricane came and devastation reigned.” The self-educated seventeen-year-old wrote an article about the storm for a Danish-American newspaper which drew attention for its style. Community leaders “took up a collection just to send him to the mainland” to get an education. The play starts as Hamilton arrives in New York.

I’m embedding this version because WordPress doesn’t seem to accommodate videos from sources other than YouTube. You can really get the sense of how well the “rap” style works in the play. It doesn’t come across as gimmicky at all.

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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:

Talk less.
Smile more.
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.

The second biographical musical I’ve seen within a month, Hamilton is a new musical which has recently moved to Broadway from the Public Theater. Its official opening is on August 6th. I know I have quite a few visitors who are not from the United States and who therefore might not be familiar with Alexander Hamilton. The first secretary of the treasury hardly sounds like an inspiring title. However discussions of the early years of the U.S. government and differing factions that fought to shape the nation are often labeled “Jeffersonian”, after the author of the Declaration of Independence and the third president of the United States, and “Hamiltonian.” U.S. students are a generally require to read The Federalist Papers, in order to understand the ideas that lay behind the writing of the U.S. Constitution. The Federalist Papers consist of 85 short articles, two-thirds of which were written by Hamilton.

Hamilton was born out-of-wedlock on the island of Nevis in the West Indies. When his mother died, he was left without any money or property with the exception of her books. Later, while working as a clerk on the island of Saint Croix, local community leaders who were impressed with his writing ability raised money to send him to the colonies on the North American mainland to be educated. He attended King’s College in New York which is now Columbia University, where he took up the revolutionary cause, writing in its favor.

Keeping the story brief, he joined the Revolutionary Army and became General Washington’s aide. He also fought and was considered a hero.

On July 31, 1781, Washington… assigned Hamilton as commander of a New York light infantry battalion. In the planning for the assault on Yorktown, Hamilton was given command of three battalions, which were to fight in conjunction with the allied French troops in taking Redoubts No. 9 and No. 10 of the British fortifications at Yorktown. Hamilton and his battalions fought bravely and took Redoubt No. 10 with bayonets in a nighttime action, as planned. The French also fought bravely, suffered heavy casualties, and took Redoubt No. 9. These actions forced the British surrender of an entire army at Yorktown, Virginia, effectively ending their major British military operations in North America.

He was a founding member of the New York Manumission Society.

During the war, the colonies had operated under an agreement known as The Articles of Confederation. After the war, it continued to serve as a constitution, but it failed because the central government was too weak. (Here, again, I’m trying to be brief. A full discussion of the pros and cons of the Articles of Confederation is beyond a blog post, let alone a theatre review.) Hamilton was among those who argued for a new constitution and was a delegate from New York for the Constitutional Convention in 1787.

The constitution needed to be ratified by the states and gaining support of the state of New York was key. It was to persuade New Yorkers to support the new constitution that Hamilton, along with James Madison and John Jay, wrote the Federalist Papers.

George Washington became president in 1789 and later that year appointed Hamilton as secretary of the treasury. According to Ron Chernow who wrote the biography which inspired the musical,

In 1789, George Washington tapped the thirty-four-year-old Hamilton as the first Treasury secretary. With its tax collectors and customs inspectors, Hamilton’s Treasury Department eclipsed in size the rest of the federal government combined, making him something akin to a prime minister. Drawing on a blank slate, Hamilton arose as the visionary architect of the executive branch, forming from scratch the first fiscal, monetary, tax, and accounting systems. In quick succession, he assembled the Coast Guard, the customs service, and the Bank of the United States—the first central bank and the forerunner of the Federal Reserve System. Most significantly, he took a country bankrupted by revolutionary war debt and restored American credit. All the while, he articulated an expansive vision of the Constitution, converting it into an elastic document that could grow with a dynamic young country.

Various scandals, most notably a sex scandal, hampered his career.

He is credited with by some as the author of Washington’s “Farewell Address,” as speech which is covered in U.S. high schools. At the very least he aided Washington in its composition.

The election of 1800 resulted in a tie between Thomas Jefferson and Aaron Burr. The decision was then turned over to the U.S. House of Representatives and Hamilton was instrumental in Jefferson becoming president.

Quoting Chernow again:

One reason Hamilton was vilified by his enemies is that they feared him as an agent of modernity at a time when his Jeffersonian opponents espoused an American future that stressed traditional agriculture and small towns. In a stupendous leap, Hamilton argued for a thriving nation populated by cities, banks, corporations, and stock exchanges as well as traditional agriculture. In his famous Report on Manufactures, he enumerated how government could foster manufacturing and provide employment for immigrants. He shaped, in a virtuoso performance, America’s financial infrastructure in its entirety. On the Wall Street of the early 1790s, only five securities were traded: three issues of Treasury securities, the stock of the Bank of the United States, and the stock of the private Bank of New York—all created by Alexander Hamilton.

Well, I hope I answered the question, “Who the heck is Alexander Hamilton and why would anyone make a play about him?”

I’m going to have to invoke my right as a blogger to be unprofessional. I was hoping to see the play and write a review immediately afterward. I see, as usual, I’ve gotten a little sidetracked and I’m going to have to finish it tomorrow because I’m sleepy after staying up all night trying to write this. So, two quick things before I try to get a little nap…

Historical accuracy –

Off the top of my head, drawing on previous knowledge, it passes the smell test. I haven’t done any research to double-check, but it seemed to jive with what I already know. Two minor quibbles. Gouverneur Morris was not included as a character. Morris was one of the principal authors of the U.S. Constitution and a close friend of Hamilton. Also, the play seems to imply a closer relationship between Burr and Hamilton than I was aware of. Certainly, they were both lawyers in New York City, which had a population of less than 24,000 in 1786, they were both involved in politics and their paths must have crossed regularly, but were they as familiar as they appear to be in the play. Also, I was under the impression that New York City was a Loyalist stronghold during the Revolution. Although the play doesn’t explicitly say otherwise, it leaves one with that impression.

I don’t see those quibbles as marring the play and I still think it can be considered historically accurate.

Thumbs up/ Thumbs down –

I hope to get to a little more description of the production tomorrow, but it is definitely a good play. Very good. Do go see it if you get the chance.

I announced a few weeks ago that I was going to make a more concerted effort to see and review plays. I figured that since there are only 40 Broadway theaters, and most of them won’t see a new production in a given year, it wouldn’t be too ambitious to set out to see every show that opens on Broadway. I see that seven shows opened this last April, so if there’s a flurry like that I might have to skip a production here or there on account of my wallet. While I did think about the money factor, I’d forgotten about the simple matter of trying to score tickets for popular shows. However, availability is reason, and really the only reason, I won’t be going on opening night.

So, this idea popped in my head a few weeks ago. I’d seen a few shows in the past couple of years but I didn’t write about them. I might be too nice to really be a reviewer. In fact, I’d say to anyone in New York, and this would mean smaller productions, that I’d be glad to write about your show in exchange for free tickets, but then if I didn’t like it I’d feel so bad. I don’t think I have enough readers to get free tickets anyway, but still…. If you’re in New York and you’re super confident about your off-off-off-Broadway show and you’re desperate for any kind of mention you can get… there’s a contact form on my about page.

Oddly, I’m not entirely unqualified to write about theatre. Believe it or not, this particular little introvert went to a performing arts high school and started college as a drama major. Although I’ve been on stage, I mainly enjoyed working backstage. I was drawn to the theatre because as a little bookworm getting tortured by other kids, the theatre buffs were nice to me. In short, I like actors.

When I got this idea in my head that theatre would be a good thing for me to write about, I looked to see what play would be the next to open on Broadway, which is how I wound up at the most unlikely show for me to go see, “Amazing Grace.” I was actually a little bit disappointed, because I saw that the next production to open would be “Hamilton”, a play I actually wanted to see.

Then, I forgot.

Well, I was reminded of the play in a comment by John Zande. Big oops. They are selling tickets through March 27. The vice-president of the United States saw the show last night based on a recommendation from the president. I probably wouldn’t be seeing it at all except for the fact that I’m an introverted blogger that goes to see shows alone and single seats are always easier to get. Even still, twice I tried to buy tickets online and the tickets were sold before I could click “continue to checkout.” I was getting worried that all my good intentions were about to be thwarted. Now I’m keeping my fingers crossed that the play is accurate enough that I don’t need to read the 700 page biography which inspired the show.

While I was poking around the internet for information about the show, I came across this video:

“A Chorus Line” was not my first Broadway show. That was “The Wiz.” People might forget how innovative Broadway was in the 1970s: “Pippin”, “A Little Night Music”, “Equus”, “Chicago”, “for colored girls…”, “Dancin'”, “Runaways.” There is definitely more since I was too young to be aware of what was going on.

40 year, that seems like so long ago. Admittedly, it may have been already open for a year or so when my family went to go see it. Still, I remember playing the original cast recording, along with saving the playbill I always had to buy one, or rather persuade my parents to buy one for me. If they balked at the price, after all that was Broadway tickets for four, plus parking in Manhattan and probably dinner out, I reminded them how they went to go see “Hair” the day after opening night and bought the record in the lobby and had to mention that fact every time anyone played it. That reminder didn’t work every time, but it usually worked.

Looking towards the future, it seems that September will be a slow month, but there’s a cluster of plays in October and I might need to make some choices. They are all revivals which is always less exciting. We have “Dames at Sea,” Sam Sheppard’s “Fool for Love”, Harold Pinter’s “Old Times” and “The Gin Game” starring Cicely Tyson and James Earl Jones. I last saw James Earl Jones on Broadway in 1982 when he played Othello opposite Christopher Plummer.