Saturday, September 26, 2015

Not Throwing Away Its Shot: Hamilton on Broadway

Hamilton at the Richard Rodgers Theatre (photo by Sara Krulwich/The New York Times).

It’s hard to separate the new Broadway musical Hamilton from the hype surrounding it. Its creator, Lin-Manuel Miranda, has been performing versions of its songs since early 2009, when he presented an early draft of the show’s opening number at the White House. It has garnered breathless praise since it opened Off-Broadway at the Public Theater at the beginning of this year. On August 6, it officially opened at the Richard Rodgers Theatre on Broadway.

It’s not hard to see where the hype comes from: Hamilton is one of the freshest, most energetic productions I can remember seeing on Broadway. It’s especially surprising that this should be the case, because its plot is a fairly comprehensive chronicle of Alexander Hamilton’s (played by Lin-Manuel Miranda) life, adapted from Ron Chernow’s approximately 800-page biography. The plot hits every major episode of Hamilton’s life: his brutal early childhood in the Caribbean, his service as George Washington’s (Christopher Jackson) right-hand man during the Revolutionary War, his marriage to Elizabeth Schuyler (Phillipa Soo), his role in shaping the Constitution and the nation’s financial system, the sex scandal that ruined his career, and ultimately his death at the hands of Aaron Burr (Leslie Odom, Jr.). It doesn’t exactly sound like a blockbuster premise for a musical.

The show could easily have been dull and worthy, a reasoned but boring argument for why we should remember that one guy who might get taken off of the $10 bill soon. However, the show’s notable for pulling off something that seems simple, but which many recent Broadway shows seem incapable of doing: it successfully incorporates popular contemporary music. It’s misleading to call it a “hip-hop musical,” although hip-hop does play a prominent role. However, there’s also R&B, Britpop, and more traditional Broadway tunes, all thrown together into a blender and combined into a work that clocks in at about 2 hours and 45 minutes and is completely sung-through.

A lot of that music is very good, especially the hip-hop strain running through the show. Miranda’s as much of a fan of rap as he is of Broadway, and he shows it by combining passing references to South Pacific and The Last Five Years with songs such as “Ten Duel Commandments,” which is modeled on The Notorious B.I.G.’s “Ten Crack Commandments.” In fact, there are a number of references to Biggie throughout the show, and one of its delights is the way in which it uses hip-hop culture as a metaphor for the mores of the eighteenth century without belaboring the parallels. Hamilton’s arguments with Thomas Jefferson during George Washington’s cabinet meetings become rap battles, complete with mic drops and the obligatory “and if you don’t know, now you know.” Hamilton’s feuds with Jefferson and Burr become analogues to more recent beefs such as Biggie vs. 2Pac (or Jay-Z vs. Nas, or Drake vs. Meek Mill, or…) with the pamphlets and other political writings of the Revolutionary era replacing albums and mixtapes.

Daveed Diggs and Lin-Manuel Miranda (Photo by Joan Marcus)

This isn’t the first time that someone’s tried to incorporate it into musicals; Miranda’s In the Heights and the failed 2Pac jukebox musical Holler If Ya Hear Me come to mind. What’s perhaps even more striking is the fact that, because the entire show is sung (and rapped) from beginning to end, with virtually no dialogue, it’s also effectively the first major verse drama in decades. This sidesteps a problem in many contemporary musicals that I’ve noticed with increasing annoyance, in which musical numbers have multiplied in quantity and blended so thoroughly with spoken dialogue that it seems like the playwrights have decided almost at random which passages will be sung and which spoken. Instead, all of the language in Hamilton is versified, and thereby heightened.

In addition to the rap numbers, there are pop songs, as well as numbers that are closer to what one might expect from a contemporary Broadway musical, and Miranda often uses them to good effect as a way of establishing character. This is especially the case for “The Schuyler Sisters,” the song that introduces Eliza and Angelica, and the opening number of Act 2, “What’d I Miss,” which establishes this show’s vision of Thomas Jefferson as a preening braggart, a foil to Hamilton’s earnest intensity. Jonathan Groff has a handful of comic interludes as King George III that literally stop the show, as they’re not directly connected to anything in the plot. I thought they were hilarious, however, and worth it for tunes like “You’ll Be Back,” a pop song that compares him to a jilted lover and gives him lines such as “I will send you a fully-armed battalion/ To remind you of my love.” “The Room Where It Happens” is especially noteworthy, as it uses one of Hamilton’s catchier tunes to explain the compromise that let the federal government assume the states’ debts in exchange for moving the capital to Washington, D.C. It’s hardly the sort of subject that makes for a great musical number, but it’s become one of the show’s signature tunes, and since most of it is sung by Burr, it helps to further develop his character as well, showing us how his jealousy at being excluded from the exercise of power is festering into something that will have fatal consequences.

Phillipa Soo, Renee Elise Goldsberry and Jasmine Cephas Jones (Photo by Joan Marcus) 

Burr is almost as central to the play as its title character, and Odom’s excellent in the role. Miranda sets up Burr and Hamilton as negative images of one another – they both experienced painful losses that left them orphans, and both harbor deep ambitions, but Hamilton is fiery and outspoken, while Burr counsels caution and patience to his sometime friend, at least until he realizes he getting left behind by Hamilton’s political success. Historically, they also had a long-standing relationship that preceded their fatal meeting in Weehawken by decades, and Miranda makes full use of this fact to set up one of the strongest and most interesting relationships in the play. Burr serves as a combination of narrator, chorus, and emcee, introducing us to Hamilton in the opening number and then revealing that “I’m the damn fool that shot him.” Those notes of regret and foreknowledge tinge everything that Odom’s Burr subsequently does, and he registers a combination of sincere admiration for Hamilton, mixed with growing jealousy, that makes our awareness of how the story will end all the more poignant. He’s further humanized by songs such as “Dear Theodosia,” a touching lullaby to his infant daughter that presents him as a loving father, genuinely optimistic about both her future and that of the nation in which she’ll grow up.

The rest of the cast is almost uniformly strong, with Renee Elise Goldsberry (Assistant District Attorney Geneva Pine on The Good Wife) as Angelica Schuyler, Daveed Diggs as the Marquis de Lafayette and Thomas Jefferson, and Phillipa Soo as Eliza Hamilton standing out. It’s no coincidence that Goldsberry and Diggs are two of the most capable rappers in the cast (Goldsberry also has a great singing voice), since so much of what makes their characters work is baked into the rhythms of their respective musical numbers. I thought Goldsberry in particular was fantastic, as she conveys Angelica’s sharp intellect, her attraction to Hamilton, and her conflicted feelings about his engagement to her sister in “Satisfied” (the lyrics are so fast and intricate that Miranda has admitted to being unable to rap them himself). It’s to Soo’s credit that her performance can work alongside with and complement Goldsberry’s, since Eliza’s presented as the shyer, more docile of the Schuyler sisters. As for Diggs, who’s part of the avant-garde hip-hop group clipping., his high-energy performances as Lafayette and Jefferson might be too over-the-top in another show, but they work here, as he channels the swaggering persona of a boastful emcee for Jefferson, especially. This version of Jefferson is a caricature, but given his function in the show, I think the exaggerated depiction works.

Leslie Odom Jr., Phillipa Soo, Jasmine Cephas Jones and Renee Elise Goldsberry (Photo by Joan Marcus) 

The show makes two significant choices with regard to casting. First, all of the American characters are played by actors of color, with white actors such as Groff taking the few British roles in the show. This decision, in addition to giving some lesser-known actors a chance to shine in lead roles, emphasizes the show’s implicit message that the ideals espoused by the white Founding Fathers also belong to the increasingly diverse citizenry of the twenty-first century. It’s a very optimistic view of the country, and one that I found refreshing. My only reservation with that choice is that I’m not entirely sure the show manages to resolve the inherent tension in casting African-Americans in the roles of slaveholders such as Washington and Jefferson.

The show also relies on doubling, a strategy that often pays unexpected dividends. For instance, Anthony Ramos, who plays Hamilton’s son Philip in the second act, plays his friend John Laurens in the first. Both characters fight duels, and both die untimely deaths, foreshadowing Hamilton’s own demise. Hamilton’s tangled romantic relationship with the Schuyler sisters gains added resonance from the fact that Jasmine Cephas Jones, who plays third Schuyler sister Peggy in the first act, plays Maria Reynolds, whose affair with Hamilton would lead to his political downfall and the first major sex scandal of the young republic. Doubling these roles is a smart tactic that helps us keep track of who’s who, as well as establishing thematic parallels between the first and second acts. As for Miranda, he’s predictably good in the role. Since Hamilton covers virtually all of its subject’s life, Miranda manages to give his character an impressive arc as he goes from a fiery, ambitious young soldier and politician to an older, sadder man who’s been deeply damaged by his mistakes and personal losses. He’s an especially grounded presence in some of the scenes opposite more flamboyant characters such as Lafayette.

However, I found that, as a character, Hamilton made less of an impression on me than many of the historical figures surrounding him. This leads to my one major reservation about the show: it is, at times, too much of a good thing. Condensing Hamilton’s entire life into three hours necessarily involves covering a lot of terrain in a relatively short amount of time, and I sometimes felt that the narrative was in danger of becoming a compendium of Hamilton’s actions, rather than an exploration of what motivated those actions. Miranda tells us who Hamilton is – he announces right off the bat that he’s “young, scrappy, and hungry,” and later proclaims himself to Angelica as a man who’s “never satisfied” – but the underlying narrative lacks an arc that shows us who he is, and it ultimately didn’t feel to me like his individual actions throughout the play added up to more than the sum of their parts. It’s a familiar problem from many Hollywood biopics that try to tell all or most of the story of their subjects’ lives.

Any weak spots in Hamilton tend to disappear, however, amidst the striking visual and directing choices that this production makes. Director Thomas Kail and choreographer Andy Blankenbuehler keep the stage in almost constant motion, using the double turntable at its center to great effect. Blankenbuehler’s choreography is especially striking, energetic, and precise, with a strong inflection of hip-hop that matches the score. Kail’s also got a knack for finding the moments to slow down the action and isolate characters onstage, as in “Dear Theodosia.” David Korins’s set is mostly a blank stage, with the aforementioned turntable at the center, in front of a brick wall and scaffolding that runs from both sides of the wings and all the way across the upstage space. Costume designer Paul Tazewell puts the cast in period attire, although the ensemble is generally dressed in what looks a bit like eighteenth-century undergarments, the better to give them freedom of movement for Blankenbuehler’s vigorous choreography.

Hamilton’s success undoubtedly represents a major moment in Broadway’s recent history. It’s invigorating, and often both thought-provoking and entertaining. I’ll be curious to see how it holds up once the main cast starts to move on (it seems ready to run for years), as well as when regional theatres and other outfits beyond Broadway begin to mount productions. Whatever its long-term legacy turns out to be, for now it’s an exciting new development in mainstream theatre.

– Michael Lueger teaches theatre classes at Northeastern University and Emerson College. He's written for HowlRound and WBUR's Cognoscentipage. He also tweets about theatre history at @theaterhistory.

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