In describing Fun Home I’d have used the word terrific; I’d have called The Book of Mormon gleefully brilliant; Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder is adorably delightful. The word that keeps popping into my head for Hamilton: Magnificent. Lin-Manuel Miranda’s new musical about our “ten-dollar founding father” — currently onstage at the Public Theater — is one of the best shows I’ve seen in years. It even tops the three wonderful musicals I just mentioned. It’s the kind of production you would want to travel to New York to see. And all I can say is that I hope this one’s going to be around a long, long time.
Are you taken aback by my hyperbole? Am I laying it on too thick? Then let me try to convince you.
You might be familiar with Alexander Hamilton as our first Treasury Secretary, author of the Federalist papers, adversary of Thomas Jefferson, victim of a duel with Aaron Burr. The show gets into all that, and it’s totally fascinating. But what makes it even more interesting is Mr. Miranda’s modern and joyous approach. He said a few years ago that Alexander Hamilton “embodies hip-hop” because of his immigrant background, illegitimate birth, and passionate belief that his writing could get him anywhere in life. Hamilton, then, is a musical grounded in actual history but using very contemporary urban vernacular. In other words, the founding fathers — here played by actors of many cultures — rap. A lot.
In Mr. Miranda’s earlier shows, hip-hop had been a sort of fun alternative to the traditional sung numbers, giving the shows a vibrant feel but never taking over dramatically. Hamilton is different. It’s sung-through, but the majority of the songs are rapped: A cabinet meeting becomes a rap battle, for example. It’s fantastic stuff. In fact it works so well that I am bit stunned it’s taken so long for me to realize the full dramatic potential of rap in a work of theater. Honestly, the language is so dense and colorful that it feels almost Shakespearian. (Stop rolling your eyes! I said almost. Anyway Oskar Eustis says something along these lines in the show program too.)
And the songs aren’t its only strength. I knew Mr. Miranda could write terrific numbers (In the Heights, of course, but also Bring it On and his Tony raps) but I wasn’t entirely certain that he would be as good when it came to constructing a dramatic arc. That’s because my big complaint about In the Heights was that it involved ridiculous plot twists: a character winning the lottery, for example. (My Puerto Rican friend Cristina, upon hearing this criticism, said, “Julia, you don’t understand Latino culture. The lotto is a part of our daily lives!”) In any case, I have no such reservations with Hamilton. It builds beautifully from Hamilton’s first meeting with Burr — who is the cautious foil to the hotheaded and passionate Hamilton — to their final duel. It’s beautifully structured, and along the way there is a ton of humor, clever callbacks, subtle characterization. This show seems to have simply everything going for it.
Including a fantastic production. Lin-Manuel Miranda plays Hamilton, of course, and is as winning as he ever is, leading a phenomenal cast. Standouts include Daveed Diggs as the Marquis de Lafayette/Thomas Jefferson and Leslie Odom, Jr. as the doomed Aaron Burr. Brian D’Arcy James was pitch-perfect as the hilariously arrogant King George III. And my favorite of all was Christopher Jackson as George Washington, who embodies incredible dignity and strength. You understand, watching Mr. Jackson, just why George Washington towered over his fellow revolutionaries.
There are other musicals that succeed in doing just what they intend to. Lots, in fact. Hamilton is unusual, though, in that few of the big hits of recent years contain this kind of dramatic weight. To my great surprise, Hamilton had me in tears by the end of the evening. To be honest, in its historical sweep and raw emotional power I kept thinking of Les Miserables. (This morning I read the New Yorker article on Hamilton in which Mr. Miranda says “I really got my Les Miz on in this score,” so I suppose the link was intentional. He’s definitely obsessed with Les Miz, that’s for sure.) Here’s a dramatic musical that earns its emotional payoff without ever being maudlin. Even better is that all of these historical figures are portrayed by such a wonderfully multiethnic cast. They, along with the score, help illustrate that the founding fathers’ story isn’t some remote tale of heroes or dead white guys. We got here because of a bunch of passionate and determined people, who fought for what they believed in and ultimately created something greater than themselves. And that’s an origin story for all of us.
Now that I’ve gotten this far, I feel like I should backpedal. Am I overselling this? I’ve certainly been guilty of buying into hype over new musicals before. But even if that’s true, Hamilton is still quite an achievement. This show is incredibly rich with wit, heart, intelligence, character. It’s beautifully performed. The staging from Thomas Kail is flawless. The choreography from Andy Blankenbuehler perfectly suits the vibrance of the score. The lyrics contain a richness and symbolism that is rare for a musical. I wish I could see it again.
My Grade: A+
Running Time: 2 Hours, 50 minutes
Ticket price: $50
Worth it: Yes
Standing Ovation Watch: Yes