Theatre Review by Matthew Murray - August 6, 2015
Hamilton Book, music and lyrics by Lin-Manuel Miranda. Inspired by the book Alexander Hamilton by Ron Chernow. Directed by Thomas Kail. Choreography by Andy Blankenbuehler. Music direction and orchestrations by Alex Lacamoire. Scenic design by David Korins. Costume design by Paul Tazewell. Lighting design by Howell Binkley. Sound design by Nevin Steinberg. Hair and wig design by Charles G. LaPointe. Cast: Daveed Diggs, Renée Elise Goldsberry, Jonathan Groff, Christopher Jackson, Jasmine Cephas Jones, Lin-Manuel Miranda, Javier Muñoz, Leslie Odom, Jr., Okieriete Onaodowan, Anthony Ramos, Phillipa Soo, and Carleigh Bettiol, Andrew Chappelle, Ariana DeBose, Alysha Deslorieux, Sydney James Harcourt, Neil Haskell, Sasha Hutchings, Thayne Jasperson, Stephanie Klemons, Morgan Marcell, Emmy Raver-Lampman, Jon Rua, Austin Smith, Seth Stewart, Betsy Struxness, Ephraim Sykes, Voltaire Wade-Green.
Does Hamilton live up to all — any — of this hype? And does it need to? From my perspective, the answers are, respectively, a definite no and a solid yes.
Miranda's chief accomplishment remains one of scope. His previous forays into musical theatre writing, In the Heights and Bring It On, were lighter entries that were as disposable as they were in-the-moment entertaining. This, though, based on Ron Chernow's robust biography Alexander Hamilton, is an old-school epic. It charts the entire adult life of Hamilton through the Revolutionary War, the arguing and establishment of the Constitution, the growing pains of our unique union, and personal turmoil ranging from a kind of unrequited love for his sister-in-law and his role in the nation's first big sex scandal to his kindling powerful political enemies that led to his eventual death-by-duel at the hands of then-Vice President Aaron Burr. And it all comes by way of a score drenched in contemporary sounds in the vein of hip-hop and R&B, and a cast comprising almost exclusively actors of color, as a way of propelling a dusty (if vital) period into our modern consciousness.
Once stripped of all its occasion, however, there's nothing new about Hamilton. Les Misérables perfected this form of sprawling, doorstop storytelling 30 years ago, with the rock opera genre itself stretching back some two decades before that. Credit Evita as an earlier biomusical with a nonstop swirl, and Pacific Overtures with a keener, more colorful depiction of history's panorama. The quintessential early-American-history musical is 1776 (1969). I've been seeing musicals containing hip-hop and rap for ages; one of the earliest that used it exclusively was Kingdom, in 2006, and one (albeit of the jukebox variety) hit Broadway in Holler If Ya Hear Me last year. Nontraditional casting has been around longer than I have. Treating a major early-American political figure as a pop star is old hat: Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson first exploded into New York in 2009. And many strains of Hamilton's culture-clash score strongly echo the barrio soundscape of In the Heights.
In this absence of innovation, one must, then, consider how well it all works. The broad outlines of its plot compel, as Hamilton, an immigrant from the British West Indies, was a dynamic, colorful, and controversial figure eminently believable as the troublemaker heart of any such plot. His life and accomplishments were as sweeping as they were stunning, not least because of his age (he was 21 when the Revolution began, 33 when the Constitution was ratified), and all the most important, from his time serving alongside George Washington to scribing the Federalist to proposing and pushing through the intricate state-federal financial relationship, are all here. Miranda captures his hot-blooded irreverence, and uses it to slyly contrast the man (whom he plays) to the other prominent figures of his era: Burr (Leslie Odom, Jr.), Washington (Christopher Jackson), the Marquis de Lafayette and Thomas Jefferson (both played by Daveed Diggs), and James Madison (Okieriete Onaodowan).
Though remarkably dense and intricate in their construction (and as approximate in their rhyming as their pop models), the lyrics do little heavy lifting: "Hey yo, I'm just like my country / I'm young, scrappy, and hungry" runs one of Hamilton's early, anonymous plaints; "I wanna be in the room where it happens / The room where it happens / The room where it happens" purrs Burr post-ratification, hardly crystalizing more of the man for us. (Hamilton's complaints that Burr is a professional bystander echo hollowly; we must take that, as with so much else, largely on faith.) And though much has been made of the myriad musical and lyrical references that pockmark the evening, they're more about calling attention to themselves than contributing to a consistent texture or sensible narrative: "Now I'm the model of a modern major general / The venerated Virginian veteran whose men are all / Lining up to put me up on a pedestal" for Washington; "Sit down, John, you..." uh, unprintable expletive, for an Adams-averse Hamilton. (These sorts of tributes are hardly new either, for the record.)
This may dislodge events from their 18th- and 19th-century housing, but to my reckoning they brand Hamilton, even in its slightly altered, more precise uptown incarnation, as unsatisfying and unrealized dramatically, and a piece that's forever at war with itself. This shows up in the staging, too. Though Kail has worked wonders at maintaining fluidity, everything unfolds with a laid-back, muted energy that draws no distinction in excitement between, say, drinking in a bar and fighting the decisive Battle of Yorktown. When everything's a rock concert, nothing is, and the cleverer staging moments (Hamilton's fast-burn crusade at the end of the first act, his freestyle free-for-all against Thomas Jefferson near the start of Act II) cannot become electrifying highlights. Blankenbuehler's nonstop choreography, heavy on straight kicks, arched backs, and undulating arms, create a bland miasma of movement, divorced from the action, that nothing can rise above. And Korins's wooden scaffolding-and-stairs set is a drab, brown backdrop at odds with both the material and its execution. (Tazewell's period-faithful costumes and Binkley's fine lights make considerably more sense.)
A major saving grace is the cast, which has improved drastically since the run at The Public. There, only Soo, so alluring depicting Eliza's plaintive innocence, and Goldsberry, who unlocked many dynamic emotional complexities within the castoff-turned-spiritual-support Angelica, completely landed, and they remain highlights. But now, Odom has found a good sight more authority as Burr; Jackson plays Washington as a man rather than a boy; Diggs balances his natural flash with slightly more weight as Lafayette (if less so as Jefferson); and Onaodowan has abandoned his lobotomized Madison in favor of a more thoughtful portrayal. Only Jonathan Groff, who's new to me but played many performances downtown after replacing a Something Rotten!–bound Brian d'Arcy James, is not up to the challenge, his version of a Britpop George III funny but far too thin to make that (overextended) running gag of a part feel necessary.
As for Miranda, his immense natural likability does not form the necessary foundation of Hamilton as a disparate, difficult man: There simply isn't the ideal conflict between anger and passion, desperation and warmth, and a perceived lack of worthiness and an overdeveloped sense of self-entitlement in his performance. Miranda does possess virtuosic rap chops — no one else in the cast captures the rhythms as expertly as he does — but his high, whiny speaking voice and airy, untethered vocals do not integrate well with that ability. He always seems to be viewing Hamilton from a safe distance rather than from the inside out.
Yes, that sums up the proceedings in a nutshell: outward appearances pretending to reveal substance while in fact obscuring it. But, really, who cares? This is no longer a show, but a perpetual motion machine that's done the unthinkable by sparking new interest not just in Alexander Hamilton, but in Broadway itself, and there's no way to predict where such rejuvenation will lead. You have to respect and admire that, if nothing else. In the end, all that matters is that Hamilton is not going anywhere. Fervent theatregoers may try for years, if not forever, to find one more higher-aiming and "here," though locating one more rewarding and just plain better will take a season, tops.