About fifteen minutes into the performance, the hairs on my arms and neck started to tingle. I looked around at the stage, the theater. I wanted a really good mental picture of this place and time, because I knew I was amid something amazing, and so did the cast and crew who were performing it. By the end of the first act, I still had the same unreal fervor. Now it almost felt like guilt, that I was watching something so transgressive that I shouldn’t even be there. As we filed out at show’s end, I realized I’d been clenching my body for the inevitable breaking of the spell, which always, always happens, even to the most promising Act I hopes.
Nope. Not this time. I had just witnessed the most rule-breaking, game-changing, crowd-thrilling piece of theater since the original Broadway production of HAIR — which was realized by this same Public Theater. In other words, HAMILTON punched me harder than anything in nearly fifty years. As we were walking out, Linda said, “I’d go back in there and see it again right now,” and that goes double for me. The last time I felt that way was GATZ, also at this selfsame Public.
More than one friend of mine had been skeptical after the word of mouth and then the reviews were all unrealistically fervid. HAMILTON was the hottest ticket in New York before it even opened. Hey, we sneered, nothing’s that good. Besides, our murky understanding was that this was some kind of “hip-hop musical,” and by me you can keep most hip-hop music: I’m too old and too Caucasian. (I think Eminem’s “Stan” is a compact noir masterpiece, but to me it’s the exception that proves the rule.) Still, knowledgeable people were falling all over themselves trying to explain how miraculous this thing is. Now I’ve seen it, and it’s my turn to try.
After the Tony-winning success of IN THE HEIGHTS (we were lucky enough to attend the ceremony the night Lin-Manuel Miranda won the biggest award, Best Musical), the writer-composer read Ron Chernow’s biography ALEXANDER HAMILTON and made the indelible connections that brought his story to the stage. Here was an illegitimate child, an abandoned orphan, a Caribbean immigrant to whom Revolutionary-era British-American society was as alien as was the slaves’ native Africa to their owners, a guy who pulled himself up by the bootstraps and through courage, smarts and sheer chutzpah insinuated himself into the snobby cabal of the Founding Fathers. Hamilton was no saint — he was hard-headed, loose-lipped and lustily robust; a lurid sex scandal probably prevented any serious run at the Presidency — and one of the great strengths of this piece is that he is presented candidly: at some points you sympathize with his opponents and wish the title character would just shut the hell up.
As for the music, there’s far more variety than I expected. There are ballads, traditional belters, musical winks and nods ranging from Gilbert & Sullivan to Led Zeppelin. But, yes, the beating heart of HAMILTON is that relentless hip-hop groove, an instant behind James Brown’s “the One,” which the best rhymers can cram with truth: here boasting, there spitting with rage. You don’t have to know a thing about Alexander Hamilton when you sit down. All those biographical facts and much more will be taught you with self-asserting lyrics that tear away all anachronism and make the historical characters as relevant as a smartphone.
In a program note, the Public’s Artistic Director, Oskar Eustis, compares the sound of hip-hop to Shakespeare’s use of iambic pentameter, and I couldn’t shake that feeling. Whenever I sit down for a Shakespeare play, there’s an initial period in which I have to get used to the ornate 16th-century language. After five minutes or so I can “sync in,” relax and enjoy the Bard’s beat. Here, we’re held by the hand as the opening number introduces the hip-hop cadence softly, clearly, the beat defined only by snapping fingers. (The orchestra is silent while we “sync in.”) Hamilton’s pre-Revolutionary backstory is presented as a group of song lyrics — the show is “sung through,” meaning there’s no dialogue — which lets us teach ourselves how to listen. As the orchestration later grows more complex (a superb sound mix never allows it to overpower the lyrics), we retain that comfort level, and even though rhymes will soon be flying by as fast as we can register them, we still feel comfortable within the form because of that early tutelage.
This has all been tried before; HAMILTON is simply the most successful at it. BLOODY BLOODY ANDREW JACKSON, billed as an “emo” show, also depicted classic events through a contemporary filter. So did RENT, and even though Jonathan Larson’s songs were a high point of Nineties musical theater, we still got the feeling that the characters were Lower East Side dilettantes roaming through the milieu of LA BOHEME, that they were interpreting Puccini in the light of their own experiences: wow, we’re just like those bohemians. HAMILTON takes things a crucial step farther. Its players inhabit the historical characters. We’re not just like these immigrants, these outcasts mishandled by the plutocrats of their own empire: we ARE them.
HAMILTON is (very nicely) costumed for the period, as was ANDREW JACKSON. The set depends on vaguely period-specific carpentry and director Thomas Kail’s continually clever use of a turntable, which can make the stage appear for dramatic purposes many times larger than it is: 360-degree “camera moves”; a pedestrian approaching from afar, walking past, and disappearing in the distance, etc. What rocks us is the people inside the costumes: they’re all of African, Hispanic, Asian descent. The immigrants have busted open the American creation myth! That Thomas Jefferson…he’s…a black man! (And in Act I, he played Lafayette!) Public Theater founder Joe Papp championed race-(even gender-)neutral casting fifty years ago, which opened the Shakespeare canon to a new generation of actors. HAMILTON says, this isn’t a stunt: the Founding Fathers had more in common with us than you were taught. Then, while we’re busy pondering all that heavy ethnic stuff, a white man walks onstage. Wearing a crown.
We were lucky enough to see Brian d’Arcy James on his last day as King George: he left the HAMILTON company to prepare for his starring turn in SOMETHING ROTTEN! (Jonathan Groff, of HAIR and SPRING AWAKENING, took over, so the role is in good hands.) Mr. Miranda has given the British king only three appearances, but they each rock the house so hard — in imperious taunting style until late in the piece, when George joins the hip-hopping others in celebrating the fact that Hamilton will never become president — that we want more of that British royal crimson among HAMILTON’s other colors. The snarky monarch will go down in theater lore as an all-time coveted part when HAMILTON finally descends to community and educational venues.
So much is illuminated through this strange prism. As might be familiar to any follower of Maker Studios’ hilarious Web series EPIC RAP BATTLES OF HISTORY, the fierce debates between Jefferson and Hamilton over our republic’s financial system are presented as hip-hop battles, complete with dropped-microphone swagger. Throughout, it’s amazing how much actual historical info these beats are beating into our minds. (On this issue, Hamilton won: the little orphan bastard devised America’s monetary system as Secretary of the Treasury, battling Jefferson all the way.)
Duels. Hamilton was slain by his career-long rival Aaron Burr in a duel, every schoolchild knows that. There are actually three duels staged in HAMILTON, and the first one gives us the “ten rules” atop a whirring turntable. By the time the climactic Burr-Hamilton shootout arrives, we know how to watch, and as we walk out of the Public’s Newman Theater in pistol range between two life-sized statues of the combatants, they mean much more to us than they did when we entered three hours before.
Nothing’s perfect, of course, and HAMILTON could have benefited from more solid realization of its few female characters: right now, they’re largely window dressing and the higher voices on some pretty duets. But an intricately choreographed chorus of singer/dancers, evenly divided by gender, keep the stage flashing and insert themselves into the story where needed. Don’t stare too hard, though: you need to keep sharp and pay attention.
To my retrospective sorrow, I have not seen IN THE HEIGHTS. (At the Tony afterparty, I literally ran into a still-walking-on-air Mr. Miranda down a long, thin corridor to the restroom: “Sorry.” “Nice going!” “Thanks, man!”) I hate that because I think HAMILTON might be remembered as a keystone in the reinstatement of live theatre to its rightful place as a vital part of popular culture, much the role HAIR served in the late Sixties. (And, in fairness, RENT in the Nineties.) Now I wish I had taken the effort to see its progenitor. HAIR, that Medicare-aged pioneer, really doesn’t date all that well. I saw the recent revival and had tears streaming down my face, but they were chasing the beauty of the melodies, not any particular symbolism that survives. It’s a period piece, nostalgia, even a tad corny by now. But those songs — and on Broadway, no less! By contrast, HAMILTON forces reconsideration of history. It’s not a contemporary record: it’s a bridge between cultures, the first one to span this particular pathway.
I saw HEDWIG AND THE ANGRY INCH, THE 25th ANNUAL PUTNAM COUNTY SPELLING BEE, HAIR, THE MERCHANT OF VENICE, BLOODY BLOODY ANDREW JACKSON, HAMILTON and others in their original “downtown” (or Central Park) engagements. Few (HEDWIG, HAIR) really prospered after their transition to larger Broadway houses. HAMILTON will try its luck when it begins Broadway performances on July 13. I have no idea how the piece will translate to a bigger room, but I’ll tell you this much: when we saw the NYTimes ad, we hustled to find Broadway dates. Yes, we’re clawing for tickets — and homes, we’ve already seen it.
Aaron Burr (l.) and Alexander Hamilton in permanent dueling position at the theater entrance at the Public’s Astor Place HQ.
3/10/15: Thanks to my friend David Morgan of CBS for telling me about the great piece CBS SUNDAY MORNING did on the show last Sunday.
8/7/15: And Ben Brantley welcomes the show’s Broadway transition with one of the most gushing reviews he’s ever written. We’ll be back to see the Broadway production in November, but you can already start inscribing the 2016 Tony plaque, my friend.
11/7/15: The space is bigger on Broadway but the show loses not a whit of power in the larger room. We saw Andrew Rannells, in temporarily so Groff could go do a gig, as King George (he was terrific). So we’ve seen HAMILTON twice now, but never with the original Broadway cast. We’re planning to go back yet again.