Alicia Dempster / OnStage Critic One week before the highly anticipated musical Hamilton opened at The Public Theater, its creator and star, Lin-Manuel Miranda, posted two telling things to his Twitter account. First, he referenced the fact that Sondheim’s work was not even mentioned in the original New York Times review of West Side Story. He then encouraged his followers, fondly dubbed Twitterico, not to post reviews because they might not be aware of who they are hurting by omission. In another tweet, he reminded us that when In The Heights opened on Broadway, Twitter was not a thing, further stating that his feed would be a review-free zone following the opening of his new musical and requested that he not be tagged in any reviews.
On opening night, he took to Facebook with a most insightful post about the process of writing a new musical: “You write for 6 years. You surround your work with people who are smarter than you & make it better. Then you get to say: Opening night.” He followed that up with an extremely classy acknowledgement and thanks to all of the actors who helped him during the process with various readings, workshops and concerts. Creating a new musical takes a village and Lin-Manuel Miranda knows that.
Not writing a review of Hamilton, however, would be akin to witnessing a significant historical event and then not telling anyone about it. Not having the opportunity to thank the people involved in bringing this brilliant piece of theatre to life would be an injustice.
Critics, audiences and musical theatre legends are all in agreement: Hamilton is a bona fide hit, a game changer. Undoubtedly, Lin-Manuel Miranda and the cast and creative team of Hamilton are doing something at the Public Theater that will forever alter the landscape of the musical theatre genre and will likely be dubbed the next Great American Musical.
Adapted from Ron Chernow’s definitive biography of the founding father whose face graces the $10 bill, Hamilton chronicles the life of a scrappy and ambitious immigrant from the moment he arrives in New York City to his infamous demise at the hand of his friend and nemesis, Aaron Burr. In the titular role, Miranda is engaging and energetic, pulling the audience into his loving embrace and not letting go until the last Fresnel has dimmed.
As Hamilton’s comrades, each tackling dual roles, Daveed Diggs, Okieriete Onaodowan and Anthony Ramos banter with Miranda’s Hamilton with perfect comic timing. Diggs’ Thomas Jefferson is boisterous and larger than life, providing the perfect foil for the epic rap battles that ensue in Act II. As Alexander’s wife, Eliza Hamilton, Phillipa Soo is pristine and compassionate, with a voice to match. Renée Elise Goldsberry brings Eliza’s older sister Angelica to heartbreaking life as we witness her struggle between the unrequited love for her sister’s husband and steadfast devotion for her sibling. Christopher Jackson’s George Washington is dashing and dignified, in stark contrast to the simmering malice Leslie Odom, Jr. brings to Aaron Burr. Bryan d’Arcy James’ foppish King George infuses perfectly timed humor throughout the musical and he is a company member that will certainly be missed when he departs to star in Broadway’s Something Rotten!, which begins previews on March 23rd.
Hamilton reunites Miranda with the creative team of the Tony Award-winning In The Heights: director Thomas Kail, music director/orchestrator Alex Lacamoire and choreographer Andy Blankenbuehler. This, however, is a reunion of class superlatives who have only gotten better with age. The assemblage of actors, musicians and dancers united under Kail’s cohesive direction tell a moving and inspiring story that is visually stunning. Navigating the complex terrain of rap, hip-hop, indie pop, jazz and R&B, Lacamoire provides a lush and seamless musical tapestry. Blankenbuehler’s intricate choreography keeps the cast in constant motion and is positively thrilling and, at times, breathtaking.
The rustic set design by David Korins serves as the perfect sandbox for these players and is beautifully and warmly lit in the candlelit glow of Howell Binkley’s lighting design. Paul Tazewell’s costume design is largely grounded in historical style with a touch of urban flair.
Hamilton, in many ways, like the city that serves as its backdrop, is a melting pot. The multiracial cast, in a time with an African-American in the highest office, projects a modern view on a time that is, in many ways, not unlike our own. Musically, the references are bountiful, paying homage to Gilbert & Sullivan one moment and in the next tipping a hat to Notorious B.I.G. Structurally, Miranda has pulled out all the stops, providing the audiences with big ensemble numbers, tearful moments followed by humorous ones and infusing the entire piece with just the right amount of dramatic tension.
Certainly Hamilton is not the first musical to focus on history through a contemporary lens. Assassins and Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, and to some degree 1776, have all looked at historical figures and turned them into modern musicals. So what makes Hamilton different? Alexander Hamilton made his way into history with words. His gift of language got him into college, it gained him favor with George Washington, it got him a seat in Congress, it helped him through our nation’s first sex scandal and it made possible his drafting of the Constitution and later the Federalist Papers. Not unlike Hamilton, Lin-Manuel Miranda has made his way into musical theatre through his mastery of language. While his heart is rooted in the telling of a compelling story, his brain brilliantly weaves the spoken word into awe-inspiring art. Emblazoned across the Playbill are lyrics from the show: “Who lives? Who dies? Who tells your story?” How fortunate for audiences that Lin-Manuel chose to tell Alexander Hamilton’s story. We should all be so lucky to be immortalized in such a grand and artistic fashion.
If you have a ticket to Hamilton’s Off-Broadway run, you hold in your hands, without exaggeration, the hottest ticket in town. With a sold-out run that has extended twice, a Broadway transfer is imminent. Musical theatre enthusiasts are paying top dollar for tickets to Hamilton or enter the daily “Hamilton for a Hamilton” lottery with 2,000+ other hopefuls. Yes, the announcement of its arrival on the Great White Way is eagerly anticipated but this baby has just been born. Let’s give it time to enjoy its first days and all the adoration, for it’s only a matter of time before it leaves the nest to enjoy a long, healthy life uptown.