Hamilton…and why I’m mad at a Musical

Posted by on January 10, 2016

hamilton02My grievances against the Hamilton musical are specific and threefold.

  1. Lin-Manuel Miranda wrote the book, music, and lyrics for, and stars in the show and I find it very upsetting that one person should be so extraordinarily talented. It seems unfair to all the really talented people; although, Mr. Miranda didn’t direct and choreograph the show as well so, maybe, he’s only extremely talented. Not to mention that creating this show is just unfair to all the other shows out there. Typically, when I journey to NYC, I see multiple shows; thank goodness I didn’t this time. Imagine having to be the poor show that had to be held in comparison to the verve, intensity and intellect of Hamilton.
    I have a strict policy of not listening to soundtracks or reading reviews before I see a show; I like to preserve the moment of discovery and I don’t want to go into a show with expectations. Granted, with  all the accolades surrounding this show it was impossible not to have expectations. I was mostly hoping it would live up to the hype, I was not expecting it to so thoroughly o’er leap the hype. I was expecting the show to be witty and energetic and entertaining; I was not expecting it to be moving. I was not expecting to be in tears.
    We have distilled the creation myth of our country to facts and figures and bloodless profiles on our currency, and we forget these were passionate, purpose driven, not unflawed people. By using integrated casting and placing everything in a modern vernacular Mr. Miranda strips the audiences of their visual and aural perceptions (everybody has some perception of our founding fathers) and you’re forced to see these historic characters as people, not as the icons of our nation’s birth. Amongst the current divisive nature of our national politics, where the founding fathers’ “intent” is often a rallying cry, this show reminds us that creation of our nation was not by consensus but by compromise. This show manages to be entirely patriotic and at the same time completely subversive. That’s a neat trick.
  2. hamilton01The second reason that I’m mad at Hamilton is that I learned things and it made me want to learn more things.  The narrative and representation of characters is so intriguing that I had to go out and buy that damn 800+ page biography of Hamilton by Ron Chernow. Not only am I now interested in learning more about Hamilton but also in the secondary characters, which in this case ironically are George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and Lafayette, but even more so the tertiary characters. John Laurens’ character, whom I’ve never heard of, reminds us that racial equality is not a issue we’ve been debating for 50 or 100 years but since the inception of our country. If you had asked me two weeks ago who Hercules Mulligan was I would guessed the the Greek God of Irish stew not, pivotal spy for the Continental Army.
    hamilton06Mr. Miranda has admitted that he has taken some artistic liberty and strayed here and there from the facts. For instance, apparently, George Washington’s Cabinet debates were not decided by rap battles; but how cool would that be? I have heard “Shakespearean” applied to the language in Mr. Miranda’s creation and as a devotee of the Bard, I would not contest that assertion. The language is dense, intense and requires you to put on your grown up listening ears to get it all. And you’re not going to get it all the first time you listen to it, get the soundtrack. I’m kind of obsessed with it right now. It is also, like Shakespeare’s work, a representation of a specific time and place in history. This is a specific product of modern America, you cannot mistake it for anything else.
    While this is a verbose work it also is very purposefully written and consistent themes tie the narrative together. The specter of the duel (everyone knows about The Duel right?) is woven throughout the show, from the gun imagery of the very early line “put a pencil to his temple,” and is firmly established in the double entendre of “not going to waste my shot,” which carries you though the end of the show. While furiously wordy there are also moments were the show is most effectively concise; a scant 2  dozen lines establishes the loving father/son relationship between Hamilton and his eldest son Phillip in a scene that is the catalyst for many tears later in the show.
  3. Finally and frankly the most maddening issue is that there are not enough accolades to go around!! (I won’t use the T word, don’t want to jinx anything.) It’s one thing to learn the lines, it’s another thing to repeat it at the sometimes rapid fire speed required, but to be able to give the words weight and emotion and passion is just something that approaches the phenomenal.  And don’t forget adding in the choreography! As an example of how good the cast is, I did not get to see Mr. Miranda perform (being so near godlike he does not work Sundays), neither did I get to see the normal alternate, I got to see the alternate’s understudy, and he killed it. So a special nod to John Rau, this is an amazingly difficult role to understudy and he has to be heart of the show. He did an amazing job.
    Then there’s the rest of the cast, there is not a weak link in the chain. Leslie Odem Jr. as Burr, Christopher Jackson as Washington are awesome but I really have to give serious credit to Daveed Diggs for his dual roles of Marquis de Lafayette and Thomas Jefferson. He has some of the fastest and tounge-twistyest numbers in the show and you would not know that this is a Broadway novice (although a seasoned performer). His Jeffersonian rap battles with Hamilton are just fun…they leave you a little breathless. And Jonathon Groff, crap, his turn as King George III, is hilarious. You will notice that he is the only character that appears as the visual stereotype we expect for his character, because he’s not a person so much as the personification of England. Still hilarious.
    hamilton04And let us not forget the ladies, in a show about the founding fathers it would have been quite easy to gloss over the women or relegate them to convenient back drops to be rolled onto and off stage as needed. Phillipa Soo and Renee Elise Goldsberry, as the Schuyler sisters, hold there own on stage and are presented as strong intellectual integral parts of the world that they live in. In a musical about Alexander Hamilton the show wraps up with a recounting of the accomplishments of his wife. See I told you the show was subversive.

It is a show that is worthy of all the praise it has received and in the end I am just very glad to have been in the room where it happened.

 

 

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