Review - Hamilton on Broadway

It's the biggest hit in years. But is it truly revolutionary?

Lin-Manuel Miranda and cast members from Hamilton.

There's been a lot of talk about the revolutionary nature of Hamilton, the smash-hit new musical that opened on Broadway last week, both in terms of its subject matter and its presentation. No less an outlet than The New York Times recently ran a piece about what makes the show such a big deal. (See "Why Hamilton Has Heat.") According to the Times, the juggernaut nature of this show comes down to the following: contemporary music, historical accuracy, diverse casting, and monstrously large ticket sales.

From where I sit, none of these elements in and of themselves make Hamilton revolutionary, nor does the combination thereof make the show a landmark.

The question to ask is, "Couldn't a bad show do that, too?" For instance, the score to Hamilton features a blend of rap, hip-hop, and R&B. Broadway musicals have been painfully slow to reflect contemporary music, and composers are still struggling to make their shows culturally relevant. Yes, Hamilton has music that genuinely sounds like what you could hear on the radio today. But does the score effectively tell the story and reveal the complexities of the characters? 

As for the racially diverse cast, this is certainly an admirable attempt at expanding the casting perceptions of the industry. Casting black and hispanic actors in most of the roles in Hamilton adds interesting layers to the renegade nature of these characters, and evokes modern resonance by implying the revolutionary potential of today's urban youth culture.

I'm reminded of the use of microphones in the original production of Spring Awakeningwhich created a link between the historical nature of the story and the modern resonance of its themes. But production elements such as these don't automatically make shows good.

As for the historical accuracy, this is neither necessary nor particularly desirable.

Musicals aren't documentaries, and thus have no obligation to be slavish to facts. Very few of the best musicals (See "The 100 Best Musicals of All Time") place a premium on accuracy or source fidelity. (See "Must Musicals Be True to Their Sources?") It's admirable that author Lin-Manuel Miranda wanted to portray the facts of Alexander Hamilton and his life as meticulously as possible, but again it doesn't make the show good. 

Conclusion: a bad show could still do all of the above. I'm not saying Hamilton is bad. I'm saying that, if the show is worthy of all the praise that has been heaped upon it, then it can't be the elements above that make it great. The true measure of a great show lies in the effective execution of its words and its music. 

So, is Hamilton a great show? Does it not only reflect the musical-theater innovations of the past but also move the art form forward? I would quote Tim Rice from Evita and say, "a qualified yes." There are many things about Hamilton, both the show and the production, that are genuinely thrilling. The show is clever, it's engaging, it's efficient. Hamilton is a triumph of slick presentation and compelling storytelling, and is well worth the admission price for first-rate stagecraft.

 Director Thomas Kail and choreographer Andy Blankenbuehler have never been better. Honestly, has there ever been a show that was this fluidly staged? 

But does Hamilton shine without its author and star, a question postulated in a recent article on Gothamist? Well, I'm inadvertently qualified to address this point, because I saw the show twice in one day, once with Lin-Manuel Miranda and once with his alternate, Javier Muñoz. I hadn't planned on this. I unintentionally got a ticket for a performance when Miranda was out and Muñoz was on. It turned out to be a felicitous mistake, as I got a chance to see whether the show works as well without its charismatic star.

It doesn't. Having seen the show Off-Broadway at the Public, I knew that Miranda was extremely charismatic in the role of Alexander Hamilton.

(Read my review of the Off-Broadway production.) As I sat watching the show with Muñoz, I was keenly aware of how much more involving and moving the show was with Miranda at its center. Muñoz has a far superior singing voice, but Miranda has presence, commanding the stage from his first entrance, and effortlessly elicits both sympathy and empathy. 

However, I didn't wanted to review the show without seeing Miranda again in the role, so I went to the box office at intermission and purchased a seat for the evening performance. (Contrary to rumor, the show isn't totally sold out through the end of the year, although tickets are admittedly very limited.) 

Miranda as author seems to want to make the case that Alexander Hamilton is the forgotten Founding Father. However, Miranda doesn't really enumerate Hamilton's accomplishments, except for his work in creating the U.S. Treasury. The rest of the show is so much political and personal soap opera, albeit a very engaging one. Miranda very effectively renders the machinations of the Revolutionary War and the politics of the embryonic years of the United States comprehensible. And yet there's a sort of simplistic, Cliffs Notes quality to the show's take on history. In search of clarity, Miranda has sacrificed nuance. 

Miranda does a fine job of making his main characters three-dimensional, particularly in showing the complicated relationship between Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr, his long-time friend and ultimate nemesis. The show's supporting characters are painted with considerably broader brush strokes. Other than Hamilton and Burr, the people populating Miranda's show tend to be single-adjective in nature: James Madison is taciturn, Thomas Jefferson is brattish, George III is petulant. Or they tend to have one defining directive (John Laurens wants to start an all-black battalion, Angelica Schuyler loves her sister, Eliza Schuyler Hamilton, Hamilton's wife). In this respect, the show doesn't entirely earn its pathos. Two characters get introduced then summarily killed off, without our having a real chance of getting to know who these people are.

 

Miranda has grown significantly as a writer and composer since his Broadway debut with In the Heights. He seems much more confident and inspired in choosing what story elements should be musicalized. In the Heights contains a few too many park-and-bark "I Want" songs for my taste. His solo ballads here tend to be a little less memorable than his uptempo and ensemble numbers. But one particularly inspired choice for a ballad moment is when Miranda has Hamilton and Burr sing to their respective newborn children. It's not only sweet, it's also humanizing and dramatically efficient. We see the human connection these two men have, even as they continue to spar in public. 

I had many problems with In the Heights, particularly in its use of slant rhyme and faulty scansion, and Hamilton also reflects a considerable share of both. In one line that gets repeated throughout the show, Hamilton sings, "I'm just like my country/I'm young, scrappy and hungry." It's a fun line, but "country" and "hungry" are distant rhyming cousins at best, and the meter puts the emphasis on the second syllable of "scrappy." Nonetheless, overall Miranda writes extremely effective rap recitative, with mostly very natural-sounding speech.

Hamilton is likely to run for a very long time indeed, but I'd highly recommend seeing it with the current cast. Leslie Odom, Jr. is outlandishly animated and rich as Aaron Burr. It's a real career-defining performance. Jonathan Groff is deliciously churlish as George III, every bit as delightful as Bryan D'arcy James was in the role Off-Broadway. Renèe Elise Goldsberry is fierce as all hell as Angelica Schuyler, although the role remains underwritten and lacking in any narrative payoff.

The real casting discovery here is Daveed Diggs, a genuine star in the making, as the Marquis de Lafayette and Thomas Jefferson. Diggs has that can't-take-your-eyes-off-him dynamism on stage, and I look forward to seeing more of him on stage. And, as I mentioned, Lin-Manuel Miranda is the emotional glue that holds the show together. If you do plan to see the show, it's worth double-checking to be sure Miranda will be on for that performance. Trust me. (Check here for Muñoz's schedule for the fall.)