Book, music and lyrics by Lin-Manuel Miranda
Directed by Thomas Kail
Choreographed by Andy Blankenbuehler
Featuring Joseph Morales, Stephanie Jae Park, Ta’Rea Campbell, Marcus Choi and Neil Haskell
After graduating from prestigious Hunter College High School on New York’s Upper East Side, Lin-Manuel Miranda was already committed to majoring in theatre when he got to Wesleyan University in Connecticut. By his sophomore year in 1999, he was working on an early draft of his first successful musical, In the Heights, that had its opening on Broadway in 2008. And it was the summer of that year, he also read Rob Chernow’s best selling biography, “Alexander Hamilton,” and decided to turn it into a musical.
But this would not be just any musical. Miranda had already developed a composing style that based itself in rap and hip-hop as a sung though form throughout all of In the Heights. He decided to stick with that style for Hamilton while also adding in more traditional pop, soul and musical comedy forms for some numbers. He was also absolutely committed to cast the show non-traditionally in most, if not all, of the major roles, which included some of the major historical figures of the American Revolution, i.e. Hamilton and his nemesis, Aaron Burr, General George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, Marquis de Lafayette, John Laurens, et al. By using color-conscious casting, he broke the mold, not only stylistically by way of musical format, but also by way of equal opportunity employment in casting possibilities for racialized actors working in the American theatre and wherever the musical is mounted throughout the world.
This is a point worth mentioning and it is as important as any critical rave that a review of the production itself might have to offer. And there have been many rave reviews since the show opened on Broadway five years ago.
Miranda is a student of the musical theatre who is of a proud Puerto Rican heritage. It clearly must have been some source of frustration to him over the years when he surveyed those musicals dealing with the founding of the American Republic, that there were very few (if any) roles that were race specific for people of color. When one considers musicals such as 1776 (which opened on Broadway in 1969) or the more recent Bloody, Bloody Andrew Jackson (2006) as examples – unless an open minded director purposely employed a non-traditional approach to casting, you would see decade after decade of all white ensembles for these shows when they were presented in New York, at regional theatres, in university drama departments, high schools or community theatres across the land.
Hamilton, the musical, disrupts this homogenous pattern and all for the betterment of the American musical theatre, too. From the earliest days of its creation in the basement performance space of New York’s Drama Book Shop, Miranda and his artistic director, Thomas Kail, had a plan and they stuck to it.
Miranda’s choice of rap and hip hop music as the presentational style (or perhaps delivery system might be a better term to use), was also a wise choice. It follows on the template that he had perfected with some success for In the Heights and here drives the historical narrative for Hamilton as well with a mind-boggling heightened state of urgency that literally grabs the audience from the very first moment the actors take the stage.
When I originally saw this show in New York on Broadway, I was very impressed by two things. First, the youthfulness of the audience that is seldom seen at these shows with such high ticket prices. And second, the fact that young folks had come prepared to like this show to the extent that many of them had obviously listened to the songs so often that they were able to rap right along with the performers on stage. It really lifted my heart to experience their enthusiasm even though I myself found it very difficult to take in the material because of the rapidity of the lyrics that just flew by like flamadiddle sticking on a snare drum.
Given the opportunity to see the show a second time, with the excellent production now on display through May 17th at the Mirvish Theater in Toronto, I was able to digest the history lesson embedded in the show’s lyrics with a little more discernment. Hamilton is a wonderful entertainment that opens the doors to a period of American history that is absolutely critical for anyone who wants to know how the Americans got from there to where they are today in their politics.
In the end, however, the show is a musical pure and simple. It is not political science and I wouldn’t necessarily burden Hamilton with any more responsibility to tell the complicated story of the American Revolution than I would demand that Stephen Flaherty and Terrence McNally do the same for the three century rule of the Romanov family that led to the Russian Revolution in their musical, Anastasia, which also played as part of the Mirvish subscription series earlier this season.
I should add here that a recent attempt to fill in the historical gaps (or flaws as some have called them) in Hamilton by the add on creation of its own museum entitled, Hamilton: The Exhibition, which opened in Chicago last summer, also proved to be problematic. This high tech display using state of the art projection and digital imaging techniques was strong on IT but came up a bit short on artifacts (replicas and reproductions of historical documents), historical context and interpretation. Plans to have the exhibit tour with the show have been cancelled and the Chicago venue is now closed.
But don’t get me wrong, Hamilton the musical is a great show and well worth seeing. But after you see it, don’t just take their word for it. Go out and buy a copy of the “Federalist Papers” which is referenced a number of times throughout the show and also pick up a copy of Gore Vidal’s novel “Burr”, the first book of his seven novel series, Narratives of Empire for an alternative reading in American history.
One final irony: the musical ends with a hagiographic shout out to Alexander Hamilton as having been the genius who invented the American financial system just as many Americans are going to the polls and voting for another revolutionary figure who is advocating a more egalitarian approach to organizing the economy by presenting a path toward democratic socialism. How about an encore number with Bernie Sanders in a rap face-off against Alexander Hamilton? Now there’s a mic drop I would like to see!