Inspired by Ron Chernow's 800-page biography of the first Secretary of the Treasury, Lin-Manuel Miranda (aka LMM) wrote the music, book, and lyrics of Hamilton. As if that trifecta accomplishment wasn't enough, he also played the title role in the original Broadway cast. He takes us through Hamilton's life, from growing up poor on a small Caribbean island, through his role in the Revolutionary War and the founding of this country, through personal struggles and tragedies, and finally to (spoiler alert) his death in a duel at the hands of his rival Aaron Burr. In LMM's genius, he's made this nearly 250-year old story feel fresh, modern, and relevant. He makes the founding fathers seem like real people, with flaws and all, not just dry and boring figures in a history book. I love what Oskar Eustis, the Artistic Director of the Public Theater, says about LMM, that like Shakespeare, he elevated and ennobled the language of the people. Maybe that's part of the reason for the popularity, that the characters in Hamilton speak, act, love, grieve, rage, live like we do. Because after all, the founding fathers were just people too.*
Hamilton is incredibly dense, in words (more than twice as many as most musicals) and themes (freedom, identity, legacy, adultery, war, loyalty), so that five times isn't even enough to catch everything. Songs range from rapid rap battles, to uptempo hip-hop songs, to lovely ballads. The musical themes are as intricate and complex as are the lyrics (with some references to musical theater - LMM is a composer who loves musicals). The piece is almost entirely sung through, with little spoken dialogue. There is constant movement onstage, thanks to Thomas Kail's Tony-winning direction, Andy Blankenbuehler's Tony-winning choreography (performed with precision by this fab ensemble, more on them later), and the rotating concentric circles on the stage. Yet the busyness and movement is nicely balanced by quiet character moments in this nearly perfectly constructed musical. It almost goes without saying that the intricate two-level set, the dramatic lighting, and the 18th Century-inspired chic costumes are perfection. Everything about Hamiliton is very thoughtfully crafted and executed.
|photo by Joan Marcus|
|photo by Joan Marcus|
I sometimes speak of a "post-Hamilton world," by which I mostly mean the shining example of color conscious casting, but could also refer to the great heights of achievement possible in music-theater, my favorite art form. It's no longer acceptable to sloppily adapt a hit movie to make a hit musical, or to have a stage full of white people. Because Hamilton shows us that theater can and should be better than that. And at a time when it seems to many of us that America has lost its way, that we can't even recognize America anymore, it's a wonderful thing to be reminded of what America was, is, and should be. A place where everybody has a voice, where everybody's story gets to be told, where diverse people join together for freedom, justice, equality, and music! Of course our founding fathers didn't think of it quite like that (e.g., slavery); in many ways Hamilton imagines an even better beginning to this country, one that takes into account the struggles of the last 200+ years to get to a more glorious place than the founding fathers could even imagine. And at the same time, inspires us to continue the march towards freedom, justice, and equality for all.
|the grave of Eliza and Alexander Hamilton|
(personal photo from Trinity Church in NYC)