by JK Clarke
Nevermind the outstanding acting. Nevermind the extraordinary singing. Nevermind the flawless movement, writing, rapping, set, story, direction, costumes and choreography. Set all that aside for now. What makes Lin-Manuel Miranda’s remarkable Hamilton (which has just moved to the Richard Rodgers on Broadway) such an important production—a total game changer, in fact—is its almost subversive realignment of the way we view American history in general and our Founding Fathers in particular.
Hamilton is the story, based loosely on Ron Chernow’s much praised 2004 biography, of Alexander Hamilton, the first Secretary of the Treasury of the United States of America and co-author of The Federalist Papers (which promoted the ratification of the US Constitution); and the man, for those and countless other achievements and contributions, whose image graces our ten dollar bill. Thus, the musical is something of an alternative history lesson of sorts.
With a completely multi-racial cast, and with non-white actors playing white, European-descended characters and presenting the story in a modern vernacular and style—notably hip-hop and rap—the production subtly reclaims the story of our country’s formation for all American citizens. Consequently, the question of Hamilton, Jefferson, Washington, Madison and Lafayette’s ethnicity becomes moot: rather, their actions and struggles have been re-defined via this presentation as belonging to anyone who benefits, as a citizen or resident, from their efforts (i.e. living with the liberties afforded all Americans).
But this big, powerful message doesn’t get delivered without tour de force material and performances to back it up. Miranda’s script and book is clever and insidious: in a rap-styled debate between Jefferson and Hamilton over the value of a Federalist (centralized) government (instead of de-centralized state governance), Hamilton rebuts Jefferson’s claims of financial independence in Virginia (a slave-owning state) with a scathing scolding:
A civics lesson from a slaver. Hey neighbor.
Your debts are paid because you don’t pay for labor.
“We plant the seeds in the south, we create.” Yeah, keep ranting.
We know who’s really doing the planting.
These vicious raps are performed with impeccable timing, often as part of a song or in the midst of a precisely choreographed (Andy Blankenbuehler) scene, crystallized with sensational performances. Miranda’s Hamilton grows from a strong-headed young man, to a looser, more mature but still over-confident older gentleman; Leslie Odom, Jr. as Aaron Burr is cocksure and dynamic, with a powerful command of this very flawed, but admirable statesman; Christopher Jackson’s George Washington is a powerful, beautiful singer and as reserved and paternal as we’d expect of our first president; and Phillipa Soo is a wonderfully complex Eliza Hamilton, both as patriotic and supportive wife, but also as a headstrong and proud woman and mother who refuses to be taken for granted, despite her husband’s significant domestic shortcomings.
Countless other performances are beyond standout. Jonathan Groff’s petulant, flippant and hilarious King George of England who can’t believe that American would even desire its independence (“When your people hate you, don’t come crawling back to me.”). Daveed Diggs is both a suave, heavily accented Marquis de Lafayette and as Thomas Jefferson, who might be mistaken for one of the rockstar Prince’s many iterations. And Okieriete Onaodowan as both rabble rousing pal and patriot Hercules Mulligan and stately James Madison. The execution of multiple, disparate complex roles by these actors is beyond admirable.
Director Thomas Kail’s work with both Miranda and musical director Alex Lacamoire to create the precise, rapid-fire timing that is the hallmark of the production is a thing of beauty. For not only does a heretofore perceptually dry chapter of American history get action-packed, blockbuster treatment, but the message, re-packaged and enlightened, is delivered in an easy-to-digest format. In Hamilton, Alexander Hamilton gets well-deserved honor and historical resurrection in a manner no publicist could ever dream of delivering.
But the real story here is Lin-Manuel Miranda. While he may have proved his mettle with his Tony Award winning In the Heights (2008), this production solidifies him as the genuine article. Miranda has carved out a welcome niche in a modern sub-genre and one hopes to see further works from him that take on other significant historical moments in the same exciting, inventive and groundbreaking style. Hamilton is a musical as entertaining, exciting, dynamic, musically relevant and socially significant as any Gershwin or Hammerstein work; and one which will likely collect every available award and enter the canon of Great American Broadway productions. Moments like this in theater seldom arise. One would be well advised not to miss it.
Hamilton. Through June 4, 2016 at The Richard Rodgers Theater (226 W. 46th Street, between Broadway and Eighth Avenue). www.hamiltonbroadway.com