Review by Tulis McCall
18 February 2015
The last time I saw Lin-Manuel Miranda he was leaping around the stage singing and rapping about the glories of his neighborhood – In The Heights.
Fast forward seven years and damn – he is doing the same thing with Hamilton, at the Public Theater. The difference is that Miranda’s neighborhood has expanded. It is now the entire U S of A and our history. Miranda’s present focus is on the Founding Folks, and he has set his cross-hairs on Alexander Hamilton.
How does a bastard, orphan, son of a whore
And a Scotsman dropped in the middle of a forgotten spot
In the Caribbean, by Providence impoverished, to squalor
Grow up to be a hero and a scholar?
This is the question posited by Aaron Burr (Leslie Odom, Jr.). It is a question he never releases, and it becomes one of many sublime motifs that Miranda weaves throughout this narrative. As a matter of fact, this question is so central to the story that it is Burr who emerges as the central character. Hamilton is a story about Alexander Hamilton, while at the same time it is the story of Aaron Burr. The two are harnessed together for decades, and death does not separate them. It is Burr who pulls the proverbial trigger over and over again. Good thing Odom is capable of carrying this load.
When we meet Hamilton (Miranda) he has written his way out of Nevis in the Bahamas where he was born. He is now a rising star in the firmament of thoughtful pursuit of the ideas of freedom, democracy and revolution. He is living in the most wonderful city in the world – New York – and Miranda’s skill at creating life on a stage that reaches out and grabs you are evident from the start.
This is not a story that lives in the remote white past. It is a surging musical adventure presented by performers of color (YAYY!!) who deliver the goods. These are men and women sailing a vessel no one has seen before. Lives are at stake. A country is waiting to be birthed. All hands on deck.
Hamilton is a man on the brink of a glorious free-fall and knows it. Burr is a man of great passion and ambition who seems to keep missing the boat. He refuses to give up as he watches Hamilton rise, and sings of his determination in Wait For It. EVERYONE around Hamilton has an opinion about him. Most of it is not glowing. He is arrogant, opinionated and relentless. He also has the ear of General George Washington (Christopher Jackson) who introduces himself musically in a nod to Gilbert and Sullivan.
The model of a modern major general
the venerated Virginian veteran whose men are all
Lining up, to put me on a pedestal.
Washington needs Hamilton at his side, and while Hamilton wants a command, it is his pen – the one that got him out of the Bahamas – that Washington needs. Hamilton eventually gets his command and in league with Lafayette (Daveed Diggs), they hand the British a defeat. Immigrants, they say to one another, we get the job done. Another motif that ties present and past together.
1789 – the war is over. Washington again calls on Hamilton again, this time to join the first Cabinet as Secretary of the Treasury. Thomas Jefferson (Daveed Diggs) returns from France singing What’d I Miss? He has been in France for 5 years and, well, a lot has happened. Jefferson and Hamilton take what appears to be an immediate dislike to one another and we are treated to Cabinet meetings that are flat out slams with opposing sides cheering and jeering.
Economics, treaties of neutrality, international aid – all this in free-style rap that is of course plotted out to the molecule.
Heady stuff, right? Well, not so much. If you or I had to tell the story. In the pen of Miranda, however, the peril at hand is palpable. There were no maps for the new country. And from afar things looked dodgy. One brilliant addition is the character of George III. Brian D’Arcy James has never been funnier. With a voice that is clear and clever he delivers a few variations on You’ll Be Back, alternately puzzling how a country could not allow him supreme position in their hearts, and nearly toppling over with delight at the idea of what they will all do without him.
The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune pile up against Hamilton. He writes financial systems into existence and is shunned by most politicos until he, Jefferson and Madison meet In The Room Where It Happens. When they emerge, New York is no longer the capital and the adoption of his financial system is in the works. Burr watches this all with spitting green envy and a voice that is pure velvet. Meanwhile he has his own affair with a married woman, as well as a daughter on the way, to keep him permanently off kilter.
Hamilton, with no help from his enemies, proceeds to ruin his personal and political life by having an affair with a married woman, Maria Reynolds (Jasmine Cephas Jones). When he takes the offensive position and writes about the affair his wife Eliza (Phillipa Soo) writes herself out of his narrative. He is also abandoned by his sister-in-law and confidant Angelica (Renee Elise Goldsberry). His foes rejoice with music: Never Gonna Be President Now they chant. Even his supporters think of him as a paranoid Icarus. And in a haunting foretelling, his son Philip is lost in a duel (out in New Jersey, where everything is legal). Through it all he writes. And he writes. And he writes. As if he is a man on borrowed time.
As the election of 1800 teetered on the brink (Jefferson and Burr had an equal number of votes and the House of Representatives was the place to make the decision) Hamilton backed Jefferson. Once again Burr was left out of the Room Where It Happened. Four years later, Burr accuses Hamilton of slander, and as the reconciliation that the Dual Commandments demand fails in the letters the two men exchange – Your Obedient Servant – the fates await the two men on the same ground where Hamilton’s son died. The last moments of Hamilton’s life are perhaps the most delicately crafted. I imagine death so much it seems like a memory Hamilton sings as the bullet travels through time and relationships to reach him. And when it does, we hear the lament of Aaron Burr who didn’t realize the world was side enough for them both, and the chorus that delivers us back into our seats singing and asking us Who lives? Who dies? Who tells your story?
Indeed. While we were watching this production, it was watching us.
An enormous nod goes to choreographer Andy Blankenbuehler for choreography that insinuates itself into every moment like a multi-personality ghost. Costume designer Paul Tazewell creates costumes that cover nearly two decades and sweep us into the visual vortex.
Thomas Kail’s direction cannot be praised enough. He has woven this production together into a tapestry that is elegant and brilliant to behold. His partnership with Miranda has brought forth fruit of a new variety. They know whence they come. This is a musical that stands on the shoulders of the artists past, stretches out its arms and pulls us all up into a new territory.
Which is just as it should be, and then some.
"'Hamilton,' which is directed with vigor and finesse by Thomas Kail and features the multifarious Mr. Miranda in the title role, persuasively transfers a thoroughly archived past into an unconditional present tense."
Ben Brantley for New York Times
"It could’ve been another ho-hum bio, but like the illegitimate orphan-turned-power player it celebrates, the robustly original, infectiously entertaining new musical 'Hamilton' beats the odds and far exceeds expectations."
Joe Dziemianowicz for New York Daily News
"The production itself is sterling, energetically directed and choreographed by fellow 'In the Heights' alum Thomas Kail and Andy Blankenbuehler, respectively."
Elisabeth Vincentelli for New York Post
"'Hamilton' has it all, and then some – relevance, humor, and touching emotion. How fitting, that by summoning the past, Miranda and his sensational company are ushering in the future of musical theatre."
Roma Torre for NY1
"Lin-Manuel Miranda's extraordinary, stunningly imaginative musical, is so rich in so many ways, it's hard to know where to start."
Robert Feldberg for The Record
"Andy Blankenbuehler's wonderfully expressive choreography contributes kinetic excitement to the event, which really is a must-see show for anyone truly interested in modern musicals."
Michael Sommers for New Jersey Newsroom
"There's rarely been a history lesson as entertaining as Lin-Manuel Miranda's new hip hop-infused musical about Alexander Hamilton, or, as the opening number puts it, 'The ten-dollar founding father without a father.'"
Frank Scheck for The Hollywood Reporter
"There should be a huge audience for this irresistible show. Although the premise sounds outlandish, it takes about two seconds to surrender to the musical sweep of the sung-through score and to Miranda’s amazing vision of his towering historical subject as an ideological contemporary who reflects the thoughts and speaks the language of a vibrant young generation of immigrant strivers. It’s a wonderfully humanizing view of history."
Marilyn Stasio for Variety
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