Critic's Notebook: Why 'Hamilton' Counts as a Legitimate Game-Changer

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Unlike other recent blockbusters that soared on laughs, spectacle or expert pastiche, Lin-Manuel Miranda's revolutionary bio-musical is both a cultural phenomenon and an instant milestone in the art form.

Through unlucky timing, I was out of the country both for the downtown premiere of Hamilton at the Public Theater in February, and the opening of its Broadway transfer earlier this month. There's no bigger bummer for a theater critic than missing out on celebrating a genuinely original new work. Having arranged to catch the sellout production a little later at both venues, I went along with some trepidation. Would the ear-splitting hype spell inevitable disappointment? And if not, would there be anything left to say about the show after the sea of superlatives from my colleagues in the New York critics' community?

To get the key question out of the way first, in each incarnation Hamilton far exceeded expectations fueled by even the most laudatory reviews. This is one of those shows that sends you out exhilarated and breathless, not just humming the tunes — and there are 34 finely chiseled jewels to choose from — but awed by the momentous weight of history being simultaneously recounted and made. As for the redundancy of another gushing review at this point, I'm going to weigh in anyway.

However, rather than simply reiterating the show's merits — as tremendous entertainment, as formally innovative stagecraft, and as a thrilling reclamation of American history from the scholarly vaults — it's worth examining what sets Hamilton apart from every other instant Broadway smash of recent decades. And with earliest availability at anything but prohibitive premium prices now stretching into 2016, there's no question that this boldly unconventional bio-musical about Founding Father Alexander Hamilton is indeed a hit, even if it's still some months away from recoupment.

Phillipa Soo and Lin-Manuel Miranda

Leaving aside limited-run plays boosted by marquee-name talent, every season or two sees a show open to rapturous reviews and overnight becomes the toughest ticket in town. But most of the post-2000 examples have been musical comedies — The Producers, Hairspray, Monty Python's Spamalot, The Book of Mormon — whose appeal stemmed primarily from their infectious humor and their knowing pastiche of traditional formulas.

The chief exception is Wicked, which tapped a sentimental vein of female friendship and girl power that gave it a seemingly inexhaustible core audience. But again, despite the production's extravagant bells and whistles, the show sticks to a familiar template. Going back a few years earlier to 1997, The Lion King became a must-have ticket. But that had less to do with the musical's score or structure than with the wondrous stage pictures created by director Julie Taymor.

Some might say Rent, the year before, can make a claim to have brought something new to the table. However, that musical's fusion of Puccini and rock was less a driving factor in its success than its big-hearted embrace of a generation of young New York artists decimated by the scourge of HIV/AIDS and the relentless forces of gentrification. The tragic personal story of the show's gifted creator Jonathan Larson, who died the night before its premiere, also contributed to its zeitgeist factor — to use a hackneyed term much bandied about at the time.

Hamilton, by contrast, belongs to a more elite club, and while "game changer" is another term tossed around so liberally by the entertainment media that it's become almost meaningless, in this case it fits. Within the Broadway spectrum, Lin-Manuel Miranda's hip-hop historical musical has less in common with recent smashes than with shows that radically expanded audiences' perceptions of the kind of stories musicals could tell, and the language and form they could use to tell them.

That puts it on the evolutionary chain that began with groundbreaking works such as Show Boat and Oklahoma!, which first threw off the constraints of revues and operettas to tell sophisticated stories with more complex characters, darker themes, and narratives driven — rather than interrupted — by songs. West Side Story broadened that concept by integrating dance as an expressive dramatic tool to a degree that had mostly been confined to ballet. Hair heralded the emergence of the rock musical, a genre destined to gather erratic momentum ever since. And A Chorus Line brought 1970s psychological introspection to a work that peeled away the glitz to tell intimate stories, not of protagonists but of the dance ensemble of a Broadway show — and by extension, of the faceless human cogs in any enterprise.

That's of course a simplified list that skips over countless landmark musicals, not to mention the entire output of Stephen Sondheim as composer and lyricist; his 1970 show, Company, was no less daring or unconventional than A Chorus Line, and his 1979 masterwork, Sweeney Todd, remains the gold-standard marriage of musical and opera. But it's arguably been more than 35 years since a new American musical came along that could legitimately be called revolutionary, and Hamilton waves that flag with the same fervor and intelligence as its fiery protagonist.

Daveed Diggs and company

Other shows (including Miranda's 2008 Tony winner, In the Heights) have woven rap into the textures of traditional musical theater, but none has done so with the head-spinning energy, effectiveness or invention of Hamilton. The idea of examining the political ferment of late-18th century American history in songs that owe as much to Biggie Smalls as to Sondheim might sound like a gimmick, a ruse to grab the coveted youth demographic. But the minute the superb Leslie Odom Jr., playing conflicted antagonist Aaron Burr, completes his opening stanza —

"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, in squalor,
Grow up to be a hero and a scholar?"

— rap becomes the natural storytelling vernacular. The syncopated cadences and declamatory bluster of hip-hop seem tailor-made to depict the story of Hamilton, a man who lived, worked and fought like he was "running out of time." And yet, remarkably enough for a show that never stops racing forward, the material breathes.

Choreographer Andy Blankenbuehler, working in a seamless unit with director Thomas Kail, has also developed a dance language that deftly combines hip-hop moves with those of a traditional Broadway musical, even creating a mesmerizing ballet out of something as perfunctory as the delivery of a letter. Watching the ensemble strike vintage breakdance attitudes in costumer Paul Tazewell's sexy stripped-down 18th century wear seems such a natural form of expression that the visual anachronism becomes another organic part of the storytelling — just like the contemporary verbiage.

The show's characterizations are so vivid and the performances so charged that figures we are accustomed to seeing as bewigged white waxworks on our dollar bills, like George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, are given wholesale redefinition by actors of color (Christopher Jackson and Daveed Diggs, both terrific). At a time when immigration and race have once again acquired prominence in the national conversation, Hamilton reclaims America's story as the story of immigrant outsiders. As one of the more urgent refrains goes:

"Hey yo, I'm just like my country
I'm young, scrappy and hungry
And I'm not throwing away my shot."

While hip-hop is its defining voice, the show draws from a musically diverse well, ranging from rap through R&B, Britpop and beyond, referencing not just Grandmaster Flash and Mobb Deep, but also Gilbert and Sullivan and Rodgers and Hammerstein. However, the sharp use of refrains in Miranda's music and lyrics and Alex Lacamoire's dynamic orchestrations gives Hamilton a thematic and stylistic coherence that — like its racing pulse — never falters.

I particularly love the suite of gorgeous Act I numbers  — "The Schuyler Sisters," "Helpless" and "Satisfied" — that introduce Alexander’s future wife Eliza (Phillipa Soo), and his soul mate and ideal intellectual match, Eliza's sister Angelica, (Renee Elise Goldsberry). These divine creatures (along with Jasmine Cephas Jones as the third sister) recall TLC, Destiny's Child, En Vogue and other '90s girl groups, and yet they are also nuanced characterizations in a show that treats history with a playfulness that doesn't preclude respect.

Christopher Jackson and company

"Helpless" measures up to the most irresistible pop songs about love at first sight in the way it captures the sheer giddiness and joy of a romantic thunderbolt. That's one of the more surprising aspects of the sung-through score: For all its swaggering rap battles and kick-ass anthems of ambition, idealism and rebellion against authority, there are just as many emotionally ravishing numbers. Eliza's plea to Alexander to leave the battlefield and return to his family, "That Would Be Enough," is a heartbreaker, as is "Dear Theodosia," in which two orphaned men, Burr and Hamilton, contemplate the rewards of fatherhood. When tragedy strikes in Act II, its shattering aftermath resonates through the exquisite "It's Quiet Uptown" with such raw, wrenching feeling it elicits sobs from the audience.

In terms of lyrical density, Hamilton possibly packs in more words per minute than any musical in Broadway history, allowing Miranda to portray not just part of a life but its entirety, while also exploring the tricky machinations of politics, law and finance with probing complexity. And even with the most rapid-fire delivery every word is clear as a bell. You find yourself still savoring the wit and agility of one ingenious rhyming loop while another and then another keep unfurling.

It's fitting for a musical that moves so fast and covers such a broad swath of plot and characters that Kail's intricate direction makes resourceful use of a turntable at the center of David Korins' hardy set — all wood, bricks and rope. If it recalls the use of a revolve in another musical about idealistic revolutionaries, Les Miserables, it's only because Hamilton is in many ways the anti-Les Miz. It's a big, important show but not a lumbering, self-important one. And its deadly seriousness toward its subject never strays into the kind of earnest breast-beating that gives the 1980s warhorse its veneer of kitsch.

What has made Hamilton such an instant success is not just that everyone wants to be in on the latest big thing in a city where cultural currency always carries a premium. It's also that it's been a very long time since a new Broadway musical so audaciously created something original while remaining observant of tradition. And while it might run a decade or more, there will surely never be another opportunity to experience the show in a production so expertly honed, so fluidly propulsive, or with a cast so uniformly excellent as this one. Their roles appear to have been stitched onto them, down to every last ensemble member.

There was some concern when it was announced that Hamilton would open on Broadway in summer, which most producers tend to avoid, that the show's impact might fade by the time Tony season rolls around next year. However, it's a safe bet we'll be talking about this white-hot new musical not only next June, but 10 or more years from now, as the first 21st century musical to raise the bar of the art form.