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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.” Based on Ron Chernow‘s best-selling biography, Hamilton brings American history to musical-theater life in a style akin to the classic 1776, only with a hipper, more multi-cultural attitude. Currently enjoying a virtually sold-out off-Broadway premiere engagement at the Public Theater, where its run has already been extended twice before the official opening, the show seems inevitably destined for a Broadway transfer.
Miranda, previously responsible for the 2008 Tony Award-winning musical In the Heights, is clearly enamored of his subject. In addition to writing the book, music and lyrics for the nearly three-hour show, he also plays the title role. And while he’s had the audacity to cast Hispanic and black actors as the Founding Fathers commonly referred to as “old dead white men,” Miranda’s work is remarkably faithful to the historical facts, imparting great amounts of information in such rollicking fashion that high school history teachers will find themselves profoundly grateful for the assist.
The show traces the details of Hamilton’s extraordinary life: his illegitimate birth in the West Indies, becoming orphaned at age 11; his emigration to America where he attended King’s College (later known as Columbia University); becoming a chief aide to General George Washington in the Revolutionary War; his dominant authorship of the landmark Federalist Papers; his stint as America’s first Treasury Secretary; political rivalries with the likes of Thomas Jefferson and Aaron Burr; a key role in what would be the country’s first national political sex scandal; and, of course, his death at the hands of Burr as a result of a duel in Weehawken, New Jersey.
It’s a dense, nearly entirely sung-through musical, featuring more than a dozen major characters and nearly three times as many musical numbers that incorporate myriad styles, including heavy doses of rap. But it all flows together beautifully in a torrent of music and language that is as exhilarating as it is educational.
More surprisingly, Miranda has managed to make the material succeed in emotional as well as intellectual terms. His Hamilton is a supremely engaging character, caught up in a patriotic fervor while also being passionately devoted to his wife Eliza (Phillipa Soo) and more than a little close to his sister-in-law (Renee Elise Goldsberry). One of the show’s most moving segments depicts his despair when his eldest son (Anthony Ramos) is killed in a duel, an event that ironically foreshadows his own demise.
It’s hard to imagine that such things as debates over monetary policy could provide the inspiration for stirring musical numbers, but that’s exactly what happens here; Miranda’s music and lyrics are consistently captivating no matter how dry their subject matter. The humor is often of the droll, witty variety — “I’m a trust fund, baby, you can trust me!” Burr purrs to a potential female conquest — with the lyrics evoking everything from Gilbert & Sullivan to Rodgers & Hammerstein to The Notorious B.I.G.
Particularly riotous moments arrive courtesy of the foppish King George III, hilariously played by Brian D’Arcy James, who makes periodic appearances to reproach his rebellious subjects across the ocean.
“We have seen each other through it all/And when push comes to shove/I will send you a fully armed battalion/To remind you of my love,” he croons sweetly.
Besides Miranda’s energetic turn in the title role, there are stellar performances by Leslie Odom, Jr., Christopher Jackson and Daveed Diggs as Burr, Washington and Jefferson respectively, with the latter also doing amusing double-duty as the French aristocrat Marquis de Lafayette. But the entire hard-working 24-person ensemble is to be commended for bringing their characters so vibrantly to life.
Repeating their collaboration with Miranda on In the Heights, director Thomas Kail and choreographer Andy Blankenbuehler keep the complicated proceedings moving at a breathless pace; the fluid staging amply compensates for the material’s verbosity. David Korins‘ wood scaffolding set design effectively evokes the period, as do Paul Tazewell‘s handsome costumes and Charles LaPointe‘s elaborate wigs.
When its creator first announced the project under the title The Hamilton Mixtape a few years back, it was hard not to react with skepticism. But thankfully, any doubts have been erased by this terrific musical, which lives up to its considerable ambitions.
Cast: Lin-Manuel Miranda, Phillipa Soo, Leslie Odom, Jr., Renee Elise Goldsberry, Christopher Jackson, Daveed Digss, Okieriete Onaodowan, Anthony Ramos, Jasmine Cephas Jones, Brian D’Arcy James
Director: Thomas Kail
Book, music & lyrics: Lin-Manuel Miranda
Choreographer: Andy Blankenbuehler
Set designer: David Korins
Costume designer: Paul Tazewell
Lighting designer: Howell Binkley
Sound designer: Nevin Steinberg
Presented by The Public Theater
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