(Theatre review – note in 2020, Disney+ released a streaming version.)
This is one of those rare cases where the reality lives up to the hype — even exceeds it. This musical about the life of Alexander Hamilton is both an excellent drama and a terrific piece of entertainment.
Unlike many musicals, which are standard plays where people occasionally burst into sung, this play is almost entirely sung. It’s more like an opera than a traditional American musical.
The music is excelllent, and includes a variety of styles. While there’s a lot of rap (which functions like the traditional opera “recitative”) there are also show tunes and some honest-to-god arias. There aren’t so many singable tunes, but some of the tag lines (“Immigrants — they get the job done”) have already become memes. The use of rap allows for some amazingly dense lyrics, which not only move the plot forward but also provide plenty of humor to various species of nerds: musical nerds (Gilbert & Sullivan), Shakespeare nerds (the “Scottish play”) and even history nerds — the name of the scene about the battle of Yorktown, “The World Turned Upside Down,” is the actual song played (at least according to legend) by the British military band at the surrender.
Staging is almost Shakespearean minimalist — a table and chair here, a moving staircase there. There are no traditional “scenes” — the action moves continuously from one part of the stage to another. Movement is accomplished by the innovative use of lighting (something not available to our friend Will) and a cast of extras who move about the stage adding and subtracting props, in what is obviously some enormously complicated choreography.
The much-ballyhoo’ed mixed race casting is not mentioned during the performance and is not even noticeable after about 5 minutes — which is probably the point.
The story is reasonably close to historical reality, with a few quirks. Jefferson appears as an entitled jerk, and Adams doesn’t appear at all — probably defensible, since the play presents Hamilton’s point of view. I like the fact that the Founders were portrayed as human beings instead of quasi-Biblical figures. It was also helpful to remember that the people who founded this country had deep disagreements about some pretty important stuff — slavery, the banking system, the role of the federal government — yet found a way to work together.
The cast of the travelling show was terrific. The show is basically sold out for its 4-month run here (although spare tickets appear online) and will then move to LA.
For those who won’t be able to get to a live show, there are plenty of excerpts available for free on YouTube. I particularly enjoyed this clip of Lin-Manual Miranda at the White House in 2009, in which he previews “a new musical I am working on about the life of Alexander Hamilton” (the piece became the opening number of the show). Listen to the laughter of the White House audience — they think Miranda is making a joke — and you can almost feel the mood of the room change as folks realize that not only is this a deadly serious project, but also really good.