“Hamilton” Makes Musical History

Daveed Diggs, Okieriete Onaodowan, Anthony Ramos and Lin-Manuel Miranda in Hamilton. Photos by Joan Marcus.
Daveed Diggs, Okieriete Onaodowan, Anthony Ramos and Lin-Manuel Miranda in Hamilton. Photos by Joan Marcus.
Daveed Diggs, Okieriete Onaodowan, Anthony Ramos and Lin-Manuel Miranda in Hamilton. Photos by Joan Marcus.

There’s absolutely no reason to put a fine point on it: Hamilton — brilliantly adapted by Lin-Manuel Miranda from Ron Chernow’s 2004 biography, Alexander Hamilton, and brilliantly directed by Thomas Kail and choreographed by Andy Blankenbuehler — joins the ranks of great American musicals.

Now that it has opened at Broadway’s Richard Rodgers Theatre after a sold-out premiere run at the Public Theater, Hamilton‘s place is confirmed alongside Show Boat, Pal Joey, Oklahoma!, My Fair Lady, Hair, Follies and A Chorus Line. Considered as an American musical dealing directly with Americana — like Of Thee I Sing, Annie Get Your Gun and Ragtime, to name a few of the very few — an argument could eventually be made for Hamilton as the nation’s greatest musical. History will, of course, be the judge.

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Is this overpraising the enterprise? Let’s ask Hamilton‘s patrons, from now through its inevitably long Great White Way run, to decide if this predominantly sung-through rap and hip-hop musical isn’t as indicated above. Let’s include praise for every category from set (David Korins) to costumes (Paul Tazewell) to lighting (Howell Binkley) to sound (Nevin Steinberg) to arrangements (Alex Lacamoire and Miranda) to orchestrations (Lacamoire) to Charles G. LaPointe’s period/contemporary hair and wig styles.

Beginning with the introductory song, “Alexander Hamilton,” tracing the man’s extremely humble birth on the island of Nevis, through to his arrival as an upstart politician who inveigles himself into the company of Aaron Burr (Leslie Odom, Jr.), Miranda lets fly on tuneful melodies and especially lyrics that are not only devilishly clever but an easy history lesson about the American Revolution and the nation’s turbulent birth. He does this as the show’s creator but equally in the title role (replaced by Javier Munoz at some performances). And he is plenty adept at writing pointed spoken lines, too, as in this applause-reaping comment made by Marquis de Lafayette (Daveed Diggs), with his amusing French accent:

Immigrants—we get the job done.

As history-anchored as Hamilton is, it couldn’t be more up-to-date in its concerns. The man’s disdain for slavery is repeatedly expressed; the extent to which the show employs non-traditional casting makes a timely point. Indeed, this could be the production that ends any further call for the term “non-traditional.” For in Hamilton, the American melting pot bubbles over, heated by tightly constructed action in which Hamilton rises to prominence, becomes the right-hand man to George Washington (Christopher Jackson) and itches for battle. His courtship of and marriage to rich Schuyler daughter Elizabeth (Phillipa Soo) — though it’s eldest Schuyler daughter Angelica (Renée Elise Goldsberry) to whom he’s truly attracted –receives emotionally sophisticated attention.

Jonathan Groff as King George III.
Jonathan Groff as King George III.

Once the Revolutionary War is won and America gets down to business, the nation’s political rivalries are paraded as Miranda finds them — such as between Thomas Jefferson (Diggs, doubling) and James Madison (Okieriete Onaodowan). The way he tackles the long and gnarled frenemy relationship between Hamilton and Burr captures its complexity, and Kail and Blankenbuehler’s staging of their fatal duel is nothing less than superb. Added to the forcefulness of this climactic sequence is the ironic way in which it pays off in “My Shot,” which was also Hamilton’s declaration at the top of the show, signaling his determination to grab every opportunity offered to him as he charged into life with his fast-talking (call it pre-hip-hop) skills.

Committed to leaving out no crucial incident of Hamilton’s life, Miranda also gives ample stage time to Maria Reynolds (Jasmine Cephas Jones, doubling as Schuyler daughter Peggy), who seduces Hamilton into an extramarital affair as part of a blackmail plot with her husband. It’s the crisis by which Hamilton’s sometimes-friendly, sometimes-cunning associates hope to undo him and are only temporarily foiled by their target’s compulsive honesty.

It can’t be underlined enough that what may sound inexorably somber in Hamilton, even stubbornly cut-and-dried, isn’t. That’s due to the way Miranda sets the stories in contemporary rhythms and verbiage. He drizzles in anachronistic locutions as if putting the finishing touches on a delectable dessert.

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At times, though careful about his rhyming, Miranda also digresses from it, moving into today’s prevalent style of off-rhyming. Yet he establishes it as another example of crafted songwriting. Who’d argue with his mating “cuckold” with “unbuckled,” or “harder” with “martyr”? Who’d argue with the dramatic insistence of rap itself? When, in Act II, it seemed as if Miranda’s reliance on the genre threatened to become repetitious, he inserts “Forgiveness,” a poignant threnody for the entire company.

At four junctures during Hamilton, Miranda interrupts the proceedings to bring on King George III (Jonathan Groff, replacing Brian D’Arcy James from the Public run). At first, it’s for the royal to wax pouty in “You’ll Be Back,” about the ungrateful revolutionaries; later, the ditty is reprised as the king loses a population that then finds itself embroiled in its own problems. The number is an adorable throwback to the old in-one tradition and it’s another instance of Miranda’s sly acumen.

Miranda’s achievement at rendering American history is so astonishingly rousing that were Hamilton widely seen by younger audiences, it could be the impetus for a resurgence of interest in history among students, which would be a noticeable change from a generation content to leave unexamined anything that’s happened up to the minute before their birth. That alone might be Hamilton‘s most significant legacy.

Phillippa Soo and Miranda.
Phillipa Soo and Miranda.

To enhance the seamlessness of Kail’s direction and Blankenbuehler’s choreography — movement on stage is never extraneous — they have assembled a flawless cast, courtesy of Telsey + Company and Bethany Knox CSA. Every one of them, even those cast members primary involved as dancers, have terrific voices. Praise should be heaped on, in no particular order, Odom, Diggs, Jackson, Soo, Goldsberry, Onaodowan, Cephas Jones, Groff and Anthony Ramos as both the killed-in-battle black revolutionary John Laurens, and Philip Hamilton, Alexander’s oldest son, who is himself slain in a duel. Leave it at this: when the members of the Tony nominating committee gather, they could fill entire categories from Hamilton alone.

At the press preview I attended, Munoz played Hamilton with the same persuasive drive that Miranda drew on when I watched him first at the Public. While Miranda brings his many-faceted commitment to the project in his performance (on the old theory that no one sings a song better than its songwriter), Munoz has impressive acting and vocal chops to show off. So comparisons here would be odious and will therefore not be made.

For the finale, Miranda has his first-rate cast ask who gets to tell history’s story. It’s a profound query often answered with “the victors.” By its very nature and in deference to Chernow’s narrative, Hamilton tells it in an overwhelming manner. That a musical — a musical! — should recount a gritty slice of American history so beautifully is singularly moving. If a musical even close in quality to this one emerges this season, we’re lucky. If a musical even close in quality emerges in the next 10 years, we’d better count our lucky stars.