It’s difficult to describe the level of anticipation I felt upon finally walking into the Richard Rodgers Theatre in New York to see Hamilton, the unprecedented cultural phenomenon that has taken not just the theater community, but the world, by storm. Like most theater fans, I followed the show’s transformation from a figment of the genius Lin-Manuel Miranda’s imagination to the hottest ticket in town closely. In August, I bit the proverbial bullet and spent an amount of money I’d shell out for very few things on a ticket for the end of December, when I would be in New York. I then made the decision, despite the overwhelming buzz and much to the chagrin of many of my friends, to avoid listening to the cast recording beforehand.
Was it foolish and stubborn to commit to going in as blind as possible to a show that literally everyone, including those far outside the typical theater circles, couldn’t seem to stop talking about? Probably. Was it irritating to my friends, one of whom had to make a special playlist for her car titled “Erin” consisting of all of her music except for Hamilton? Absolutely. Do I feel it was worth it to experience the score for the first time in the room where it happens? Definitely. My decision was largely inspired by another recent Broadway sensation, The Book of Mormon, which I saw very early on in its Broadway run with zero knowledge aside from the fact that at least part of it took place in Africa. So, on December 27th, into the Richard Rodgers I went. To say I went in 100% blind is not fair—I had watched the video of Lin-Manuel performing a version of the opening number at the White House in 2009 years ago, I caved and watched exactly one Ham4Ham, specifically the three King Georges as the Schuyler Sisters, and as a user of the internet I was generally aware of a few song titles and key phrases. Also, I like to think I have at least a basic knowledge of American history, and in that regard every human who sees the show has already been spoiled.
This is usually the part of these reviews where I give some background on the show—in this case it almost feels redundant, but here’s the abridged version in case you’ve been living under a rock. Hamilton was inspired by Ron Chernow’s 2004 biography Alexander Hamilton and features music, lyrics, and book by Lin-Manuel Miranda, who also stars in the show. At just 35 Miranda is already three quarters of the way to an EGOT—he won the Tony Awards for Best Musical and Best Score for his 2008 original musical In the Heights, which he also starred in, the Grammy for that show’s cast album, and a 2014 Primetime Emmy for music he wrote for the Tony Awards telecast. He was also a 2015 recipient of the MacArthur Genius Award and wrote the cantina music for Star Wars: The Force Awakens. Basically, we’re all really unaccomplished in comparison. The show debuted Off-Broadway at the Public Theater one year ago in January 2015 to great acclaim and began Broadway previews on July 13th. The musical is directed by Thomas Kail and choreographed by Andy Blankenbuehler, both of whom also worked with Miranda on In the Heights.
Believe it—this show doesn’t just live up to the hype, it surpasses it. It is every bit as good as everyone from President Obama to Beyonce claims. Hamilton is a true masterpiece from start to finish. It is an incredibly dense, innovative piece of musical storytelling that grabs you by the throat from the first line of the first number and never lets go for two rather lengthy acts. The music, which is primarily hip hop with infusions of everything from British pop to R&B to classic musical theater, is simply phenomenal, with nary a weak link in 46 songs. There are so many layers, both literally/musically and emotionally, to the point where you can listen dozens of times and still discover new, previously unnoticed moments. It is stunningly self-referential—each of the major characters has their own melody and sound, and key rhythms and phrases from earlier in the show pop up again when you least expect them to bring the narrative full circle. It combines everything that makes musical theater so wonderful with elements not always synonymous with it. I spent the majority of the show essentially gaping at the stage in awe of what I was witnessing. The show is also a roller coaster of emotion—act one is a relatively happy place whereas act two is, as history dictates, significantly more somber.
Also without a weak link is the incredible cast, led, of course, by Miranda himself as the young, scrappy, and hungry immigrant Alexander Hamilton. Leslie Odom Jr. is seductively sinister as Hamilton’s friend turned nemesis, Aaron Burr, and I suspect his transformative character arc combined with getting to sing some of the biggest showstoppers will get him the Lead Actor Tony Award come June (Miranda will win Musical, Score, and basically everything else- he’ll be fine). The three Schuyler Sisters, Eliza, Angelica, and Peggy, are played by Phillipa Soo, Renee Elise Goldsberry, and Jasmine Cephas Jones, respectively, with Jones also appearing as Maria Reynolds in act two. Soo’s Eliza is in many ways the emotional center of the show, whereas Goldsberry’s Angelica has a smaller yet almost more memorable role—both in the show and, at times, in Hamilton’s life. Angelica’s big act one number, “Satisfied,” is quite possibly Miranda’s finest work to date. It is a jaw-dropping piece of staging and musical storytelling that left me speechless, and it alone should secure a Supporting Actress Tony for Goldsberry.
Jones is not the only cast member to pull double duty—Okieriete Onaodowan plays James Madison and Hercules Mulligan, and Anthony Ramos is John Laurens as well as Philip Hamilton. Rounding out the principle cast are two men who have been with Hamilton since its very first workshop, In the Heights alum and Broadway favorite Christopher Jackson as George Washington and theater newcomer Daveed Diggs, who lends his stunning talent and impossibly fast rapping skills to Marquis de Lafayette and, later, Thomas Jefferson. And, last but certainly not least, is Jonathan Groff as King George. While his part in the musical adds up to a grand total of less than 10 minutes, his appearances are incredibly memorable and had myself and the rest of the audience in stitches. As a longtime fan of Groff’s, I’d be lying if I didn’t admit he was ultimately one of my favorite parts of the show—although if he and Diggs are both nominated for the Supporting Tony, as I feel they should be, Diggs should win.
Going in, I had heard many anecdotes of people weeping at the end of the show. I was somewhat surprised that while I felt incredibly moved, I did not cry. I am certainly not an unemotional person at the theater, having once had a near-breakdown at the end of Once. But I understand why I didn’t cry—I personally don’t find Hamilton to be a very good person, and therefore I was not super sad when he met his fate. While the show certainly celebrates Hamilton’s many good qualities—his talent with the written word, his unrelenting work ethic, his tenacity, his remarkable foresight in helping to build our nation’s financial system—it also makes no apologies for his arrogance, his stubbornness, his adultery. “Every other Founding Father story gets told, every other founding father gets to grow old,” Angelica laments in the closing number. This is certainly true—Hamilton’s life is inherently tragic, often in a ‘stranger than fiction’ kind of way that makes clear why Miranda chose to adapt it. But it’s okay that some audience members, myself included, may not find him to be the most sympathetic protagonist— spoilers to follow— because in the show’s final moments, it’s his wife, Eliza, who takes center stage as she relays to the audience how she spent the remaining fifty years of her life after her husband’s death ensuring that his legacy would endure. I love this choice so much—as I mentioned earlier, Eliza is in many ways the heart of the musical, and ending it on her is a powerful statement. Strangely enough, I finally cried at “Who Lives, Who Dies, Who Tells Your Story” somewhere around my fifth listen after seeing the show (the cast recording has been on repeat ever since). Much like Hamilton snuck up on the other Founding Fathers, the enormity of the moment snuck on me. And, to quote Angelica one more time, I have never been the same.
Hamilton is currently playing at Broadway’s Richard Rodgers Theatre, where I imagine it will remain for quite some time. A sit-down run in Chicago is scheduled to begin in September 2016 with a national tour also in the works. As for obtaining tickets—well, may the odds be ever in your favor. For more information, visit www.hamiltonbroadway.com. For tickets and information about the upcoming 2017 London production, visit http://www.officialtheatre.com/victoria-palace-theatre/hamilton/.