Shows Worth Seeing:
By Lin-Manuel Miranda
The Public Theatre
425 Lafayette St.
It turns out that the hottest ticket in New York is indeed worth stretching your wallet and patience to obtain. Hamilton may not restore your faith in the American dream and political system, as some have claimed, but it may well restore your faith in the serious musical. It is that rarest of theatrical species: a consummately American work that actually turns the impossible Brechtian trick of making history fun and risky political thinking cool and exciting. Lin-Manuel Miranda, the star performer and writer of the book, music, and lyrics, has done much more than just apply hip-hop music to an anomalous subject. He has developed his own very forceful and specific view of that subject—he sees Alexander Hamilton as the personification of the fresh immigrant energy and talent that has nourished the nation from its earliest days—and rightly identified hip-hop as the perfect musical vessel for that view.
Miranda’s perspective on Hamilton stresses his roots as a bastard orphan from the Caribbean who won a place in the early American leadership by dint of sheer personal drive and talent with words. This identity aligns him and his revolutionary comrades with the heroes of hip-hop, whose physical and vocal manner they adopt while rapping about matters of high morality and great political moment. The show is pumped full of rap’s brash, upstart energy and confidence, all the while treating it, anomalously enough, as a mainstream musical language perfectly suited to the origin story of the United States.
Hamilton’s costumes, settings and contextual references are all in 18th-century period yet its cast is mostly non-white. That is certainly anachronistic (as is the hip-hop language), but no overt comment is ever made about it. Crucially, Hamilton betrays no hint of self-consciousness or winking irony. It’s as if Miranda and his director Thomas Kail were saying that this is what Americans look like today and American history is theirs to represent and wrestle with however they see fit. Non-traditional casting, here, is the new traditional casting. And that sense of easy enfranchisement—along with the beautifully portrayed triangular love story at the plot’s center—is a great part of what makes the show so poignant.
For all its beauty and strength as a celebration of the creative heart and heterogeneous crux of American identity, Hamilton isn’t perfect. It loses steam in its second half, which strings together too many numbers in a similar musical style. At 3 hours, it seems at least 20 minutes too long. The character of Aaron Burr, Hamilton’s antagonist (played by Leslie Odom, Jr.), is also somewhat blurry around the edges. Portrayed as a noncommittal cynic who regards Hamilton’s ingenuousness and volubility as weaknesses (“You should talk less and smile more”), Burr becomes too much a generic political waffler. The climactic scenes where he transforms into Hamilton’s deadly enemy cry out for more specificity and focus. Most egregious of all, slavery is never sufficiently confronted in the mostly sung-through book. Hamilton mentions it in his opening number and makes clear that he loathes it, but he never makes it a cause. Even when a golden opportunity arises to confront Thomas Jefferson (Daveed Diggs) about it—whose hypocrisy regarding Sally Hemmings is obvious—Miranda’s Hamilton doesn’t seize it, so he ends up seeming, in this instance, a waffler himself.
Hopefully, Miranda will address some or all of these matters before the show’s Broadway transfer this summer. Hamilton’s theatrical bones are strong and, in a leaner and sharper form, it could well run on the Rialto for years.