Sunday, January 10, 2016

Hamilton: An American Musical

When I was five years old, my parents took me to Nashville to see a performance of 1776.  I grew up listening to soundtracks for shows like South Pacific, My Fair Lady, Carousel, and Oklahoma.  And I have great memories of school trips to see Annie and Evita in St. Louis.  So I have a deep and profound respect for Broadway and the American tradition of musical theater.  But I never actually attended a show on Broadway until last week, when I went to see Hamilton:  An American Musical, the new masterpiece by Lin-Manuel Miranda.  I've had a long wait, but it was worthwhile -- Hamilton is a fantastic piece of work, and in my opinion it is the best musical since West Side Story.

The story of Hamilton is now very well-known, but it is so interesting to be worth repeating again.  Lin-Manuel Miranda, the 35-year-old wunderkind behind the show, grew up as the child of Puerto Rican immigrants in New York.  Drawing upon his background, he started to work on In the Heights, a show set in the Puerto Rican neighborhood of Washington Heights, while he was still in college at Wesleyan.  In the Heights hit Broadway in 2008 -- when Miranda was only 28 -- and won Tony Awards for Best Musical and Best Original Score, as well as a Grammy Award for Best Musical Theater Album.  Miranda himself was nominated for a Tony for Best Actor in a Musical, and was left with a big case of What Do You Do After Your First Effort Was Such a Success?

Many artists, such as Harper Lee and Margaret Mitchell, answered that question by simply retiring from the scene, never trying to measure up to the success of their opening effort.  But Miranda just kept working, doing everything from writing Spanish language dialogue for a revival of West Side Story to acting on House and Sesame Street.  Meanwhile, he had developed a Very Big Idea.  While on vacation, he had grabbed a big biography to read.  The biography turned out to be Alexander Hamilton by Ron Chernow, and Miranda was enthralled.

Everyone (well, almost everyone), knows that Hamilton is the guy on the 10-dollar bill, and a lot of people know that he was killed in a duel by Aaron Burr in 1804 -- while Burr was Vice President of the United States.  But reading Chernow's biography, Miranda found the story of an immigrant who came to this country from the Caribbean as a teenager, and who spent the rest of his 49 years in a manic effort to achieve fame.  Hamilton was a protege of George Washington, but he fought with almost all of the other founders, including John Adams and Thomas Jefferson.  Hamilton was a war hero who also invented the U.S. banking system, laid the groundwork for our manufacturing base and our big military, and wrote most of the Federalist Papers.  He also married a rich woman, ran up a lot of debt, fathered eight children (one of whom was killed in a duel), and was caught paying blackmail to the husband of a woman with whom he was having an affair.

This rich collection of potential material gave Miranda a vast canvas on which to work, but Miranda thought he also had a key to help him bring the material to life.  Born in 1980, Miranda is grounded in both traditional Broadway theater and hip-hop, and he saw the urban and ruthlessly intense Hamilton as a spiritual ancestor to the "Get Rich or Die Trying" spirit found in much hip-hop music.  In a literal stroke of genius -- Miranda, did, in fact, win a McArthur Genius award last last year -- Miranda decided that hip-hop represented the best way to tell Hamilton's story.

On paper, a hip-hop musical about the Founders seems somewhat odd, but in Miranda's hands it worked perfectly.  The fast pace and crowded lyrics of hip-hop music allowed Miranda to cram an enormous amount of material into the usual length of a Broadway show.  Furthermore, by establishing Hamilton as a proudly urban character, the hip-hop framework allowed Miranda to tell the story of the Revolution from the perspective of New York -- a perspective that differs quite significantly from the usual Massachusetts or Virginia-based framework.  Finally, since it would be absurd for Miranda to do a hip-hop show with an otherwise all-white cast, the music encouraged a multiracial cast.  In fact, all of the major roles in Hamilton -- with the exception of King George III -- are played by African-American, Hispanic, or Asian-American actors.  This is no mere game of political correctness or affirmative action -- the show is perfectly cast, and each of the major players has developed their own following among Hamilton's cult-like fan base.  But by casting Chris Jackson, Daveed Diggs, and Leslie Odom, Jr. -- three African-American actors -- as George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and Aaron Burr, respectively, Miranda invites us to see that the Founders were not simply dead white guys, but political geniuses whose thought continues to dominate so much of our lives.

The basic idea of Hamilton -- a hip-hop musical about the Founding of America with a multiracial cast -- explains a great deal of why it is so important.  Miranda is doing the same thing here that Leonard Bernstein did in West Side Story or Andrew Lloyd Webber did in Jesus Christ Superstar -- using musical breakthroughs to tell a story in ways that were not otherwise possible.  He has literally expanded the boundaries of the Broadway show, and new artists will spend decades exploring the new ground he has opened.

But lots of bad shows are based on really good ideas.  Fortunately, Miranda had both the talent and determination to bring this idea to fruition.  The soundtrack for Hamilton contains no less than 46 different tracks, each of which is vivid, original, and clever.  Many of the songs use hip-hop in one form or another, but Miranda shows himself a master of many types of music.  Hamilton's rich wife and her glamorous sisters are introduced in a number that sounds like a hit by Destiny's Child.  King George III comments sardonically on the action in a number -- "You'll Be Back" -- that sounds like 1960's British pop.  In fact, almost every branch of American music shows up at one point or another -- during the Battle of Yorktown, for example, one can hear traditional fiddle music being played over a beat box.  Miranda's lyrics include references to rap songs, The Pirates of Penzance, and South Pacific.

As you can imagine, it is a very dense show, and obsessive fans will most enjoy the glorious soundtrack recording.  Miranda grew up listening to soundtracks himself, and Hamilton is perfect for the young fan (or even the middle-aged fan) who wants to listen to the songs over and over, piecing together the complicated plot and noting how the happier songs in the beginning of the show lay the groundwork for the darker developments of the second act.  (Aaron Burr, who narrates the show, tells us in the opening number that he will kill Hamilton, and everything -- both musically and lyrically -- leads up to that fatal showdown.)

But Miranda is not just a fan -- he's a performer.  So Hamilton is truly best appreciated on stage, where you can see the cast tear through song after song for almost three hours.  There is no overture, no curtain between songs, and no spoken dialogue -- the cast sings and dances through one number after another with no break other than intermission.  By the time I got there, Miranda and everyone else in the cast were already famous as being part of a legendary Broadway show.  (The review in the New York Times started off by saying, "Yes, it's really that good.")  And yet they sang, acted, and danced with incredible fervor, as if they were doing the show for the first time.  In many ways, I was reminded of those legendary concerts Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band used to do back in the day.  You knew you were seeing something extraordinary, and you wondered that they could do this sort of thing night after night.

There's a lot more to be said about Hamilton.  It has helped me to understand why folks in Kentucky loved Thomas Jefferson so much, why John Adams isn't as big a deal as David McCullough would have you believe, and why George Washington is the greatest President America will ever have.  However, perhaps the most important thing to take away is that almost nothing is never truly lost.  Growing up in the 1980's, perhaps nothing seemed less relevant to modern American life than the Broadway theater.  Even today, it can often seen like an old tradition kept up by the locals to take money from tourists.  But in the hands of a master, it can still do things that almost no other art form can do.  And my guess is that Hamilton will inspire many masters to come.


  1. The English teachers at Heath in the early 1980s were terrific. I'm sure they were terrific before then and after then, but I know they were terrific then.

  2. I read a review today that this musical is "highly overrated."