All Things Entertaining and Cultural
Sweep on several levels accounts for the achievement and excitement of “Hamilton.” It’s no wonder it’s earned both critical acclaim and popular support since the Lin-Manuel Miranda burst of the theatrical scene in 2015.
Miranda manages to ace a feat that has daunted and defeated many. He has taken a person from history, to my mind the second most important figure in all of American history from the pre-Columbian to the present, and depicted his significance in a way that holds interest and delves into the intricacies, and even the contradictions, of that figure while also capturing the extraordinary time, situation, and milieu in which he lived.
“Hamilton” is remarkable because it offers a cogent, salient lesson in America history while acquainting its audience, not only with an exceptional individual but with the other uncommonly great people who co-existed with him and, more importantly, the myriad issues, complexities, and warring philosophies that forged a new nation, conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all were created equal, from a brash declaration of independence to workable, functioning governmental entity that has survived 245 years and despite the partisan fracases of today, should the test of time to last another 245 years and more.
More amazingly, Miranda, writing music and lyrics, realizes this comprehensive seminar in the nascent United States with nerve and verve that keeps the drama inherent within his rap libretto immediate and captivating. “Hamilton” never flags or fails to demand complete attention and interest. It takes the epic and makes it accessible, even to people who find history dry and would drive splints through their eyes before they would pick up a history book.
Miranda, famously inspired by the magnificent 2004 Ron Chernow biography, “Alexander Hamilton,” not only makes Hamilton a living, breathing, palpable figure, much more thoroughly draw than others in his musical, but makes the time in which he lived, the challenges he faced, his personality traits, and the legacy he leaves thrilling to behold and memorable beyond the dusty pedantry of a 12th grade classroom.
Miranda employs sweep. Like the man he constantly says behaves as if he’s running out of time, Miranda has his score jump out of the gate with non-stop energy and movement. The miracle is he keeps everything clear and in perspective while racing through the first four fifths of his life in breakneck fashion.
It doesn’t seem breakneck. It takes almost two-and-a-half hours of stage time to unfold, but one of Miranda’s flights of genius is to cover so much ground so snappily, giving Alexander Hamilton’s hurry, industry, and conflicts a whirlwind pace accurate to the man’s life, then slowing down for an equally gripping last 40 minutes that allows more pathos and concern to enter, as Hamilton copes with sideline retirement, the death of his son in a duel that foreshadows his fatal encounter with Aaron Burr, and his eventual showdown with Burr.
Miranda’s pacing shows a brilliance for structure and a sure dramatic sense of when to rush and when to ease proceedings from maximum communication and enjoyment. Neither Hamilton, his contemporaries, nor the “Hamilton” audience lose a beat while Miranda keeps that beat rapid during Hamilton’s breathless climb to prominence and influence. Genuine artistry in storytelling comes in later scenes in which Hamilton, his wife, Eliza, and others are depicted dealing with repercussions from brisker times as well as their own more settled maturity.
Sweep is not the province of Miranda alone. At least three others share in “Hamilton’s” soaring stage presence. First among them is director Thomas Kail, who keeps “Hamilton” in constant motion, employing concentric circle and starburst patterns that create both intensity and a frame for whatever the singer of the moment is presenting. Hamilton’s energy is mirrored in the vigor and vitality of the “Hamilton” cast who dash around and radiate from the focal performer in a way that simultaneously animates the setting while commenting on it.
The “Hamilton” chorus gets a workout that contributes zest and musters zeal in appropriate measures. Their precision and establishment of a presence that is unobtrusive yet gratefully noticeable is a tribute to both Kail and choreographer Andy Blankenbuehler.
The third integral contributor is orchestrator and music supervisor Alex Lacamoire whose creative management of Miranda’s score keeps “Hamilton” what I can only call musically hormonal and shows its mettle in that last quarter when Miranda and Lacamoire scale back to half to concentrate more closely on story and character dynamics than in the justifiably tumultuous first-act and early second-act sequences.
The sweep makes any venue, in this case Philadelphia’s already atmospheric Academy of Music, spring alive with word, song, light, and vivacity that all serves history in a way it has never been served before.
While I believe other contemporary musicals just as “Ragtime,” “Light in the Piazza,” “Grey Gardens,” and “Spring Awakening” are better musicals than “Hamilton,” nothing preceding Miranda’s opus can compare to it for scope, daring, and success in molding the multi-faceted into a cunningly coherent, comprehensible, and celebratory occasion of theater. Other musicals may move or enlighten me more, but none impresses me as much with the way it tackles the chosen material at hand and brings in to shrewd, vibrant, ineluctable life.
As mentioned in a previous NealsPaper article, I have been grateful to Lin-Manuel Miranda for bringing Hamilton, my favorite founding father after George Washington, to a favorable light. For many years, Hamilton, as the architect of American capitalism, finance, and free market trade, was criticized and even vilified for his decisions about American economics and policy, decisions, as seen in “Hamilton” that Washington endorsed over the objections of Thomas Jefferson and James Madison (both of whom I admire but were better for the early 19th century while Washington and Hamilton insured America’s solvency and preservation by their sage reasoning in the last decade of the 18th).
My delight in Miranda’s undertaking increased as I heard his score and realized he was being fair and favorable towards Hamilton, even as he chronicled his fault, foibles, and failures.
“Hamilton” is not a great theater piece, but it is admirable as a presentation of history.
Of course, Miranda fudges, adapts, and takes theatrical license here and there, for instance in the way the Marquis de Lafayette is introduced and simplifying some of Aaron Burr’s schemes (the worst of which takes place after he, the sitting Vice President of the United States, kills Hamilton in that 1804 duel). For the most part, Miranda is true to Hamilton, history, and Chernow, among the best writers of history in our day. (Others are Alan Taylor, Joseph Ellis, David McCullough, H.B. Brands,Barbara Tuchman, Margaret MacMillan, and Gordon S. Wood.)
One can see why Miranda is drawn to Hamilton. The subject I’d like to explore with him is how he conceived such an accurate and extraordinary musical as he read Chernow.
Hamilton is unique among founding fathers. He was not born in the continental United States. He was born in the West Indies, St. Kitts and Nevis being the more important places in his early life. He was not from a wealthy family. He was not quite an orphan but on his own from the early teens because the illness and eventual death of his mother and absence of his father. Rather than having the headstart others enjoyed, Hamilton was lucky his brains, industry, and knack for organization were noticed while he was a teen. He came to the United States at age 17, just as the revolution was fomenting in New York, Massachusetts, and Virginia and soon to be declared in Pennsylvania.
Miranda makes many references to Hamilton being an immigrant. A line that never fails to get enthusiastic applause comes when Hamilton and Lafayette are exulting over the Revolution’s decisive victory at Yorktown, and they exclaim, “It takes an immigrant to get the job done.”
Miranda, using wordplay as well and scene structure makes leitmotifs of the dramatic, ironic, and foreshadowing repetition of Hamilton saying “I’m not going to waste my shot” and multiple characters’ observation that makes them question why Hamilton writes as if he’s “running out of time,” a posthumously apt question for a man who died at age 47 or 49 depending on the disputed birth year who choose for his nativity.
Another effective leitmotif is the way Kail has Hamilton change coats to indicate differences in wealth, station, rank, or position. Those circles I mentioned often contain someone holding Hamilton’s next coat, which indicates his constant advancement. In later scenes, he’s often seen without a coat, signifying his rural exile (to what is now Harlem) and professional decline.
Miranda has several complex personalities to depict as he chronicles Hamilton. Thomas Jefferson and Aaron Burr, in particular, are as multi-faceted as Hamilton. I call Jefferson “the old woman of the Revolution,” which I mean with as many measures of respect as I do contempt. (It would be impossible not to acknowledge the greatness, importance, and genius of Thomas Jefferson, but there’s also a catty, stubborn, superior, and doctrinaire side that, to me, is more mitigating than any faults in Hamilton.)
Burr is the villain of Hamilton’s personal story and an enigma, which is the right stance, in Miranda’s musical. Miranda emphasizes the themes that Burr stands for nothing beyond what he believes might make him popular enough to earn votes — He ties Jefferson for the Electoral College tally in the 1800 election. — and Hamilton finds him untrustworthy and dangerous for his ability to commit (which is why Hamilton backs his nemesis, Jefferson, in the 1800 vote over Burr.)
Miranda is not as generous to ancillary characters as he is to Hamilton. They, even Burr, as sketched out and often play utilitarian roles rather than revealing their full selves.
But then the show is called “Hamilton.” Let someone read Chernow on Washington, Ellis and Taylor on Jefferson, and Isenberg or Vidal on Burr if there’s more to say.
In essence, Miranda got all of the supporting players right from Alexander Hamilton’s point of view. Washington is depicted of a person of great distinction who is aware of his rank and influence and who takes a paternal stance towards Hamilton and the American nation he is charged with structuring. One of the finer points in “Hamilton” is the way Washington recognizes and act on the difference between Hamilton and Burr while choosing the leaders he wants for his army and government,
Thomas Jefferson is poised to be Hamilton’s political enemy, diametrically opposed to anything Hamilton proffers and unwilling to bend on any issue. Unless, of course, it accrues to his favor or suits a pet desire, such as conceding a legislative boondoggle to Hamilton so he could secure land adjacent to Virginia for the U.S. capital, an event that sets up the “Hamilton” number that has added a new phrase to the American lexicon, “in the room.”
Audiences about to attend Hamilton are given to texting friends, “I will soon be ‘in the room.” Former White House aide John Bolton used the phrase for the title of his book about his tenure in the Donald Trump administration.
Miranda touches on the depth of Aaron Burr without really capturing it. We see the traits that both attract and repel Hamilton, just as we see the constant judgment ranging from amusement to admiration then contempt with which Burr regards Hamilton.
In early scenes, Burr is the raissonneur to Hamilton’s impetuous side. He tries to calm the newcomer to New York and the bar by telling him to talk less and smile more. In other words, to hide any intelligence, strategy, or disdain he may be feeling in favor of a quieter, more measured, more surprising, and more lethal approach. Burr conspires with Hamilton on several important matters before a political rift and Burr’s wishy-washiness makes Hamilton wary of one who he thought of on one level as a mentor.
The dynamic between Hamilton and Burr could be clearer. It is obvious enough for a musical that has no time to waste on every detail, but sometimes it seems that knowing Burr is Hamilton’s killer informs scenes more than anything Burr is saying or doing.
Miranda is deft at including Hamilton’s personal life into his opus. The Schuyler sisters, one of whom Hamilton marries, Eliza, and with one of whom he enjoys an intense and significant friendship, Angelica, along with Maria Reynolds, who causes his political downfall in a way that presages power tumbles of today (pun labored but intended), are all crucial parts of Hamilton’s story. Miranda adds texture, creates mood changes, and allows himself lighter moments (and the actor playing Hamilton, originally Miranda, a rest) by strategically interlacing romantic, domestic, and family conflict scenes among the historical sequences.
The inclusion of the key historical figures, the Schuyler woman, and Reynolds makes Miranda’s musical more satisfyingly and dramatically complete. It allows us to see more facets of Hamilton and understand who he is away from the frays in Philadelphia and New York, the capital cities of his time.
The look at Hamilton’s family includes scenes that become increasing touching with older son, Philip, a young man with both sensitivity and potential, who is trained by Eliza Hamilton to be a scholarly gentleman but who retains the fire of his father.
About the only gaffe Miranda makes in setting historical figures on stage is with Great Britain’s king, George III, one of the more maligned figures in history, American and British.
Entertaining and funny though he is with his supercilious airs and comic persona, George III comes off like a cartoon rather than a person who may have bungled with relationship with his American colony but who boasts many achievements in sponsoring and promoting British science and arts and, perhaps, should take a more serious stance in regarding his colonies.
I understand comic relief, and on that count, Miranda did a fantastic job in creating a diverting, snobbish, disrespectful loon who steals the show with every appearance. The king’s wordless refrain, da-da-da-da-DAH- da, etc., may be the most memorable and immediately hummable music from Miranda’s vocal score.
“Hamilton” exhilarates by taking so much history, personal drama, intrigue, and achievement and not exactly compacting it but making it flow trippingly, on the tongue and in Kail’s perpetual staging, so it seems to fly by while leaving all of its salient and important information behind.
Miranda may have done more for history that Chernow and all the favorites I cite earlier.
The touring production at Philadelphia’s Academy of Music does laudable justice to all Miranda, Kail, Blankenbuehler, and Lacamoire wrought, Miranda being the primary hero.
Intelligence, clarity, and glorious motion abound on the Academy stage. The building is filled with “Hamilton” in rap and choreographic grandeur.
The current production marks “Hamilton’s second appearance in Philadelphia, and it outshines the excellent 2019 staging, mostly because of the searing performances of Pierre Jean Gonzalez as Hamilton, Stephanie Jae Park as Eliza, Warren Egypt Franklin as Jefferson and Lafayette, Elijah Malcolm as Philip Hamilton, and Neil Haskell as King George.
Pierre Jean Gonzalez is commanding in the title role, vocally and physically establishing Alexander Hamilton as a force, to savor and love as well as to reckon with.
Gonzalez is blessed with an actor’s subtlety that informs scenes, passages, and sequences that move rapidly and rarely allow time for the texture and definition he gives them.
He is a master at making Miranda’s rapid rap immediately understandable and prominent. There’s no getting lost in the pace because Gonzalez has the diction and crispness to bring all he does and say home with passion, grit, and plain old intelligence.
Gonzalez helps turn the final minutes of “Hamilton” into the tragedy it should be. He, with Park, makes the last few sequences moving beyond their writing or direction. You, the audience, are in the room with Alexander and Eliza, palpably and inescapably. “Hamilton” usually elicits more admiration than emotion. Gonzalez and Park change that. Their chemistry, even when Eliza is cold towards Hamilton, adds to the inherent drama of a man trying to find his place but meeting his demise first.
From her first entrance, Stephanie Jae Park, rivets attention. Her grace and poise do the job first. Her witty reading seal her performance as a special one.
Park endows Eliza with range and depth. She never allows Eliza to be a passing figure in Hamilton’s life or Miranda’s musical. Her scenes following Hamilton’s admission of adultery, at her son’s deathbed, with Hamilton in retirement, and at Hamilton’s death are full of wisdom and emotion. Park elevates Eliza to a full partner with Hamilton. She also enlivens and deepens any scene in which she appears.
Jared Dixon captures the slyness and easy sophistication of Burr, always the classiest person in a room though miffed that Hamilton is the smartest.
Dixon lets you see Burr’s artistry and sleight of hand as someone who wants to be in every room but outsmarts his likelihood to be invited.
Though Dixon is a fine Burr, he doesn’t stand up as an adversary or rival to Hamilton as much as Franklin’s Jefferson does. He doesn’t dominate or fix your gaze as much as Gonzalez, Park, Franklin, or Marcus Choi’s George Washington.
Choi is a strict Washington who convey the man’s leadership, discipline, and rectitude.
Washington is a father figure to Hamilton, and Choi is clever at being both an encourager and advancer of Hamilton’s ambitions and a disciplinarian to a subordinate who crosses too many lines and goes too far.
Warren Egypt Franklin is an entertaining Jefferson, concentrating on the backbiting, gossipy, and competitive nature of the man, which is fitting in Miranda’s context although, on the whole, Jefferson is so much more. Neil Haskell is properly and entertainingly bombastic as George III. Ta’Rea Campbell illustrates why people, and men in particular, are captivated by Angelica Schuyler. Paige Smallwood shows the proper level of vixen as Maria Reynolds and the right amount of shyness as Peggy Schuyler. Nick Sanchez makes the most of his scenes as the scheming James Reynolds. The “Hamilton” chorus is uniformly good, but features one dancer who stands out and grabs focus, not in an intentional way, but because his movements and expressions are always so apt. This is Trevor Miles, who also does well as Philip Schuyler’s killer, George Eacker.
“Hamilton’s” artistic excellence includes the flexible and creative costumes of Paul Tazewell, who has his chorus in foundation garments that make it easy for them to slip on the right chemise, coat, or gown to dress a scene, the resourceful set of David Korins that allows for speedy traffic, Blankenbuehler’s darts and whirlpools, and some handsome rooms, the sound design of Nevin Steinberg that gratefully stays at a level that keeps Miranda’s lyrics audible and easy to understand, and the exquisitely evocative, revealing, and mood-creating lighting of the late Howell Binkley, to whom the “Hamilton” company dedicate this superb production.
Much has been made of Miranda and Kail’s color-blind casting of “Hamilton.” It makes no difference to the show, which may be the point and proof of the point. I also like that the diverse actors on stage represent the United States Hamilton sought to create.
“Hamilton” runs through Sunday, November 28 at the Academy of Music, Broad and Locust Streets, Philadelphia, part of the Kimmel Cultural Campus. Showtimes are 7:30 p.m. Tuesday through Thursday, 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, 2 p.m. Saturday, and 1 and 7 p.m. Sunday. There is no performance scheduled for Thanksgiving, Thursday, November 25. Tickets range from $29 to $299 and can be obtained by visiting www.kimmelcenter.org or by calling 215-893-1999.