In May of 2009, actor, composer and playwright, Lin-Manuel Miranda, performed for US President Obama and his wife at the White House Evening of Poetry, Music and the Spoken Word. Introducing his set, Miranda told the audience he would perform a piece from an album he was in the process of composing. He described it as a hip/hop concept album centred on the country’s first Treasury Secretary, Alexander Hamilton.
The audible murmurs of audience members followed that announcement. Did Miranda honestly expect such a notion to be embraced by a wide audience? Sure, he’d just composed music and lyrics for the highly acclaimed Tony-winning musical In the heights, but did that mean he could pull off a retelling of the life story of one of the nation’s founding fathers via a score comprised entirely of music of a genre seemingly so removed from eighteenth century America?
In July of this year, Miranda had his second audience with the president. This time, it was the president and 1,300 other ticketholders at New York City’s Richard Rodgers Theatre, watching Miranda’s vision come to life on stage in truly sensational fashion.
Following a spectacularly successful off-Broadway run, Hamilton moved swiftly to Broadway and is right now the hottest ticket in New York City. Predictions that it would become the Great White Way’s next Book of Mormon were perhaps conservative. Before the doors of the Richard Rodgers even opened for its first Broadway preview, Hamilton had already racked up over US$30 million (AUS $40.9 million) in advance sales, and subsequent ticket releases have seen even top-priced premium seats snapped up at an increasingly rapid pace. Those on tighter budgets can fortunately try their luck with the nightly ticket lottery, where front row seats are raffled off at $10 a piece, but be warned – on most evenings, crowds of up to 700 people are vying for 20-odd seats.
And it’s not just the public that’s become enamoured with Hamilton. It’s off-Broadway production has earned well over 20 critical accolades already, including Drama Desk awards, New York Drama Critics’ Circle awards and an Obie award. It should come as no surprise that many expect Hamilton to wipe the floor with its competition at the 2016 Tony Awards.
So is it really as good as the hype would lead you to believe? I was fortunate to have had the opportunity to attend a performance of Hamilton early in September. Having arrived in town at the height of Hamilton fever and having paid top price for a premium orchestra seat, my expectations for Miranda’s latest musical were sky high. I was more than a little concerned I had set myself up for disappointment. I’m not a hip/hop fan, so would I be able to engage with the score? I’m not an American, so am I guilty of buying into hype generated by locals, who have simply been overcome with a sense of patriotism at a work paying homage to their home nation’s foundations?
I left the theatre that night floored by the experience. Hamilton was every bit the masterpiece the hype had had me believe. It left me unable to pick holes in any aspect of the production. I felt I’d had an experience akin to the first audiences to attend Les Miserables’ 1985 debut on the West End, and those who, in 2011, were among the first to be greeted by Elder Price and the ‘life-changing’ book he carried. This was really something else.
There’s no single element of Hamilton that makes it such a magnificent work. It’s the total coherence of every element of the production. It’s something that packs a punch again and again for almost three hours – a high-impact, sensory overload from start-to-finish.
The story of Hamilton, from his humble beginnings to his pivotal role in assisting George Washington win the 1776 war of independence, to his legal career and his time in the first US cabinet, is utterly compelling. Never is a period or event of his life given an extra second of attention than is warranted. Not only a brilliant lyricist and composer, Miranda is also completely convincing as the title character. He’s well supported by Christopher Jackson as Washington, Daveed Diggs who takes on dual duties as author of the declaration of independence, Thomas Jefferson, and French aristocrat and American ally, Lafayette. And then there’s Leslie Odom Jr as Aaron Burr, a lawyer and politician who had a long-time somewhat adversarial relationship with Hamilton. Odom Jr brings enormous energy to his characterisation of Burr, and generates a palpable tension with Hamilton, which helps the story to arrive naturally at its ultimate, tragic conclusion.
There’s no weak link in this cast. Phillipa Soo plays an incredibly sympathetic Elizabeth Schuyler (Hamilton’s wife) and Reneé Elise Goldsberry plays her sister Angelica, who has her own close bond with Hamilton. There’s even some comic relief provided by Jonathan Groff as King George. His moments on stage are comparatively fleeting, but his is certainly a performance you’ll recall well after leaving the theatre.
Musically, the show is jam-packed with highlights, but ‘My shot’, ‘Satisfied’ and ‘The room where it happens’ would certainly be among the strongest cuts. All of the music is bought to life by an excellent orchestra who manages to create a soundscape as epic as the story itself. And if you thought it would be impossible to have rap lyrics advance a narrative cogently, you’d be wrong!
On the technical side, there’s similarly nothing lacking. The set is relatively simple, but the space well utilised, and a turntable device is effectively incorporated into the stage design. And I think it’s safe to say choreographer Andy Blankenbuehler will have another Tony to add to his collection come June of next year.
Hamilton is a work that is genuinely exciting. It is music theatre at its very best and innovative. It succeeds in packing a punch and leaving a lasting impact like the best of the more traditional works, but it’s equally successful in moving the form forward by using a genre of music more conservative theatrical composers would shun. It takes the story of America’s beginnings and makes it an intriguing learning experience for a wider range of generation Y’ers. And like 2015 Tony-winning best musical, Fun Home, it demonstrates how fresh and thought-provoking modern music theatre can be when the creative forces aren’t afraid to make bold choices and step away from the rules written by their predecessors.
If you’re travelling to New York anytime soon, try to get yourself in the room where it happens!