Let me cut to the chase. It does more than live up to the hype. It’s not only a musical of epic proportions, it is important and vital. That which makes greatness. It is song, it is dance, it is prose and it is poetry and it’s history. It is “Camelot” meeting “Ragtime”. What it’s not is genre bending. What it is, is “Hamilton”.
My holiday trip home gave me the privilege of seeing the world’s most talked about musical in Chicago- its first stop of what will be a generation of performances around the United States. I trust I will see my grandchild perform their version in high school some day. In the play’s early scenes in which we meet the trio of women who will help shape this improbable story of a immigrant orphan who masterminded the defeat of the British in the Revolutionary War and then built the modern US banking system, they sing “I don’t want a revolution, I want a revelation.” This masterful 2 plus hours of non stop entertainment delivers both.
First let’s talk about the genre of musicals. Through the years there have been other revelations performed on America’s stages. Social commentaries that ripped at the core of our collective souls like “Rent” and before that “Showboat” and “Hair”. Musical metaphors that questioned our direction as a nation like the racially tinged “Ragtime” and the dustbowl era “Oklahoma.” Musicals with a message. Here “Hamilton” follows the time worn script but with modern sensibilities and a plethora of ridiculous rap rhymes. Much to it’s credit ‘Hamilton” manages to stick to the musical formula of opuses, recurring character themes and minimal spoken dialogue while at the same time stretching the entire concept of musical theater. It’s quite an achievement.
I’d like to say this story has been told a thousand times but it hasn’t and in that lies the genius of playwright Lin-Manuel Miranda. Miranda takes Ron Chernow’s 2004 biography “Alexander Hamilton” and converts it to a cacophony of movement, splendor, grace, wit and stupefying song. Like the customized circular stage, your head spins with the rhymes and dance spectacular that reveals the tale of this tireless foreign born man that forged a new nation alongside those we are much more familiar with like George Washington and Thomas Jefferson. And when I say we meet them in a new light- trust me. Seeing a six foot plus African American (performed by Jonathan Kirkland) play the colossus General, one truly grasps the stature of our first president. Much has been made about the race of the actors and actresses that play each part and that’s where Miranda’s experience informs this musical so well.
It is indeed this familiar story told from a tantalizing modern perspective that enraptures the audience. “The founding father with no father,” Alexander Hamilton, is the story of an orphaned immigrant who didn’t miss his shot to master greatness. His story is one of overcoming challenging odds by writing words that eventually “turned the world upside down.” The birth of our nation is held in the collective American conscious as the greatest secular tale ever told and to see it re-told with song and with such a startling point of view enchants and enthralls. Short of the ten dollar bill, there is little to remind us of Hamilton’s greatness in Washington DC and his tragic death is absolutely unconscionable in today’s sensibilities; however his presence on stage and in song is more than a fitting tribute to his legacy, it is truth well spoken.