It was a beautiful Labor Day weekend in New York. Central Park, the 9/11 Memorial, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art beckoned. And, thanks to an enterprising daughter, my wife and I were able to score tickets for the new Broadway musical production, Hamilton, which was sold out over the entire three-day holiday.
One might hesitate to spend a king’s ransom on tickets to a show about one of America’s Founding Fathers told in rap, hip-hop, R&B and a few big production numbers. But one should not, must not hesitate to do so. It is no accident that both the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal went gaga over Hamilton. And Peggy Noonan could hardly contain herself, calling it a “masterpiece.”
The nearly three hours, with intermission, we spent watching this production was one of the most entertaining experiences we could recall. There is song, dance, tragedy, triumph, and a pretty accurate portrayal of an amazing human being, Alexander Hamilton, who was born out of wedlock on the island of Nevis in the West Indies, orphaned, immigrated to the American colonies, served under George Washington in the Revolution, and became one of what historian Joseph J. Ellis called the “the quartet” that actually created the United States of America and its Constitution, the “second” American Revolution according to Ellis.
Hamilton was also the primary contributor to The Federalist Papers, the nation’s first Secretary of the Treasury, establishing its financial system, and a member in good standing of “The New York Society for the Manumission of Slaves and the Protection of such of them as had been or wanted to be Liberated” (1785). Of course, there was scandal and the tragic death of both Hamilton and his son in their respective duels, the former at the hand of Aaron Burr, none of which are neglected in the show.
But the driving themes of Hamilton are red-white-and-blue values of freedom and opportunity. As Hamilton and the company exclaim, “Raise a glass to freedom, something they will never take away.” Moreover, this is a play for immigrants and New Yorkers as embodied in the energetic, protean character of its subject who was both. At one point in the play, Lafayette and Hamilton shout, “Immigrants get it done!” which rocked the house.
Lin-Manuel Miranda who created the music and lyrics for this show will be lionized when the Tony awards are presented, I am certain. He is a Puerto Rican by birth, and, as Noonan noted, does not fall prey to political correctness. You will find an anachronism here and there. But, for the most part, the history and biography of Alexander Hamilton, as related by Miranda, are true and accurate. He studied carefully, and was inspired by, Pulitzer Prize winner Ron Chernow’s outstanding biography of the great man.
Miranda’s portrait of Hamilton is not just true but vivid. From Hamilton’s first encounter with Aaron Burr on stage, you apprehend fully his energy, his drive, and his unrelenting ambition but also his idealism focused on creating a new country that is capable of establishing a regime of ordered freedom for all who want to partake. The stories of the earnest, intense Hamilton and the calculating, non-committal Burr are intertwined in a contrapuntal movement throughout the production. Their differences are illustrated in their very first encounter when Burr offers the loquacious Hamilton some free advice: “Talk less. Smile more.”
Miranda usually plays Hamilton on stage; but his understudy, Javier Munoz, did a fantastic job at our performance. Renee Elise Goldsberry, a powerful singer, offered a compelling performance as Hamilton’s sister-in-law, Angelica Schuyler. Daveed Diggs does double duty as both Lafayette and Thomas Jefferson.
Jefferson may never recover from the treatment Miranda and Diggs mete out to him. During the entire controversy and ratification of the Constitution, Jefferson was serving as minister in Paris. David McCullough, in his biography of John Adams, speculates that the Constitution may never have been ratified if Jefferson had been stateside and in a position to galvanize the opposition. When Jefferson first makes his swaggering, grand entrance in Hamilton, he is singing an aptly named number entitled, “What’d I Miss,” and proceeds to make Hamilton’s life miserable throughout Act II.
As uproarious as Jefferson’s character is, Jonathan Groff’s King George cannot be beat for his campy reproach of his rebellious subjects in “You’ll Be Back.”
Hamilton is, quite simply marvelous. Hip music, traditional costumes, high drama, expert staging by director Thomas Kail and choice words and music by Lin-Manuel Miranda make for a great time at the beautiful Richard Rogers Theatre now restored to its full glory.
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