When the musical In the Heights opened in March 2008 it was a fresh breeze across the Broadway landscape. Composer (and star) Lin-Manuel Miranda brought an urban grittiness and a mixture of rap and traditionally-styled Broadway songs to the stage. His new production, Hamilton, again fuses rap, hip-hop, and Broadway melodies into the best new musical to open in New York this year.
The show is based on the life of one of the founding fathers, Alexander Hamilton. From my high school American history class, many years ago, I can only remember this historical figure as being the first Secretary of the United States Treasury and his duel with longtime nemesis, Aaron Burr. That’s it. In Hamilton, Miranda, who is also the book writer, presents a more vivid picture of this arrogant, brash, patriotic, and talented man. He traces his life from the time he arrives in this country as a young immigrant to his appointment as George Washington’s senior aide during the Revolutionary War, his marriage, law practice in New York City, the many treatises he penned including the majority of The Federalist Papers, his joustings with Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, and his untimely end.
It may sound like a dull subject for a musical, but Miranda brings his subject matter alive, supported by a multi-ethnic cast that don’t just present the material, but rather pounce on it. The first act is more impelling and dynamic then act two because Hamilton’s life was more colorful and dramatic, as a theatrical presentation. The second half of the musical, while gripping and full of backroom deals and politics, is less rousing as it revolves around the machinations of a new nation coming to grips with how to govern itself.
The spirited group of actors bring the material to vigorous life. This isn’t the staid group of older white males from 1776. The performers are young, hip, and full of intensity. The cast is led by Miranda’s splendid, multi-layered portrayal of Alexander Hamilton. The forefather was full of zeal, brimming with insolence and indignation, but also a cerebral and impassioned man. Miranda brings all these attributes to life. Other notables include Daveed Diggs as a hang loose, chilled out Thomas Jefferson looking to find his groove; Leslie Odom, Jr. as the indecisive and and disdained Aaron Burr; and Jonathan Groff as a hilarious, though perceptive King George.
Lin-Manuel Miranda’s score fuses current musical trends with conventional Broadway melodies. They meld beautifully into an energetic and electrifying whole that both Broadway purists and younger audiences can embrace.
The choreography by Andy Blankenbuehler, a frequent collaborator with Miranda, brings the urgency of a blossoming nation to the fore. His dance arrangements and movements for the actors, as he did in In the Heights, flow from the action and situations on stage as opposed to developing inorganically.
Thomas Kail’s direction syncs wonderfully with Blankenbuehler’s choreography. He has a good feel for the material whether it is the combative events portrayed in the show or the more poignant moments surrounding the statesman. Even with minimal props and scenery Kail creates a world we want to know more about.
Hamilton, a sold-out hit downtown at the Public Theater, moving to Broadway in July 2015.