The first thing you need to know about Hamilton, Lin-Manuel Miranda’s new Broadway musical about the Founding Father, is that it’s going to be huge. The Book of Mormon or The Lion King huge: a full-blown, long-running, standing-room-only Broadway smash. Rarely have the stars aligned so perfectly for such an original, genre-busting show. Reviews for its off-Broadway run last winter, at the downtown Public Theater, were ecstatic. Transferring to Broadway, it racked up a record-breaking advance sale of $32 million even before its Aug. 6 opening.
Hamilton appeals to all the right constituencies, offering an irreverent but respectful take on the American Revolution; a hip-hop score supplemented by old-fashioned Broadway pizzazz; a multiethnic cast; and a hero who was born out of wedlock in the West Indies, immigrated to New York (and was, I assume, a good person) and became a star among the aristocrats plotting the birth of a new nation. If you haven’t got your tickets by the end of this paragraph, it’s probably too late.
The second thing to know about Hamilton is that it’s real history. Miranda–who wrote the book, lyrics and score and who also stars as Hamilton–based his show on Ron Chernow’s 2004 biography, Alexander Hamilton, and he jams as much of the 800-page tome as he can into 2 hr. 45 min. of hip-hop storytelling. It’s all here: Hamilton’s murky parentage on the island of Nevis; his apprenticeship as General George Washington’s aide-de-camp; his marriage to the well-connected Eliza Schuyler; his role in winning support for the new U.S. Constitution; his stint as Washington’s first Secretary of the Treasury and success in getting the new nation’s financial house in order; the shifting political alliances and intrigues that enlivened the Republic’s first years; and finally (inevitably) the fatal duel with Aaron Burr, his onetime friend and political rival.
The triumph of Hamilton is that it treats all this seriously, even as it updates Revolutionary-era history to the vernacular of today–without the jokey revisionism that marred another recent musical update of American history, Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson. Instead, Miranda (creator of the Tony-winning musical In the Heights) has crafted a full-blooded, evenhanded portrait of the era, reflecting the mix of idealism and self-interest, big ambitions and petty rivalries that animated the founding of a nation. He seems to revel in the complex, even abstruse political battles–like the compromise that Hamilton forged to get Southerners to agree to a measure allowing the federal government to assume all state debts. Nor does he shy from the unsavory side of Hamilton’s character, notably his extramarital affair that led to blackmail and the nation’s first political sex scandal.
As Hamilton, Miranda is dignified and surprisingly restrained–no rock-star preening for this hip-hop master–as he sidles his way into the Revolutionary inner circle with undisguised bravado: “Don’t be shocked when your history book mentions me/I will lay down my life if it sets us free/ Eventually, you’ll see my ascendancy.” Director Thomas Kail’s high-energy production, with its ensemble of punk- and period-clad dancers, keeps even the potentially turgid passages moving along. And though the score is mostly hip-hop, it is relieved by pleasing interludes of R&B; a jazzy, up-tempo showstopper (“The Room Where It Happens”); and a catchy ’60s-pop ditty in which King George III taunts his unruly subjects. Jonathan Groff, as the King, has less fun with the small but showy part than Brian d’Arcy James did off-Broadway. But otherwise, the cast is superb, especially Christopher Jackson as an imposing but very human George Washington (the most convincing Father of Our Country I’ve ever seen onstage) and Leslie Odom Jr. as the brooding Aaron Burr, who serves as the show’s narrator and Hamilton’s Javert-like nemesis.
Is Hamilton a revolutionary musical? I wouldn’t go that far. David Byrne’s Here Lies Love, about the rise and fall of Imelda Marcos, had a cleaner dramatic arc and more staging originality. The sheer narrative density of Hamilton is also something of a handicap; too much of the history is merely told rather than dramatized. (The deadlocked presidential election of 1800 comes to a climax when one character simply announces, “It’s a tie!”)
And does the show really have to be so patronizing to the Founding Fathers who haven’t been lucky enough to get a Broadway musical written about them? Thomas Jefferson (Daveed Diggs) comes across as a scheming dandy–“What’d I Miss?” he sings, returning from Paris after the Revolution. James Madison (Okieriete Onaodowan) is portrayed as some sort of consumptive sphinx. (Yes, Madison had a problem with public speaking, but the man did write the Bill of Rights.) It’s a bit of a wrench to see Hamilton–patron saint of the Republican Party, inventor of the nation’s banking system–turned into a politically correct 21st century hero. To be sure, he was an abolitionist amid a lot of Virginia slaveholders. But he was also (the musical neglects to mention) the Founding Father who wanted the President of the United States to be elected for life.
But enough quibbles. Hamilton is an exciting and venturesome new musical with something to please everybody: rap-music fans, American-history buffs and theater folk looking for signs of new directions for the Broadway musical. You’ll walk out humming the Constitution.
This appears in the August 24, 2015 issue of TIME.
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