This is above all an excitingly ambitious musical, all the more exciting because it sets its sights very high and more often than not hits its mark. It’s a hip-hop-centric evocation of Alexander Hamilton, who was chief wartime staff aide to George Washington, an influential promoter of the U.S. Constitution (in his Federalist Papers), founder of the nation’s financial system, and the founder of the Federalist Party, the world’s first voter-based political party.
Lin-Manuel Miranda’s lyrics (those I could make out – more on that shortly) are stunningly smart, funny and well-crafted, and as a composer he has a terrific ear for melody, as well as rhythmic and harmonic “hooks.” As contemporary as the show’s sound might be, Miranda is old-school where overall structure is concerned, which is exactly what allows him to be so experimental with the details.
Thomas Kail’s sharp-eyed direction is so seamlessly interwoven with Andy Blankenbuehler’s complex, kinetic choreography, that it is sometimes hard to know where one begins and the other ends. Generally speaking, I can say that Hamilton truly deserves the critical praise it has received, moreso than say, Matilda.
But it’s not perfect. Miranda lyrics are pretty dazzling, but due to a combination of factors – inelegant sound design moments, occasional under-enuciation on the part of the otherwise marvelous cast, and a love of speed – many of them are difficult to comprehend. Miranda’s craft is developed enough that anything truly key is heard clearly and repeated. Still, it’s a disservice to those great lyrics to let so many go unheard.
Also, while Hamilton‘s racial politics are smart, virtuous, evolved and nuanced, its sexual politics are vague and maddeningly inconsistent. They are at their best in the number “Satisfied” in which Angelica Schuyler (Renée Elise Goldsberry) coolly and intelligently lays out the options available to a woman in late 18th Century America. However, Hamilton follows the hip-hop playbook in that for the most part masculine men rap and pretty women sing.
Worse, Hamilton’s enemies, be they George III or Thomas Jefferson, are played as effeminate sops and fops. It’s not as bad in that regard as Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson (which pissed me off so much I couldn’t write a review). Also, this tendency is ameliorated by the performers choosing powerful androgynous pop culture figures as their models – Jonathan Groff’s George III has the intensity and danger of Ziggy Stardust, and Daveed Diggs’s Jefferson is like a fleet-footed and sharp-tongued Prince.
These problems are not enough, though, to derail this musical theatre juggernaut. Its virtues handily outweigh its flaws, so much so that I highly recommend you see it.
For tickets, click here.
To learn about Jonathan Warman’s directing work, see jonathanwarman.com.