While it does have a few minor issues, there is no denying Hamilton has earned the praise as one of the most honoured musicals in history.
David Mirvish/Hamilton, book, music and lyrics by Lin-Manuel Miranda, choreography by Andy Blankenbuehler, directed by Thomas Kail, Ed Mirvish Theatre, Feb. 11 to May 17. Tickets available at mirvish.com.
The Broadway musical Hamilton has arrived in town on a tsunami of hype. The show was nominated for sixteen Tony awards, winning eleven, not to mention nailing the nine other off-Broadway and Broadway best musical awards on offer, plus the 2016 Pulitzer Prize for drama, as well as a Grammy and a host of other music awards for the original cast album. Across the pond, Hamilton was nominated for thirteen Olivier Awards, winning seven, along with the London Critics’ Circle Theatre Award for best musical. In short, Hamilton is one of the most honoured musicals in history, so expectations were high.
Does the show live up to the avalanche of buzz? My answer is a qualified yes. While I do have a problem with some aspects of the production itself, there is no denying that Lin-Manuel Miranda, who wrote the book, music and lyrics, is an awesome talent and a wordsmith non-pareil. While Hamilton is not wholly a hip hop musical, Miranda is undoubtedly in league with the most famous rappers out there in terms of clever and provocative rhymes. His inventive score also includes other features of pop culture, including R&B and soul, as well as more conventional Broadway show tunes. While there are many solos and small ensembles, Miranda also makes a lot of use of the chorus as back-up singers, which gives the score a particular richness of presentation. The musical is through-composed, so, in reality, it can be viewed as a pop opera extraordinaire.
What is particularly fascinating about Hamilton is that it uses the hip hop idiom of today to tell a story of the past. Miranda was inspired by the 2004 book Alexander Hamilton by acclaimed American biographer Ron Chernow. Of Puerto Rican descent himself, Miranda was impressed by the fact that Hamilton (1855-1804), one of the founding fathers of the new American republic, was an orphaned immigrant from the Caribbean island of Nevis who became George Washington’s right-hand man during the Revolutionary War, and later, Secretary of the Treasury. The immigrant experience is a big theme in the show.
Miranda’s book tells the mostly factual account of both Hamilton’s professional and personal life in colloquial terms. As a result, the Washington, Jefferson, Madison and Hamilton of dry, factual history are rendered into modern dudes who could be walking the streets of New York City today. In terms of casting, Miranda has insisted that the real-life historical figures all be played by non-white actors, be they Black, Hispanic or Asian, so that these communities can feel ownership with American history. It is an idea that has worked brilliantly because marginalized Black and Brown youth, in particular, have felt represented on stage in a show that speaks to them through their own musical language. The wildly popular cast album has been embraced not as Broadway, but as rap.
My main problem with the show is that it is over-choreographed. There is a large ensemble, and they are forever cluttering up the stage performing movement that is often obscure and seemingly unrelated to the main action. Choreographer Andy Blankenbuehler has been showered with praise, but I wanted the big hook they had in vaudeville so I could clear away the dancers. Less is always better than more. This constant busyness is a big distraction.
As for the production itself, it could really have used an editor because it is overlong, and the second act does flag a bit. The first act takes us through the war and independence, while the second focuses on the Federalists led by Hamilton who wanted a strong central government, and their quarrel with the Southerners led by Jefferson, who wanted states rights to be paramount. Nonetheless, that Miranda through his songs does make this history interesting is an absolute marvel. On the personal level, there are moments in Hamilton that are very moving. Miranda is capable of evoking raw emotion when needed.
With so much rap to negotiate, you need singing actors who can enunciate because the words and the rhymes are so important. Joseph Morales does capture Alexander Hamilton’s opinionated personality and quick temper with excellent diction, although at times, his voice is a bit low. Other standouts whose every word can be heard are Marcus Choi as a dignified George Washington and Jared Dixon as an enigmatic Aaron Burr, whom Miranda has elevated to Hamilton’s chief nemesis. Burr is also the main narrator. Stephanie Jae Park as Hamilton’s wife Eliza has a lovely voice that can belt out the high notes, but she loses words. The French accent of Warren Egypt Franklin as Lafayette is impenetrable, but he is better as Jefferson. Incidentally, Jefferson loyalists are not happy with the way Miranda has portrayed Jefferson as a whiny fop, but he is amusing. While the entire cast can both sing tunes and sing/speak rap, most of the cast does have diction problems. My favourite character, who sings with absolute clarity, is Neil Haskell as King George III, no less, who provides comic relief, and who has three terrifically clever songs.
From a visual aspect, David Korins’ set of exposed brick and timber with rotating stage does evoke an earlier century, as do Paul Tazewell’s costumes. Tazewell’s basic garb is a vest and breeches for both men and women, which means a greatcoat or gown can be easily and quickly thrown on to create character. Howell Binkley’s impressive state of the art lighting provides a rock show element that admirably suits the modern sensibility of the show. Director Thomas Kail has gone for the jugular in terms of stage action, making for a very in-your-face production.
All in all, Hamilton is a remarkable achievement in terms of language, music and intent. The energy literally flies off the stage, fired up by the relentless hip hop beat of the score. Even when the action slows down, the restless, edgy sensibility is still there. To call the production ambitious is an understatement, and clearly, Miranda has introduced new elements into the Broadway musical. Can copycats be far behind?