My crafty wife scored tickets for us to see “Hamilton” near the end of its L.A. run at the historic (and utterly magnificent) Pantages Theatre on Hollywood and Vine (yes, that famous convergence in the heart of Los Angeles; it’s our coast’s answer to Broadway and 42nd).
Well, last night (Dec. 23rd) we finally saw Lin Manuel Miranda’s (justifiably) ballyhooed musical “Hamilton” and I have to say; this is one of those rare things in entertainment that truly lives up to the hype.
I went into this show knowing only the historical broad strokes (Hamilton’s famous/fatal duel with Aaron Burr, his many mistresses, his roots as an orphaned Caribbean immigrant, etc), and deliberately avoided as much information about the production as I could (eschewing much of the hype machine, as well as the soundtrack) and trying to take it all in as a fresh experience…
It was. Very much so.
“Hamilton” is a vivid, energetic, charismatic hybrid of “1776” and “Jesus Christ Superstar” (with much of the latter’s youthfulness, power and emotion). Using modern language, against-type casting and hip hop musical stylings to make history both relevant, relatable and succinct. The use of early American history as modern allegory is clever (though never belabored) as it tells the tale of the ambitious powerbrokers (the “Founding Fathers”) of a young United States, from 1776 to the hotly contested election of 1800.
The whole production is staged on a deceptively minimalist (though exquisitely lit and textured) late-1700s looking base set with concentric, wooden-floor turntables at its center, as well as highly stylized lighting FX, which gives this potentially staid subject matter much needed vigor, energy and movement. The set is generic and period enough to function as town hall, headquarters offices, private residences and open streets. Gun battles are cleverly staged with a theatrical answer to cinematic ‘bullet-time’ that is both elegant and impactful.
We saw “Hamilton” with the touring cast, who were simply excellent; wringing every last drop of wit, energy and emotion from each lyric. While I can’t compare or contrast this production with the Lin Manuel Miranda-led original Broadway cast (whom I’ve not seen), I can only offer my views on this cast, and I can say there wasn’t a false note or missed beat in the bunch. Particular standouts among this terrific bunch were Michael Luwoye as the titular Alexander Hamilton, Solea Pfeiffer as his long-suffering wife Eliza, Joshua Henry’s Aaron Burr (who is the Judas of this particular “Jesus Christ Superstar”), Isiah Johnson’s George Washington, and Rory O’Malley’s foppish, divinely and sublimely ridiculous King George, who continually trolls the proceedings like an impish Elton John.
Modern dialogue and current relevance
The modern-day hiphop dialogue is a very clever device for allowing modern audiences into the heads of these historical figures, making them contemporary and accessible. Some lines of dialogue really flash out; one in particular (“It takes an immigrant to get things done”) brought spontaneous applause at the Pantages, and resonates strongly in the somewhat regressive current US government.
I also recognized a lot of modern political catchphrases worked into the songs, such as “He’s the kind of guy you’d like to have a beer with”; a phrase I heard quite a bit during the campaigning of George W. Bush.
There is also much made about the sex scandal of Hamilton paying off a mistresses’ abusive, blackmailing husband (which Hamilton later came clean about in the press) that really resonates with both the 1990s-era Bill Clinton sex scandals as well as the current #MeToo movement.
I recently reread the playbook of “Amadeus” by Peter Shaffer, and also watched the director’s cut of his 1984 film adaptation only a couple weeks ago. Shaffer similarly used a more relaxed manner of speech (and even modern slang & cursing) to bring the tale of 18th century musical rivals Antonio Salieri and Wolfgang Mozart into the 20th century. The movie of “Amadeus” won Best Picture at the 1985 Oscars. It worked.
Lin-Manuel Miranda’s “Hamilton” (set in roughly the same time period, but on a different continent) goes much further in its use of contemporary-speak and hiphop music to shine a new, vivid light on history. To say it works just as well (and arguably better) in “Hamilton” than it did in “Amadeus” is an understatement.
The songs just roll off of the tongues of the performers, seeming both light and impactful at once. Songs like “Rise”, “My Shot” (one of my favorites), “That Would Be Enough”, “Stay Alive”, “What’d I Miss?” (Thomas Jefferson’s declarative song upon returning overseas as the US ambassador to France), King George’s comic “You’ll Be Back” and the one that brings it all home, “Who Lives, Who Dies, Who Tells Your Story” (which sings to the very essence of legacy) don’t simply tell the story, but are clever and imaginative songs in their own right. Catchy as hell, too.
And despite the secondary roles of the lead female characters (all of whom are primarily important in relation to the titular character), there is a true strength in the character of the long-suffering Eliza Hamilton. Eliza accepts that her husband is just weak in his dealings with women, but she endures and leaves her own legacy as well. There are too many strong people who’ve endured less-than-stellar mates. They’ve struggled, they’ve suffered indignities, and they’ve persevered. They too often go unsung. The song “Best of Wives and Best of Women” is their song, and it’s about damn time, too
And that soundtrack really works into your brain.
This morning (Christmas Eve Day), a mere handful of hours after driving home (we got home around 1 am), I hauled my sore, middle-aged, arthritic ass to buy the soundtrack. I just had to have it. Those songs have been dancing in my head all night and all of this morning. For the record? I’m not a great fan of hip hop either, but good music is good music, and what works works. It’s that simple. Lin-Manuel Miranda’s songs in “Hamilton” are (forgive the pun) truly revolutionary for the subject matter.
In an age where we’ve seen an African-American president serve two full terms in office, the casting of “Hamilton” really shouldn’t raise too many purist eyebrows. “Hamilton” isn’t trying to be another “1776” (despite some historical overlap). The musical is not just doing some kind of politically correct stunt-casting, either. The music is hiphop, and that music originated in African-American culture. It’s also very important to the telling of this story. So having an actor like Kevin Kline (as good an actor as he is) in a period powdered wig spouting hiphop dialogue just wouldn’t cut it. In my opinion, that’d require a far greater suspension of disbelief than a confident African-American actor gracefully rapping dialogue as George Washington. I believe the music informs the inclusive casting. Since hiphop is the language of this play it’s only natural one would get performers who are masters of this language, and not just middle-aged caucasion actors who can muster an appropriate 17th century Colonial American accent. I quickly accepted the actors in those roles, as they simply are those characters. That’s all there is to it.
Also interesting to see women extras playing soldiers in the US militia within the story. It’s almost throwaway, but it’s another nice foreshadowing of our own time where women in the US are finally serving in combat and being allowed to pilot military jet aircraft.
Once again, I’d like to express deep appreciation for the Los Angeles touring cast; Michael Luwoye, Solea Pfeiffer, Joshua Henry, Sabrina Sloan, Isiah Johnson, Rory O’Malley and all of the rest. That standing ovation they received last night was well-earned.
If it weren’t for the high price of live performance theatre, and the relative difficulty in obtaining tickets for “Hamilton” I would love to see it multiple times.
I don’t use this word very much, but in this case it truly applies; Lin-Manuel Miranda’s musical of “Hamilton” is a work of true genius.