I was a musical theater kid. Growing up my parents tossed me into rec department productions, which blended into middle school pageants and eventually high school plays. Music Man, Grease, Footloose. Paralleling the my own performances was the interest in the shows I could intake visually- the Hollywood films and the stage productions I was lucky enough to witness.
But through all of that history I was never someone to pick up a soundtrack and listen to it compulsively end to end on repeat. Sure, I’d have the occasional Disney tune on a playlist, or selections from Moulin Rouge or Chicago, but I was unlike many of my drama peers who ate up Phantom of the Opera or Les Miserables on perpetual repeat through their portable CD players.
That bug to hit play and never look back finally bit me after all these years- and that mosquito’s name is Hamilton. Alexander Hamilton.
The show, penned by and presently starring Lin-Manuel Miranda, is based upon a brick of a biography by Ron Chernow that I recommend reading whole heartedly (and not just because of the musical). The story of America’s first secretary of the treasury is incredibly fascinating- full of love, conflict, scandal, and heartbreak. Hamilton’s life intersected countless major events in the founding of the United States, and it was a baffling wonder that a man so omnipresent in his time is known these days for little more than a face on the $10 bill and a duel to the death.
Miranda’s show is helping to grow a better understanding of the founding father who has often taken a backseat to his contemporaries, many of whom were able to gain a presidential term or two. Though it takes liberties from the real Hamilton’s life (Angelica’s marriage, the timing of Phillip’s death, etc.) it stays true to a great deal of history and presents it in an incredibly innovative and unexpected way: as a rap and hip-hop based musical.
Though there are examples of classic Broadway strung throughout, a majority of the numbers are presented through the more modern, aforementioned genres and are performed by a cast that is phenomenally diverse and talented. The songs are sprinkled with references to classic rap, and have a number of ongoing themes and motifs that run throughout the show, creating a cohesive production despite the vast stylistic differences number to number. It covers 30 years in less than 3 hours, jamming together humor, heart, and historical information into number after number and never failing to entertain.
And it’s even better live.
It is one thing to listen to a soundtrack on repeat for 5 months. It is another to see those songs realized in the setting they were meant to be performed in. The set is simple scaffolds and a rotating floor, but that starkness allows the cast and the brilliant numbers to shine all on their own. Lighting effects do their part to emphasize action and emotion, and the costumes, based on colonial-era wear, juxtapose effectively with the contemporary tunes of their wearers.
In short- there was nothing I disliked. In fact, there were songs that I was closer to neutral on just from the soundtrack alone that I ended up loving live: the mannerisms of Jefferson and Madison cannot be picked up on a soundtrack, the heartbreak of Eliza in It’s Quiet Uptown is multiplied twofold with the addition of action.
Hamilton has been changing the way we think about Broadway. It is contemporary and diverse while also telling a story that is fundamentally American. It is bringing notice to an oft forgotten founding father while promoting learning, historical interest, and appreciation for the characters involved. The show has stirred so many that in the yard at Trinity Church in New York City, people leave fresh flowers on the Hamilton’s graves.
If you have a chance to see this show, either in New York in in one of the eventual travelling productions, please jump on that chance. I was lucky enough to hop on the ticket train ages ago (and even with that had to wait months for my show time) and tickets will only get more difficult to snatch up as the hype continues to grow. They haven’t even won any of their inevitable Tony Awards yet! Thankfully we have the soundtrack (available on Spotify, by the way) and a cast that is remarkable with their outreach- they perform digital shorts online, and just yesterday they performed at the White House, complete with streaming numbers for the public.
Oftentimes the things with the greatest hype fall short of expectations. Hamilton, for me at least, actually exceeded them all. I am immensely satisfied.