Music

Is Hamilton Overrated?

Lin-Manuel Miranda actor and creator of the of the play “Hamilton,” bows to the audience after opening night of the play on Broadway in New York August 6, 2015. (Lucas Jackson/Reuters)
Seeing it with fresh eyes five years later.

‘I  am not throwing away my shot.” “Immigrants, we get the job done.” “Aaron Burr, sir.” “Young, scrappy, and hungry.” “The room where it happened.” Five years after it opened, Hamilton is a part of the shared cultural vernacular. No other Broadway musical since West Side Story has produced such a widely known and universally beloved slate of songs. Still, Hamilton is not to all tastes. At intermission the other night, a red-faced man was heard grumbling that the show was excruciating. “Does anybody ever walk out of this?” he asked no one in particular, as if seeking permission.

Any suggestion that you should take out a second mortgage on your house to see Hamilton on Broadway is unfounded, but tickets can now be had without restructuring your existence. (A recent check on the Ticketmaster site revealed orchestra tickets changing hands for $233.) Hamilton is just a Broadway show, and not everyone loves to be told a story in song and dance. It probably won’t change your life. Still, it is the best Broadway musical of the past 30 years, an inventive, informative, emotionally sweeping and electrically entertaining experience. Is that worth the thousand bucks to take your family? I think it is. My little household of four just made it the first Broadway show we all saw together, and though I was worried that my eight-year-old daughter might not make it to the final curtain at ten o’clock (on an evening that began at seven), in the event, her only difficulty was that she was so shaken up by the third, climactic duel that she sought refuge in her mother’s lap.

Shortly after Hamilton opened, at New York’s small, experimental Public Theater off-Broadway in Greenwich Village on February 17, 2015, I started hearing about it from theater boffins. A colleague was enchanted by it and saw it over and over again. Another reported being equally thrilled, and also that Paul McCartney was sitting in front of him on the night he attended. Yet New York Post theater columnist Michael Riedel was skeptical about the long-term prospects of what he derided as “the rap musical.” People don’t know this, but Michael is 110 years old and would have preferred the show to be more like Gypsy. By the time it opened on Broadway in August, I had been hired to write about theater for The New Criterion, and Hamilton was my season-opening column.

What’s changed in five years? The score and story are now familiar, but the cast is new. In the title role, the pint-sized actor Jimmie “JJ” Jeter (who, like the actors playing Burr, Washington, Jefferson, Monroe, and Madison, is black) brings a fierce energy to the stage, much more obviously a scrappy outsider than the show’s author Lin-Manuel Miranda was when he originally played it. As Aaron Burr, Daniel Breakers isn’t as effective as Leslie Odom Jr., who originated the part and won the Tony for it over Miranda. Breakers towers over Jeter and, with his large shaved head, he exudes a sort of professorial smugness instead of the haunted and guilty quality that Odom brought to the role, famously played in the chilly shadow of Burr’s shocking announcement at the top of the show, “And me, I’m the damn fool that shot him.” Tamar Greene, who plays Washington, is a giant, which is a fittingly literal embodiment of the general’s place in history, whereas the actor playing Jefferson, who is amusingly named James Monroe Iglehart, is jovial, sly, and rotund, providing the ever-earnest Hamilton with an excellent foil as the two engage in rap debates about national debt and whether to aid France. The Schuyler sisters provide the most beautiful voices in the production, with Krystal Joy Brown offering a poignant Eliza, and Mandy Gonzalez a smart and cagey Angelica.

Despite the top-to-bottom strength of the cast, as was true the first time I saw Hamilton, the show-stealer is the actor playing George III, the lone white guy among the principals. Euan Morton is hilarious as he tries to filter his pleading through his kingly condescension with the colonial upstarts. It may be that the clueless king is one of those classic Broadway roles that will slay the audience always and everywhere, from low-energy junior-high productions on up. In any case, Morton makes the most of the opportunity, needling the Americans in songs like “You’ll Be Back” and “What Comes Next” even as history prepares to confound him.

For all of the show’s cleverness about building song lyrics out of historical records, what lifts it to the empire of the sublime is its heart, its deep sense of love and loss for Hamilton after his foolhardy day in Weehawken. His widow, Eliza, has the show’s final words, recalling the 50 years she lived without him, spent building an orphanage and funding the Washington Monument. By the evening’s end, we don’t just know Hamilton; we love him. And the show itself feels like one of the most glorious monuments to an American ever built. “Who lives, who dies, who tells your story?” Eliza wonders. Hamilton lived, Hamilton died, and Lin-Manuel Miranda has told Hamilton so beautifully that Hamilton lives again.

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