Magazine | April 6, 2015, Issue

Funky Founder

The hottest ticket in New York right now is a musical at the Public Theater, the downtown off-Broadway venue. The star and creator is Lin-Manuel Miranda, a 35-year-old Nuyorican composer and rapper. The musical vocabulary is what you might hear on the radio, with hip-hop predominating. The subject is the first Treasury secretary, Alexander Hamilton. The treatment is entirely earnest, and deeply sympathetic. Don’t call the election of 1800 just yet, the late returns are running Federalist.

Miranda (whose first musical, In the Heights, was showered with awards) was inspired by reading Ron Chernow’s Alexander Hamilton on a vacation. His first thought was to make a mix-tape about the hero’s life. He performed what is now the show’s opening number, “Alexander Hamilton,” at a White House concert in 2009; the video is on YouTube. (The Obamas and the other guests react with more than a touch of surprise.) Over time, Miranda worked his material into another musical. It is bound for Broadway sometime this summer. Order tickets now, the run at the Public is sold out.

The last Broadway musical about the Founding Fathers was 1776, a charming, traditional show, with discrete songs punctuating (quite a bit of) dialogue. It focused on one event: declaring independence at the Continental Congress in the summer of 1776. It asked the questions, How does a great deed get done? and Is it worth doing if it is not perfect? (The two main characters, John Adams and Benjamin Franklin, argued about the persistence of slavery, and Edward Rutledge taunted his fellow delegates with it.) All the characters — like all the actors who played them on Broadway, in the movie, and in a recent off-Broadway revival — were white. Two small roles for women — Abigail Adams and Martha Jefferson — seemed distinctly bolted on.

Hamilton is through-composed; almost all of it is sung, or spoken to music. It is also virtually through-choreographed: An ensemble of eight dancers accompanies the action as a gyrating Greek chorus. It tells two long stories. The first is Hamilton’s life, from his arrival in New York City, age 17, in 1774, until his death in a duel with Vice President Aaron Burr in 1804. The second story is an AP-history survey of the American Revolution and the early Republic, in which Burr, George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and James Madison have important roles, and George III has a transatlantic cameo. The first arc describes the hero’s rise from nowhere, his great success, and his tragic fall. The second arc describes the country’s rise from nowhere, its great success, and — thanks to the hero — its continuing great success. Although all the characters are white, most of the actors are black or Hispanic. Three women — two rich sisters, Eliza and Angelica Schuyler, and one grifter, Maria Reynolds — are integral to both stories. Hamilton loves them all: His marriage to Eliza boosts his status, his affair with Maria nearly wrecks his marriage and his reputation, Eliza’s late-life devotion keeps the memory of him burning.

1776 is a favorite of school groups; Hamilton will be a favorite of school groups whose kids have been reared on Internet gossip and reality TV.

Hamilton’s contemporary bells and whistles fit the 200-year-old story amazingly well. The insistent music and motion is not authentically 18th-century, but it mirrors Hamilton’s restless energy (he was “a Host within himself,” a dismayed Jefferson remarked, a line quoted in the show). Hip-hop’s addiction to word blizzards means that a lot of quotations and history get covered. Episodes like the Battle of Monmouth and the election of 1800 are hard nuts to crack quickly; I know, I’ve done them, in books and documentaries; Hamilton covers both briskly and brightly. The DNA of New York, where Hamilton lived and died, has not changed since his time. This has always been the city of getting, spending, and getting ahead; Hamilton came to the right place. Two aspects of general American culture have also held steady across the generations. Late-18th-century America had no telegraphs, much less iPhones, but it did have daily newspapers (Hamilton founded one that still exists, the New York Post); therefore it had modern media culture, contentious, intrusive, salacious. And while politics changes its ways and means, it never changes its human, all-too-human nature, from inspiration down to backroom deals and stabs in the back.

The non-traditional casting is incongruous on its face (Jefferson and Madison, slaveowners both, are played by black actors). Yet it provokes a worthwhile thought. The Revolution did stimulate an upsurge in manumissions: Hamilton helped found the New-York Manumission Society, Washington freed his slaves in his will, Hamilton’s South Carolinian friend John Laurens (another character in the show) wanted manumission in his home state. Most important, Jefferson wrote — and Edward Rutledge, among others, signed — the declaration that all men are created equal. Freedom was in the air in the founding era, even though the impulse withered as the Founders aged and died off. Hamilton makes us consider paths marked out but not yet taken.

George Washington (Christopher Jackson) is just what he should be: first in war, first in peace, first in Hamilton’s career. Jefferson (Daveed Diggs) and Madison (Okieriete Onaodowan) are Federalist caricatures who are nevertheless grounded in their actual behavior. Jefferson is played as a cane-twirling fop, when the real Jefferson received guests at the White House in slippers and worn breeches — yet Jefferson’s dishabille was itself a form of ostentation, the oh-so-simple life of the Virginia gentleman, so the transposition works. Madison is played as a wily gargoyle. Fair enough: Madison was physically unprepossessing, and he was certainly wily.

Aaron Burr (Leslie Odom Jr.) comes off surprisingly well. This is the most plausible favorable diagnosis of that inscrutable man: politically and intellectually empty, yet not a bad sort. He regrets killing Hamilton (“the world was wide enough” to have held both men, he says — another authentic quotation). I don’t buy it as biography — only serious people can have real regrets, and Burr’s unseriousness stains his whole character — but it works onstage.

Lin-Manuel Miranda as Hamilton has a full night. I found him most poignant when we first meet him, fresh off the boat from the West Indies, all ambition and enthusiasm and rough edges. In the second half of the second act, the show shrinks and darkens as Hamilton’s life does. The last song, describing the 50-year widowhood of Eliza (Phillipa Soo), gives an unexpected benison.

It is surprising, and heartening, how detailed and generally accurate Hamilton is. Many of its elisions are clever. Hamilton and Jefferson argue about finance and the French Revolution in Washington’s cabinet like dueling rappers in a club. That captures the big egos of bigfoot politicians. Jefferson and Madison are among the three late-night visitors who confront Hamilton personally about James Reynolds, Maria’s crooked husband. They did not actually do that, but James Monroe, their minion, did, and reported everything he learned to his patrons. Hamilton simply saves a step.

A word about George III (Jonathan Groff). Brian D’Arcy James took the role for its first month, to universal raves, but Groff is first-rate. Musically the king’s recurring song recalls the British invasion (pun intended) — a twinkly ballad, bright as a slice of Velveeta. The king sings of love — love of dominion — and the audience laughs. But in one of his reprises, he has the laugh: “You’re on your own,” he tells America (us). “Awesome. Wow. / Do you know what happens now?” The other George, Washington, has already made the same point to his protégé Hamilton: “Dying is easy, young man; living is harder.” Revolution is exciting, and sometimes necessary. But then comes government, and self-government: writing the Constitution, writing the Federalist, giving the economy a kick; freeing the slaves; being faithful to your wife . . .

Hamilton shows brave, brilliant, quarrelsome Americans trying to do all that. One hopes it will inspire at least some in its audiences to do likewise after the last curtain call.

– Mr. Brookhiser is the author of Alexander Hamilton, American.

Richard Brookhiser — Historian Richard Brookhiser is a senior editor of National Review and a senior fellow at the National Review Institute.

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