Let’s get the affirmatives out of the way. Yes, Hamilton, the musical based on the life story of the first U.S Treasury Secretary, the face on the ten-dollar bill, and sometimes forgotten founding father —Alexander Hamilton — deserves its multitude of Tony Awards.
Yes, Lin-Manuel Miranda, who wrote the book, lyrics, and music and who had already become a Broadway wunderkind with In the Heights, justly deserves his catapult into super stardom and all those awards leaving him one Oscar away from an EGOT. Yes, the show, sung to a hip-hop beat, depicting the American Revolution, and the first decades of this country’s birth, rightly earns its informal titles as not just a theatrical but cultural phenomenon. Perhaps it has even rewritten Broadway rules.
And yes, Hamilton manages to pack into three hours of onstage singing, rapping, and hip-hop dancing some essence of the promise and tragedies of America, as both the real country we live in today and a diverse dream of millions of immigrants and citizens across 200 years.
All this acknowledged, so much has been written about Hamilton as zeitgeistian juggernaut that it’s almost impossible to review it as a piece of musical theater, even one now on tour. So for the last of the affirmatives I’ll simply state: if you can afford to go see it at the Hobby Center (now through May 20), go. If you can’t, at least try for the Hamilton $10 ticket lottery. You might get lucky.
Beyond that, for those like myself who know all about the story and have listened to the cast album many times, but who have not seen the show before, perhaps the most surprising aspect of Hamilton is how much Hamilton still surprises. So instead the usually brief, but spoiler free, plot summary and performance evaluation review, let me count just a few of the ways Hamilton astounds.
A truly stellar cast, including a Houston star
I’ve never had much cause to think on the casting and general management of a production, but kudos to the company who puts together the various companies. With three long-term productions in New York, Chicago, and London as well as two national touring productions, one would think the odd just-average actor could slip into some role, but not so, if the cast who invaded Houston was any indication. The first performance of the Hobby Center run even had standby cast members in two starring roles, Edred Utomi as Alexander himself and Houston’s own Dorcas Leung (who gave CultureMap a behind-the-scenes glimpse of the show) as Eliza Hamilton. Both gave superb performances.
A flawed hero, a frenemy villain, and a scene-stealing king
While, of course, Hamilton the genius and flawed man always remains the focus of the show, it is Aaron Burr (Nicholas Christopher) as Hamilton’s comrade, colleague, frenemy, rival, and (200-year-old-spoiler alert) killer who gives the musical its complex soul. Burr’s drive to be the hero of his own story only to become the villain in America’s adds an even deeper tragedy to this epic. Meanwhile, it’s not the great general/president George Washington (Carvens Lessaint with grace-filled gravitas) who royally steals the stage, but the other George (Peter Matthew Smith), the English king, who plants a British flag in the show every time he deigns to grace us with his majesty.
The backup dancers and set tell their own story
Many a think-piece has been thought out about the revolutionary music, story, and diversity casting of the show, but choreographer Andy Blankenbuehler and lighting designer Howell Binkley certainly earned their respected Tonys as well and deserve at least a few think-paragraphs.
With Blankenbuehler’s choreography, the players revolve around the stage in an almost constant state of dance, sometimes verging on airy mime, as they fight wars, fall in love and build a country. Yet, those occasional pure moments of stillness when an actor is either alone onstage or surrounded by the swirl of bodies, brings just as much drama and character reveal to the dancing performances.
With very few pieces of furniture ever on stage–the first entrance of Washington’s desk was rather startling–the dynamic lighting and sometimes abrupt absence of light, plays an essential part in defining space, place and plot points.
A master class in American and theater history
When not creating new, ground-breaking shows, I imagine Miranda could teach graduate-level courses on the classics. Along with its hip-hop influences, musical theater lovers might see homages and a salute here and there to contemporary and older greats, a bit of Les Miz, Rent, and West Side Story. When it came to the Hamilton/Burr relationship and jealousy, my own, maybe bizarre, comparison I kept making was with Peter Shaffer’s Amadeus. Perhaps with Hamilton, Miranda has also designed a grand musical Rorschach test.
There Will Be Tears
After all the talk and analysis of the true political, cultural, and even financial meaning of Hamilton is done, there will still remain the woven story of real lives both remembered by monuments and consigned to footnotes by history books. Though long dead and buried centuries ago, their story shaped us as a country and reflects who we became. So don’t be surprised if you find allergy season hitting your eyes as those last notes fade on “Finale.” It’s a really good story.
Tickets to Hamilton are still available for select shows. Fans can also try the ticket lottery, which releases 32 tickets for $10 per performance. For details check the official Hamilton lottery registration.