For all the hype — and truly, it is massive, massive hype — Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton succeeds at the three things it sets out to do.
First and most obviously, it reinvigorates starchy figures best known from dollar-bills and granite statuary. In this hip-hop retelling of the dawn of the United States through the life of its least-understood player, the founders look very different. Alexander Hamilton (Michael Luwoye), Thomas Jefferson (Jordan Donica), James Madison (Mathenee Treco), and the rest look less like dry rationalists shepherding history to its conclusion one pamphlet at a time and more like combative hustlers bursting with swagger and an anxiety over dying before their time.
Second, it nixes any lingering traces of bourgeois self-congratulation that America was or ever could be “post-racial.”
Lastly, it is a damned entertaining musical with tight choreography, charismatic casting, and bombastic music that spraypaints a few earthy zingers onto the marble colonnade of history.
Amid all the discussion of Hamilton changing everything about the theater, it’s squarely within the American musical idiom. It’s melodic and soaring and emotionally cathartic no differently than, say, Rent is. There are references to The Pirates of Penzance — not American, but still a musical — and to 1776!. Further, it’s also very much a love letter to Miranda’s hometown, then a city of 30,000 people punching above its weight to alter the course of human affairs. Hamilton’s early sections, circa-1776, treat the revolutionary ferment less as a cauldron from which a democratic nation arose than as the period that gave birth to New York’s particular brand of effortless cool. (References to “the greatest city in the world” remind me of what used to play after commercial breaks on the CBS radio affiliate. And Hamilton contains at least three lazy and entirely humor-free jokes about New Jersey that don’t carry any special resonance just because Aaron Burr shot Hamilton there.)
Here, on this geopolitically minor continent off the west coast of Manhattan, certain lines draw predictably huge applauses, from the first mention of Hamilton himself to “Immigrants: We get the job done.” The threads of wordplay work well, too. For instance, When Hamilton tells Washington, “Don’t call me son,” it hits on his fatherless childhood, his lower rank, and regular slang.
Hamilton runs three hours with an intermission, and, strictly speaking, nipping and tucking a song from each act probably wouldn’t detract from the overall momentum. A couple of the expository hinges, like the ensemble shouting, “The Battle of Yorktown, 1781!” feel clumsy and forced. But the rhymes are brilliant, and the energy feels controlled and never manic or overwrought. Hamilton’s dying soliloquy is undeniably moving.
Seldom has there been a better comic-relief device than the foppish George III, wearing more regalia than the king of diamonds on a playing card and routinely addressing the colonies as a wayward spouse. His non-comprehension over George Washington’s voluntary relinquishment of power sounds funny now that the divine right of a hereditary monarch to rule the land is a settled question (although it’s slightly ominous in the context of the current administration). But the royal is better read as a symbol: The old order gives way to the new not because it loses the fight, but because it simply can’t conceive that its hour is over. King George, the personification of white-male mediocrity who’s undeserving of power, keeps waiting to have the last laugh — but it never comes. (Rory O’Malley plays him with brio, but in the original Broadway cast, it was Jonathan Groff, known around these parts for playing the whiny Patrick on HBO’s Looking.)
In terms of stagecraft, it’s a beautiful sight. The use of a rotating stage anchors the action throughout both acts without feeling overused by the end, like a cheap hook that lands a pop song into the Top 40s. It allows the choreography to feel more like gymnastics than dance. More importantly, it replaces the diorama set-piece portrayal of the birth of the nation with something like the growing self-awareness that Maeve the robot madame (and woman of color) experiences on Westworld. Maybe the Founding Fathers were blessed by Providence, or maybe they were sniping, argumentative rascals obsessed with nailing “the ladies”? When Jefferson says “Sally, be a lamb, darling,” it’s a condescending request — and “Sally” is almost certainly Sally Hemings, his enslaved lover — but at least she’s no longer retconned out of the picture.
The ladies get their proper due as fully fleshed-out characters. The fabulously named Emmy Raver-Lampman could not be more enchanting as Angelica Schuyler, for one. Oddly, even though a good chunk of Hamilton takes place during John Adams’ one-term presidency, the irascible Bostonian isn’t a character. (There is also an inaccuracy: At no point did Adams ever “fire” Hamilton.) Maybe because Adams is such a force in 1776! — the mildly irritating 1969 musical that Hamilton is destined to consign to history in five years’ time — he’s a nonentity here. But his feisty wife, Abigail, was the closest thing to a proto-feminist that the era had, so it’s a shame she’s not here, either.
From start to finish, you can’t read Hamilton in a political vacuum — or you shouldn’t. The easiest interpretation would be that we need a new revolution, a new social contract to rescue the Republic from the declinist absurdity of the Trump-Pence era, with people of color at the helm. But Hamilton also maps against an ongoing project of inclusion: People of color were here before the official beginning, and a retelling of the protean Hamilton’s life via hip-hop better capture that most elusive Founding Father. Hamilton is, at bottom, about the writing of history and the characters’ collective consciousness of that writing process. In “That Would Be Enough,” Hamilton’s wife Eliza Schuyler sings, “Oh, let me be part of the narrative / In the story they will write some day. / Let this moment by the first chapter.” These men and women are standing athwart history, yelling, “Come at me!”
The line “You don’t have the votes” from “Cabinet Battle #1” was grimly hilarious to see on the eve of Trumpcare’s failure. But the most-quoted line has the most resonance: “I am not throwing away my shot / I am just like my country: young, scrappy, and hungry.” Was the American Revolution an inevitable moment in humanity’s march toward freedom and justice, or was it closer to a cosmic accident resulting from the self-interested machinations of deeply flawed people? Either way, Hamilton makes a case for youthful dynamism as the ultimate tonic for a decayed, corrupted order. “Would that America had that kind of energy again,” you might think. Except that we do, we definitely do.
Hamilton, through Aug. 5, at SHN Orpheum, $100-$868, 888-746-1799 or hamilton.shnsf.com