Before we get into the business of unpacking the biggest Broadway smash of the last decade, you should know I was a theatre kid. Does my past (lingering?) obsession with musical theatre make it essentially impossible for me to write objectively about a matter such as Hamilton? Perhaps. But it’s happening. Consider this your lucky day. The delight of run-of-the-mill Hamilton fans pales in comparison to my passionate, full-throttled theatre kid devotion to Lin-Manuel Miranda’s masterpiece.
Hamilton opened on Aug. 6, 2015, in Broadway’s Richard Rodgers Theatre, where, if it were not for the ongoing pandemic, it would still be showing six nights a week. It went on to win 11 Tony Awards (and the Pulitzer Prize) and proved to be one of the hottest tickets in New York City, as well as nearly every major city in the U.S. during a slew of national tours. It has earned more than $1 billion across all ticket sales and merchandising. Last week, after a dramatically rushed release date, a recording of a Hamilton performance from summer 2016 featuring the original cast landed on Disney+ just before July 4, swiftly thrusting the musical back into the zeitgeist (like it ever left!). Finally, a musical that was once an incomprehensible privilege for most and enjoyed only by the elite is now available for the masses to enjoy. A global audience of fans was thrilled. Meanwhile, think-pieces exploded across the internet, including a few unfavorable ones.
These newly-floated criticisms of Hamilton in a new era of Black Lives Matter protests are very valid. Miranda himself agrees. And there’s one glaring one we absolutely cannot overlook: The rapping, shimmying Founding Fathers (and their “Werk!” wives) portrayed in the story owned slaves. Casting people of color in these roles doesn’t change that fact. But may I be so bold as to say that you shouldn’t write off Hamilton altogether simply because of this glossier-than-reality depiction. As Strong Black Legends host Tracy Clayton described on Twitter, we possess the nuanced ability to engage with problematic material and hold it to higher standards than we would have five years ago. We can recognize the issues here as well as the brilliance.
So, I invite you, Hamilton skeptics, to consider this musical-theatre-political-manifesto and genius display of love, life and humanity (Sorry, my gushing theatre kid is showing—I warned you!) anew with me. We can hold multiple conflicting ideas in our heads, and it will not cause us to combust. I promise. So, raise a glass to freedom, and let’s have another round tonight. Talk less; smile more. Let yourself be convinced to enter the Hamilton universe, then stream the musical on Disney+. Watch with subtitles for optimum clarity.
How do a bastard, orphan, son of a whore and his merry crew of rebels, political rabble rousers and future presidents come across like actual rock stars in the show? Thank Miranda’s incredible lyrics and music. Miranda has called the soundtrack a “love letter to hip-hop,” and it is just that. Not only is Hamilton the first ever hip-hop musical to be successful on such a grand scale, but it’s also a playground for hip-hop fans. Miranda has cited Notorious B.I.G. and A Tribe Called Quest as influences on the music, and, like Les Misérables or Into The Woods, the show contains hardly any spoken dialogue—it’s all sung, or rapped. You can hear touches of ’90s girl-group R&B and slick D’Angelo-esque grooves as well as hardcore rap. It was true in 2015, and it’s still true now: It’s unlike any Broadway musical you’ve ever heard.
Wait, how many backup dancers were at the Battle of Yorktown?! You needn’t look far to discover what aspects of Hamilton are true to life and which ones are a bit more dramatized. Many historians have been (mercilessly, some might say) correcting any exaggerations or errors in the story, while others have pointed out that Hamilton does an excellent job of grappling with the question of who gets to tell the story of history and why. Hamilton asks why certain people get to control the narrative while others are silenced. Like a good biopic or film based on actual events, there is of course dramatization. Plus, there’s the added rapping, singing, dancing and 21st century dialect. But if you spend time listening to the spirit of what Hamilton is trying to say, you can still get a damn fine history lesson.
As I said earlier, it’s a hip-hop musical. Doesn’t that sound enticing? If you’ve been cold towards showtunes in the past, I absolutely don’t blame you. Songs like “Mr. Mistoffelees” and “Defying Gravity” probably have no rightful place in the larger American music canon. But Hamilton is different. So different, in fact, that we named it one of the best albums of the entire decade. 808s, drum machines, rap battles and autotune transformed what could have been another (still incredible, I’m sure) theatrical epic à la Les Misérables or The Phantom of the Opera into a true generation-defining musical for the American masses.
See above. If you’re avoiding Hamilton because you think showtunes are frilly and dumb, you’re missing out on a chance to experience an epic tale of humanity, love and loss that just so happens to be told through the lens of the American Revolution and one of its more charismatic players. Give it a chance.
Each original cast member is incredible in this production. Miranda, Phillipa Soo, Leslie Odom Jr., Jonathan Groff, Renée Elise Goldsberry, Anthony Ramos and so many others light up the stage and carry this show to unimaginable heights. But Daveed Diggs, who plays the roles of Marquis de Lafayette in the first act and Thomas Jefferson in the second, is responsible for so much of Hamilton’s vital energy. He won a Tony for it. He strikes the right balance of funny, scrappy and smart, and his rapping is undeniably the best in the show. If you need further proof of his talents with words, check out his rap group clipping. Hamilton was lucky to have Diggs involved.
While the show is musically and thematically stunning, it’s also technically immaculate. A stripped-down set provides a malleable backdrop for all of changing scenery, while props and moving set pieces—including a circular rotating floorpiece!—do the heavy lifting. You could spend the whole production searching for errors, trips or forgotten lines, but you’ll find none. The choreography, down to every tossed chair and booty waggle, is performed perfectly. The actors appear at ease while also performing challenging floor work and singing hundreds of words a minute. It’s a theatrical marvel.
Every ensemble on Broadway is talented. These actors, dancers and singers are triple threats and the best in their field. The old “every role counts” saying is actually true when it comes to Broadway musicals. But the Hamilton ensemble is especially striking. A diverse mix of people bring new meaning and energy to this aspect of American history, and it really feels like every actor in the group has at least one moment to shine.
There has never been such a blatant display of what we call “comedic relief” in the history of musical theatre. Hamilton could exist just fine without the intermittent pop-ins from petty King George III (played by the hilarious, side-eye-wielding Jonathan Groff), but it just wouldn’t be as much fun. Some curmudgeons may go so far as to tell you King George’s appearances are distracting, but those people are bland and hate fun things. His songs exist solely for the sake of humor and joy, and that is a necessity.
It’s no secret the Vice President holds a mostly inconsequential role in American history. There’s an entire HBO series about this. But we’ve had little opportunity to make fun of the OG VP, John Adams. VP jokes abound in Hamilton, and when Adams becomes the second president of the U.S., there’s even another King George song about the whole ordeal and Adams’ supposed lack of qualification. It’s just funny.
The earlier point about who tells the story of history and why relates in this case mainly to Eliza Hamilton, who we meet as Elizabeth Schuyler. I don’t want to reveal any spoilers here, but her dedication to what is right and good, her resilience, her strength, her longevity and her legacy are what drives the story of Hamilton. In fact, you might even say that the “Hamilton” in the title isn’t referring to Alexander. Eliza is the hero of this story. You’ll just have to watch to find out why.