Don’t be afraid that Lin-Manuel Miranda is leaving ‘Hamilton’
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No one's irreplaceable. Second up hardly means second best. Baseball fans don't go home after the lead-off hitter, do they?
But I understand. You're bummed at the news that Lin-Manuel Miranda has announced he'll be leaving "Hamilton," the Broadway musical phenomenon he wrote and in which he stars. It's dispiriting, too, that when Miranda goes on July 9, he'll be taking with him his fellow Tony winner Leslie Odom Jr., the show's Aaron Burr. Also departing around the same time is Phillipa Soo, who plays Eliza Hamilton to Miranda's Alexander. Jonathan Groff, the show's comic secret weapon as a preening, patter-singing King George III, moved on in April..
But, come on, they're supposed to hang on until 2032, when you finally get a ticket? Cut Miranda a break. This project has been obsessing him for almost a decade, ever since he picked up a paperback copy of Ron Chernow's Hamilton biography while on vacation in 2007. Live theater in general and this show in particular are exhausting, and, anyway, Miranda always said he'd be leaving at a certain point. To some people it may seem like a major cultural crisis, but take comfort in the lyrics to "One Last Time," George Washington's farewell number in "Hamilton": "If I say goodbye, the nation learns to move on/It outlives me when I'm gone . . . /I want to sit under my own vine and fig tree."
In other words, we'll manage to pull together and weather this crisis. Anyway, Miranda's not actually going to go off and sit under a vine and a fig tree. He's going to be playing opposite Emily Blunt in the upcoming Disney remake of "Mary Poppins," among many other projects. We'll be seeing more of him, not less.
But, sure, he's still the star of this show, even to people who haven't seen the show — sales of the cast album and Miranda's ubiquity on TV and YouTube have seen to that. And we never take kindly to the poor schmoes who have to step into the footprints of the stars.
Examples are all over our pop culture history. How long did The Who last after Kenney Jones replaced the late Keith Moon? Two albums and one Cincinnati concert disaster. "E.R." ran for 10 more seasons after George Clooney left, "M*A*S*H*" for eight following Wayne Rogers's departure, and "Charlie's Angels" for four after Farrah Fawcett-Majors bailed after just one season. But who associates those shows with the actors' replacements, respectively Goran Visnjic, Mike Farrell, and Cheryl Ladd?
The point is that when a cultural property gets stamped with the indelible personas of those first associated with it, we mere mortals often aren't interested in associating with anyone else. And that's unfair, because there are alternate examples — of bands and TV shows and Broadway musicals — that found their sails filling with fresh winds when a new crew came aboard.
Back to classic rock: The Beatles' original Liverpool fan base was outraged when drummer Pete Best was sacked in 1962, but I think we all agree that his replacement, Ringo Starr, worked out OK. When Dave Gilmour joined Pink Floyd in 1967, one onlooker commented, "Enjoy it while you can, because without Syd [Barrett], that band's going nowhere." How right he wasn't.
"Cheers" managed just fine when Shelley Long left for a film career that didn't happen and Kirstie Alley took her place behind the bar. Same with "NYPD Blue" when David Caruso departed for his film career (with the same result) and Jimmy Smits ascended to stardom in his stead. You can play this game all over cultural history. Who wouldn't want to have been in the audience at New York's Carnegie Hall on Nov. 14, 1943, when star conductor Bruno Walter called in sick and an unknown 25-year-old assistant conductor named Leonard Bernstein took his place and launched a brilliant career? (The nationally broadcast concert and the kid made front-page news.)
It happens on Broadway, too — especially on Broadway, with its deep, deep bench of singing and dancing talent. The household names that sell tickets to big shows always move on to other projects sooner or later, leaving the way clear for lesser-known but possibly more skilled troupers. So you missed seeing Glenn Close in the 1990s stage musical version of "Sunset Boulevard." Those who saw her replacement as Norma Desmond, Betty Buckley, are still talking about it.
The 2009 revival of Stephen Sondheim's "A Little Night Music" starred Hollywood royalty Catherine Zeta-Jones as Desiree and the ageless Angela Lansbury as Madame Armfeldt. It made pots of money. But their 2010 replacements, Bernadette Peters and Elaine Stritch, were the stuff of theater legend.
And, personally, I'm here to tell you that you have nothing to fear from the "Hamilton" cast changes. When I saw the show last March, it was at a Saturday matinee, unbeknownst to me the ongoing weekly slot for Miranda's alternate, Javier Munoz, to take the lead as Alexander Hamilton. An alternate is an understudy who appears on a regular basis, as opposed to filling in as needed; Munoz has been serving as Miranda's alternate (among other projects) since the latter's previous musical, "In the Heights."
Still, I read the playbill with the inward groan reserved for everyone who's received the old switcheroo. I wanted the name brand, not the generic!
How foolish can you get? Munoz came on and for three hours he held the show and the audience in the palm of his hand. Munoz is leaner and more avid than Lin-Manuel Miranda; he lacks Miranda's softer edges and soulful eyes. Munoz is sexier, edgier, more intense, and that's exactly why his Hamilton works as a statement about the perils of ambition — about the great strengths and great flaws of our great men. Ten minutes into the show, I didn't miss Lin-Manuel Miranda in the least. To be honest, what he wrought as the show's creator is stronger than any individual performer in it. The play in this case really is the thing.
Of course, Munoz can sing and dance like no one's business. If you're able to see "Hamilton" with him in it, by all means do so. And if you have to wait until the national company comes to Boston or wherever you live, rest assured that some supremely talented working actors you've probably never heard of will be working their tails off to bring the show to life. Change happens. Don't let them throw away their shot.