Hip-hop and history collide in Broadway’s dynamic ‘Hamilton’
NEW YORK — Teachers struggling to interest bored students in the bewigged patriarchs of US history might want to send Lin-Manuel Miranda a thank-you note.
So, too, might anyone who cares about the vitality and expressive possibilities of the American musical.
In his stylish and electrifying “Hamilton,’’ which opened Thursday night at the Richard Rodgers Theatre, Miranda fuses the immediacy and storytelling power of hip-hop and R&B with the revolutionary passions of a new nation heaving itself into existence.
Adding an extra layer to the musical’s dramatization of battles for, and over, matters like freedom, independence, and the principles of self-governance is the fact that African-American and Latino actors portray the Founding Fathers and other key figures, including Miranda himself as Alexander Hamilton.
Because it is unfolding against the backdrop of the 2016 presidential campaign, “Hamilton’’ registers as a rare convergence of a popular Broadway musical and a political-cultural moment. Miranda’s sung-through biographical musical delivers a portrait of 18th-century political rivalries inflamed to the boiling point by ambition, ego, partisanship, opportunism, and a thirst for power that feels all too contemporary. Even, at times, Trumpian.
Yet “Hamilton’’ does not seem primarily driven, as the more snarky, take-no-prisoners “Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson’’ did, by a desire to demystify and demythologize. Instead, by casting performers of color and telling the nation’s origin story in a contemporary idiom, “Hamilton’’ aims to give that story a present-day urgency while putting a broader frame around the democratic experiment of which that nation is the embodiment, as if Miranda is saying that 1) it belongs to all of us, and 2) it remains a work in progress.
“Hamilton’’ is infused with reminders that we are a nation of immigrants; in one defiantly knowing nod to that hot-button issue, Hamilton and the Marquis de Lafayette declare in unison: “Immigrants: We get the job done.’’
Brilliantly staged by director Thomas Kail, “Hamilton’’ features dynamic choreography by Andy Blankenbuehler that consistently infuses movement with meaning. Which is not to say that words take a back seat here. Quite the contrary: This is a show intoxicated by language.
Miranda gives free rein to his talent for communicating ideas and personalities in the staccato rhymes of hip-hop — a gift also evident through much of “In the Heights,’’ his 2008 musical about the Dominican-American community in New York’s Washington Heights (presented at Boston’s SpeakEasy Stage Company two years ago). To cite just one instance in “Hamilton,’’ the title figure engages in a rap battle with Thomas Jefferson, played (superbly) as a scheming and irreverent egomaniac by Daveed Diggs, who also doubles as Lafayette.
Vivid performances are also delivered by Leslie Odom Jr., as Aaron Burr, a man to be reckoned with from the start; Christopher Jackson, embodying gravitas as George Washington; Phillipa Soo, all grace and heart as Hamilton’s wife, Eliza; the luminous Renee Elise Goldsberry as Eliza’s sister Angelica, to whom Hamilton is initially attracted; and Okieriete Onaodowan as James Madison. Jonathan Groff is hilarious as a sniffy King George, airily treating the rebellious colonies like a wayward spouse in “You’ll Be Back.’’
At the musical’s center is the man described in the show’s lyrics as “the ten-dollar Founding Father without a father’’: Alexander Hamilton, born out of wedlock on a Caribbean island. Miranda endows Hamilton with the restless intelligence of an outsider determined to claw his way inside and stay there. In an early musical number, the galvanic “My Shot,’’ Miranda’s Hamilton declares: “Hey yo, I’m just like my country/ I’m young, scrappy and hungry/ And I’m not throwing away my shot.’’
“Hamilton’’ covers a lot of ground — emotional, historical — on the wooden scaffolding of David Korins’s set, with a rotating turntable at center stage that is put to effective use by director Kail. The show chronicles Hamilton’s private life, including a costly infidelity and the devastating loss of a son, and his remarkable public life. Hamilton progresses from Washington’s chief aide to primary author of the Federalist Papers. He serves as the first secretary of the US Treasury, creates the country’s financial system, and becomes a fierce political opponent of Burr, which leads to the duel that costs Hamilton his life.
Arriving on Broadway burdened with the weight of expectation, having become a much-coveted ticket after its earlier run at the Public Theater, “Hamilton’’ proves more than able to carry that weight. This musical is young, scrappy, hungry — and exhilarating.
Book, music, and lyrics by Lin-Manuel Miranda; inspired by the book “Alexander Hamilton,’’ by Ron Chernow.
Directed by Thomas Kail.
Music direction and orchestrations, Alex Lacamoire. Choreography, Andy Blankenbuehler. Set, David Korins. Costumes, Paul Tazewell. Lights, Howell Binkley.
At: Richard Rodgers Theatre, New York. Tickets: 877-250-2929, www.broadway.com