NEW YORK — When a show wins a Tony, a Grammy and a Pulitzer Prize, one can assume it must be pretty darn good. Normally, such praise lends itself to disappointment, but, amazingly, “Hamilton” is actually better than the hype!
From the opening song where we meet our titular hero, to the final heartbreaking moments, Lin-Manuel Miranda’s creation is a feat for the ears, the eyes and the emotions.
The performance on July 20 at the Richard Rogers Theatre was two weeks late to see the creator in the starring role, and Leslie Odom Jr. had also departed from his Tony-winning role as Aaron Burr. But the play’s the thing, as the saying goes, and this play is so well crafted that the production did not miss a beat. The power of “Hamilton” is far bigger than any particular actor. Javier Muñoz had already played the title role once a week since it opened, and stepped into Manuel’s shoes, as he had in the author’s previous hit, “In The Heights.”
Muñoz is a slightly better singer than Manuel, and his performance was vibrant and energetic. Surely no one in the audience felt short-changed.
Austin Smith as Aaron Burr, the antagonist that both narrates and drives the story, was excellent, as well as holdovers Renée Elise Goldsberry, in her Tony-winning role as Angelica Schuyler, and Christopher Jackson, as George Washington. Alysha Deslorieux, as Hamilton’s wife Eliza, was also superb.
But really, it is unfair to single anyone out. The strength of “Hamilton” is the ensemble working as a team to tell an immersive story about a man, who until recently was one of the least known Founding Fathers. The stage is constantly full of movement and even the most prominent players sing with the chorus when needed.
Just about the only time I remember the stage being bare is when King George III, hilariously played by Rory O’Malley, whiningly sings “You’ll Be Back.”
The music is superb. At times it is fast-paced rap, at others classically musical theater. And the lyrics are magnificent. “Hamilton” is a three-hour history lesson, and the rap format allows for more words than any other show, I would bet. The history is so entertaining that one of the happy by-products of the show’s success is the number of young people who are getting a crash course on the birth of the country, and also being drawn to the theater.
So why write a musical set in the late 1700s about a man most people only know from being the face on the $10 bill? Manuel’s brilliance lies in writing a show — designed to have a color-blind cast — that uses its anachronistic soundtrack to show that many of the issues the fledgling U.S.A. faced are the same issues we are still grappling with. Thomas Jefferson and James Madison’s states-right support vs. Hamilton’s belief in a strong central government; the contribution of immigrants; the philosophy of governance; and even the first political sex scandal.
“Hamilton” is witty, clever, touching and inspiring. It is also brilliantly staged. During the curtain call, I felt tears welling up, not just because of the incredibly moving last scene, but also because I realized I had just seen a piece of pure Art, with a capital “A.” It is rare that one can honestly say, “Don’t believe the hype — it’s much better than that.”
Note: Reading Ron Chernow’s excellent biography of Hamilton, which inspired Manuel to write the musical, is not necessary to enjoy the show, but it adds texture. Listening to the soundtrack is also a help. Trust me, you are going to want to listen to it once you see the show anyway, so just get a head start. It’s available free with Amazon Prime including lyrics.