Amy, We’re Not in Colonial Williamsburg Anymore: In Which the Broadway Hit Hamilton is Seen and Reviewed

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Amy, We’re Not in Colonial Williamsburg Anymore: In Which the Broadway Hit Hamilton is Seen and Reviewed

       Yesterday, Lin Manuel Miranda won a Pulitzer Prize for Hamilton, the hit hip-hop/rap/R&B musical about the life of Alexander Hamilton, America’s first treasury secretary. This is just one of the accolades/awards that the show has won since its off-Broadway premiere at the Public Theater. It is so popular at its Broadway run at the Richard Rodgers Theater that is presently sold out from authorized sources until 2017. In the show’s best-selling book companion Hamilton: The Revolution –-hitherto referred to by its popular nickname #Hamiltome– the book’s co-writer hails the show as “a musical that changes the way that Broadway sounds, that alters who gets to tell the story of our founding, that lets us glimpse the new, more diverse America rushing our way,”1This refers to the show’s fusion of rap, hip-hop, rap and traditional Broadway sounds and the fact that the cast is majority non-white. It was Miranda’s intention and a key part of the show’s pop culture stature that many people playing the members of the founding generation look like those that generation would have kept enslaved. The show’s success owes a lot to Miranda and company’s diligence in bringing it to fruition. And, to think, in 2009, when Miranda first publically presented his concept of Alexander Hamilton’s life as the ultimate history, he was greeted by amused laughter. He had been inspired after reading Ron Chernow’s biography Alexander Hamilton on vacation the year before. The book had been published 4 years before, and in the #Hamiltome, Chernow recalls how his book was optioned three times by filmmakers, but that nothing came to full development.2 This left the optioning rights open for Miranda, and he was able to convince Chernow to become an active participant in bringing the show to the stage.

“Pray tell,” my readers may ask “how were you able to buy tickets for this most popular of shows?” My response is that I bought tickets for April 13th back in late October. They were sold out for that date only a week later. My sister, the titular Amy, and I arrived shortly before 7:30pm, and playbills in hand, made our way to seats 13 and 15 in Orchestra Row G, and waited for show time. When we had entered the building, the cast board noted that, with the exception of Aaron Burr, all the main roles would be filled by the billed cast. The understudy for Burr was a Juilliard grad so no quality of performance was lost. While the boisterous audience was happy to see all cast members, the largest cheers were reserved for writer, star and all around genius Lin-Manuel Miranda. The newest cast member was Rory O’Malley, who had taken over the role of King George III only two days before. All the cast members clearly showed an infectious delight in their roles. The ensemble players also gave a sterling performance. Just based on cast performance alone, the show was a triumph.

The advantage of seeing a performance versus just listening to its soundtrack is that the audience is able to see the actions that go along with the lyrics. One notable example is the action accompanying the lyric “Hamilton publishes his response”3 in the song “The Adams Administration”. The song has a techno falling sound accompanying this lyric and the stage production shows that this is because Hamilton is literally dropping his printed response from the set’s balcony. This is of course only one of many examples, but this is a review not an exact play-by-play.

Another key factor in a play’s success is its script, and Miranda’s script is thorough, sharp and brimming with wit, allusions and lines with deep and double meanings. In #Hamiltome, Miranda notes in an annotation for the opening song “Alexander Hamilton” that “I was proud of myself”4 for the dual meanings in this set of lyrics:

Mulligan, Lafayette: We fought with him.

Laurens: Me? I died for him.5

In Act II, the actors who play Hercules Mulligan and the Marquis de Lafayette, comrades of Hamilton in Act I, play Hamilton’s enemies James Madison and Thomas Jefferson. So, in one respect, they fight alongside or with him in battle and then antagonistically fight with him as political rivals. In Act II, the actor who plays John Laurens, a friend of Hamilton who died in the end of the war, in Act I portrays Phillip Hamilton, Hamilton’s son who died in a duel started to defend his father’s honor. Miranda has a love for the wit of his script, but also the facts it’s based on, sticking close to historical facts for the most part. He readily admits that there are certain instances in which he has fudged the facts to portray the larger historical truth that he envisioned for Hamilton.

In addition to cast and script, there are several other creative aspects that are very important. One of the most important among these is the set. For Hamilton, the set designers opted for one main setting that was able “suggest, evoke, imply”6 the various locations of scenes, rather than multiple backgrounds. The end result was a towering brick background (I was unable to determine if it was English, Flemish, industrial or maybe James bond. The last type is actually a Whittenburg joke.) with a wooden bridge-like structure about stood about ten feet above the stage, and had a moveable staircase. This wooden structure was utilized for a secondary main action location, and also as the space for main characters to serve as further background singers and dancers in certain scenes. Small pieces of furniture and other props were brought on stage to give more detail to different scenes. There was also a double turn-table on the stage which was especially useful during the dance and duel scenes. While it did seem spartan to me at first, the set design shows its strengths as the show progresses. The choreography was also very well done, though for someone like myself who was easily distracted, the amount of people on stage could be a little distracting. During “The Room Where it Happens” I was entranced by George Washington jamming out to the music, and neglected the main action on the first level. Less distracted might not have this problem.  The costumes were also very nice, and were a good blend of fitting theatrical need and being somewhat being historically accurate.

In summation, Hamilton is an excellent show, very much deserving of its praise, hype and bounty of awards. While it may not be 100% accurate, the show is nonetheless an important example of public history, more relatable and exciting to young people than traditional formats of Hamilton’s story due to its sound and diverse casting. The show is also actively striving to be accessible to this audience through social media and educational outreach projects funded by the Rockefeller Foundations. (An example of my favorite game, Six Degrees of Colonial Williamsburg) Several museums of the revolutionary/ early Republic are likely hoping that the interest spreads beyond the show and into their halls. Colonial Williamsburg has made several allusions to the show in social media and advertising. Who knows, maybe we’ll see CW’s Thomas Jefferson, Washington, Madison or Lafayette rap in upcoming public audiences? (Doubtful, but humorous to imagine.) While Colonial Williamsburg and NIAHD are very edifying and fun experiences, for a really non-traditional performance concerning the Founding Fathers, I very highly recommend Hamilton! Catch it if you can while it is on Broadway or see it during its national tour. Regardless of when you are able to see it, Hamilton is well worth the 18 or more Hamiltons (ten dollar bills) you’ll need to see it.

 

Endnotes

  1. Miranda, Lin-Manuel and Jeremy McCarter, Hamilton The Revolution: Being the Complete Libretto of the Broadway Musical, with a True Account of Its Creation, and Concise remarks on Hip-Hop, the Power of Stories, and the New America (New York, NY: Grand Central Publishing, 2016), 10.
  2. Ibid, 107.
  3. Ibid, 224.
  4. Ibid, 17.
  5. Ibid.
  6. Ibid, 38.

 

 

 

Published in: on April 19, 2016 at 7:42 pm Comments (0)