We all strive, I suppose, to see to it that each and every moment of our musicals fascinates, dazzles, amuses, tickles, or is deeply emotional. It’s the impossible goal, perfection. But when a musical comes close to achieving it, well, my hat’s off to its creator, and that hat is hurled high in the air in celebration. The librettist-lyricist-composer and lead performer is one Lin-Manuel Miranda and the show is Hamilton.
The word “genius” gets bandied about an awful lot. But not by me. I really don’t apply it to any musicals of the past 30 years. But Hamilton left me a bit speechless and I find there’s simply no other appropriate word. So today I’m going to talk about some of the ways Hamilton amazes. And just in case you don’t recall your American History classes, I won’t give away anything about the plot.
Now, I was blessed to have some wonderful history teachers: Award-winners, considered the school’s very best. On their best days, when they made their subject come alive in the most captivating ways – well, that experience was like Hamilton‘s weaker moments. The strongest moments touch the heart: The brilliant trick Miranda manages again and again is that he takes a small episode or fact and dramatizes it in such a way that laughter or tears burst forth throughout the audience. One example is Washington’s farewell address. It’s delivered, in conventional fashion, by Christopher Jackson as the first president, and, we also see Hamilton writing it at a desk. There’s an appealingly humble admission of shortcomings, and we take these as Hamilton’s own feelings about his own life. We’ve watched how Hamilton’s hubris has hurt him from time to time, both personally and professionally, and the musical setting of a famous I-will-not-seek-reelection speech got tears streaming down my cheeks.
All of this is a very far cry from 1776, which depicts some of the same characters. Someone recently asked me for examples of shows with great books, and Peter Stone’s script was the first that came to mind. While 1776 triumphs on its jokey verisimilitude, Hamilton is a wild fantasia on events in the life of a Founding Father. The actors playing the early Americans are all people of color. They speak in contemporary cuss-filled vernacular, and the style of music used, most often is rap. The choice of a current musical style might remind some of Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, but here the selection isn’t irreverent. The mixture of rap with some more melodic modes you might hear on the radio today is Miranda’s preferred way of communicating. His enthusiasm for his subject hits you like one of those ice buckets. And you listen, hard.
Listening hard leads me to bring up an expected complaint. Like practically all rap music, Miranda’s lyrics are hamstrung by false rhymes. Rap has long fascinated me, because it’s the only contemporary example I can think of of verbal wit being the key factor of why the fan enjoys the song. Audiences would lean in to enjoy the cleverness of E.Y. Harburg, Ogden Nash or Marshall Barer in the middle of the last century. Rap fans appreciate the humorously-crafted expressions, replete with false rhymes, of lyricists and improvisers. Melody, nowadays, is secondary. Rap on Broadway usually fails – although Miranda’s previous hit, In the Heights, used it to good effect. The trouble here is that wordsmiths fail to grasp that rhyming perfectly helps the listener grasp those fast-flying words and concepts. The moment you employ a not-quite-rhyme, people prick up their ears because they know their ears must work ten times harder to take it all in. Hamilton can be exhausting to watch for this reason, but at least our ears are rewarded with brilliant revelations and concepts in every song.
Plus, Miranda understands the value of a reprise, so we get to hear the opening bits again and again: “How does a bastard, orphan and son of a whore, and a Scotsman dropped in the middle of a forgotten spot in the Caribbean by providence, impoverished in squalor, grow up to be a hero and a scholar?” (Scotsman/dropped in/spot in – ouch!) This question is posed by Aaron Burr and, first time out, it’s introductory, a mere thesis question for the show we’re about to see. But later, as Hamilton’s political star is rising, Burr spits out the question green with envy. Shouldn’t the ruling class be from the upper class, like him? Each reprise takes on a new color, just as they should.
It’s a bit beside the point for me to take a swipe at another political historical musical, but, in Evita, Andrew Lloyd Webber re-uses his Don’t Cry For Me Argentina tune countless times, and it’s utterly arbitrary. There’s no good reason a dying First Lady and a children’s chorus extolling Santa Evita should be on the same notes.
Miranda, on the other hand, has the musical theatre know-how to re-use material with purpose and chilling effect. There’s a romantic sequence, with wonderful Andy Blankenbuehler choreography and lean staging by Thomas Kail that plays to joyous applause. Then the turntable in the stage spins backwards, we hear the familiar sound of a vinyl record going backwards (you heard this when you searched for “Paul is dead”) and the scene gets retold from the point of view of a different character. Suddenly, what just elated has turned heartbreaking. And that’s quite a coup de théâtre.
Another thing about rap is that the words come at us very fast. This means that tons of story details fly into our heads and it’s never boring. And while most of the score is rap, don’t get the impression that this is an unmelodic musical. There are a good number of very pretty tunes, and I was particularly touched by a duet in which two new fathers sing to their infant sons. I cried buckets at that one, and you can say it’s because I’m a fairly new father but it probably has more to do with the effectiveness of the songwriting. Miranda, in scene after scene, seizes on what’s the most emotional aspect of Hamilton’s biography. This ability, more than anything, makes Hamilton the best musical in a generation.
Little nods to 1776, Camelot, South Pacific and other great shows show that Miranda loves musicals, knows the rep. To me, his most audacious act, in an evening full of them, is to model a sequence on Stephen Sondheim’s favorite Sondheim song, Someone in a Tree, from his historical musical, Pacific Overtures. That song applies the Rashomon technique to a political agreement – we hear from someone in a treaty house, someone under the floorboards and, of course, someone in a tree who can see but not hear. I admire the number, but Miranda, in The Room Where It Happens, outdoes Sondheim by a considerable degree. We get varying perspectives on an important political deal, but, in this song, each witness (or non-witness) has an important emotional reason to see the event differently. And so we are moved far more than we are watching Sondheim’s clever display. And it makes me think about self-conscious cleverness. My tastes run to the clever, both in what I write and what I see. But thinking “gee, this writer is really brilliant” gets in the way of tales being effectively told. A rap battle, where two free-stylers attempt to out-clever each other, is just the sort of thing that gets one to focus on authorial brainpower. But, in Hamilton’s dramatic context, we accept that the minds-at-play are Jefferson’s and Hamilton’s, because what they argue means so much to them, we react to characters, not to their creator.
Which is what it’s all about, and far cleverer than any self-conscious cleverness could ever be.