By Bill Hirschman
It’s here and, yes, it’s worth the wait, although you might argue not for a ticket price in four figures.
Hamilton, which explodes with power, vitality and imagination in the Broward Center for a five-week run, is not the Second Coming as many overheated observers would have you believe. But this tour from Broadway Across America demonstrates why this musical epic is a watershed work that may well transmute mainstream theater for a decade to come.
Aside from two crucial asterisks, the production is dazzling from the hip-hop score to the sight of a multi-cultural cast in frock coats, tricorns and thigh-high boots standing in for the Founding Fathers previously depicted as white Anglo-Saxons. Creator Lin-Manuel Miranda’s genius – besides for incredible lyrics – is convincingly linking the 18th Century and the 21st with deafening resonance.
When Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson face off in a debate about, believe it or not, the National Bank, it resembles nothing so much as dueling rappers in a def jam trying to cut each other like jazz masters. When a fatuous King George paternalistically scolds the colonists, he resembles more than a few disconnected politicians of today.
The clear-eyed truth is that nothing in this “groundbreaking” musical is new. Virtually everything has been experimented with and implemented before. Hamilton’s indisputable triumph is the superlative way all those elements have been seamlessly, precisely and expertly melded into an entertaining, intriguing whole and on a scale rarely seen in modern American theater.
The result is that Hamilton seems revolutionary, especially for people who do not often go to theater or whose exposure is limited to traditional mainstream tropes or who dismiss it as an out-of-touch passé source of entertainment. Indeed, the advance hype has fueled expectations nearly impossible to fulfill – but it comes darn close.
Suffusing everything and partly accounting for its appeal to pre-retirement-age audiences is the overwhelming sense of yearning that so commands the soul of everyone from adolescents to thirty-somethings. The universal hunger is to find a place in the world by finding strengths, transforming them into achievements and thereby discovering a sense of self-worth – with the perception that a mortality clock is always ticking even for the young,
Further, contemporary audiences will relate to aspects such as frustration battling the slow-moving establishment, the fate of the country decided in exclusionary backroom deals, a perpetual sense of never being satisfied, the sense of living in a time of revolution (that should resonate with the Millennials’ parents), inviolable ideals deteriorating in the face of pragmatism, the contribution of immigrants to the young nation, and the sense that the world has been turned inside out — a source of both fear and opportunity. Alternately very funny and profoundly moving, it delivers a seminar-full of insights about the American character — where we came from and who we are today.
Secretly, Hamilton is a good ’ol American musical theater in construction, sensibility and its highly polished precision execution. Miranda comes from, reflects and incorporates a wide variety of influences including growing up listening to original cast albums as well as venerating Stephen Sondheim.
So, now the asterisks: The first is incomprehensible lyrics. Bear with this explanation. Every interview, every advance feature warns patrons to listen to the score and read the lyrics ahead of time. And that’s fair for the genre, although Sondheim has always advised that the best lyrics are understood on the very first hearing in a theater.
Boxcars of crucial exposition fly past like a freight train. Years are conflated into a few sentences. Relationships are introduced in a few words and then they’re gone. For an audience alleged to have generation-wide ADHD, this is not The Lion King that allows you to watch passively. This requires complete involvement and rapt attention if you are not to miss the content and the artistry of the verbiage rushing past like a whitewater torrent. This is storytelling on steroids.
But on the press night at the Broward Center, even the people sitting ahead of us who had seen the musical twice, often had difficulty discerning the words. This problem was most noticeable when a large group was singing, or when words in a ballad were allowed to fade out at the beginning and the end of a song—and I’d bet that few people understood more than five or six words that Lafayette sung during the entire first act.
Second is the central performance of Joseph Morales. Like the rest of the cast, Morales is a talented performer with a stunning ease with the music and lyrics. But Hamilton the character has to be the charismatic driving force for the entire evening. Morales just becomes the stationary hub around which everything rotates and a man upon whom things happen. As a result, the intense laser-eyed Nik Walker draws focus every time his Aaron Burr is on the stage.
Morales included, the cast gives their all, especially the aforementioned Walker who exudes Burr’s cannily cautious mien later giving way to frustration, Shoba Narayan as the long-suffering wife Eliza, Marcus Choi as Washington and Jon Patrick Walker as a King George peeved at his subjects’ ingratitude.
You do not have to like hip-hop, rap or any other genre especially, since the score spreads to other forms as well. The vibrating music is infectious and the lyrics scintillate in a celebration of art and intelligence that embraces tongue twisting displays of verbal pyrotechnics and deeply felt poesy.
Director Thomas Kail’s staging is melded into Andy Blankenbuehler’s kinetic choreography, which is the ever-present terpsichorean equivalent of a sung-through score. Together, their visuals ensure that an enraptured audience can plug into the energy and understand the vibe even when they can’t understand the words.
Civilians might not notice, but one of the most outstanding contributions came from Tony-winner Howell Binkley whose atmospheric lighting creates scores of emotional and physical environments. And production stage manager Anna R. Kaltenbach deserves twice her salary for overseeing the lightning fast cues along with her other duties. The pulsing kick-butt band was commanded by Roberto Sinha.
For the 14 people living in a convent in Lower Slobovia in the Upper Balkans, Hamilton is the 2015 sung-through retelling of the life of the eponymous historical figure. Miranda spent six years working on and off with a cadre including In The Heights cohorts Kail, Blankenbuehler, and musical director/orchestrator Alex Lacamoire (a former New World School of the Arts student) to retell the arc described in Ron Chernow’s 2004 book.
Miranda saw resonances between Hamilton’s life and the creation of this country with those of today’s multi-cultural factious society of mostly young ambitious contemporary generations. They used the musical genres of hip-hop, rap, jazz, blues, rock and a bit of Broadway, and then cast all the parts other than King George with minorities. Miranda took the lead part and the show cemented the stardom of Leslie Odom Jr. as the nemesis Aaron Burr.
The resulting work electrified audiences across ethnicities, ages and income levels. As word of mouth turned into a tsunami, the original cast recording reached far more people who geographically or economically could not see the show itself. Some of the lyrics entered the catchphrase lexicon such as “I’m not throwing away my shot” and “the room where it happens.”
Besides open-ended sit-down companies in Chicago, San Francisco and London, two national tours are sweeping through the country. The third opens in a few weeks in Puerto Rico with Miranda starring and then will tour with a different lead.
Among a museum’s-worth of honors, it won 11 Tony Awards and was nominated for five others, took the Pulitzer Prize for Drama, which has gone to a musical on rare occasions, and scored the Grammy for Best Musical Theater Album.
The stage story – a mixture of fact and fiction — tracks this orphaned immigrant from the West Indies as he arrives in New York in 1776 to become a fiery speaker and lawyer, and is immediately caught up in the rebellion, then becomes an aide de camp to Washington during the war, marries one of the Schuyler sisters while fighting feelings for another. He becomes embroiled in the politics of the young country with changing fortunes along with new administrations. Along the way, he co-authors The Federalist Papers that served as a basis for the Constitution and serves as Washington’s Secretary of the Treasury. That leads to an ongoing philosophical fight with Thomas Jefferson. He runs afoul of former friend Burr, resulting in the duel that took his life at age 47 (or 49).
The political turmoil and issues surrounding his economic policies and the like are difficult to follow, but the energy of the cast and the musical’s raw material make mesmerized audiences simply not care about his vision whether states should erase the national debt.
Theatergoers may argue whether Hamilton is all it’s been hyped to be, but it is truly a game changer in the world of musical theater.
Note: In keeping with the Broward Center’s ongoing campaign to host performances geared to the patrons with disabilities, the center has slated an ASL performance for 8 p.m. Friday, December 28; an Audio Described performance for 2 p.m. Saturday, December 29, and Open Captioned Performance for 2 p.m. Saturday, December 29.
More Important Note: Parking is limited, traffic will be heavy, come early.
Hamilton runs through Jan. 20 at the Broward Center for the Performing Arts, 201 SW Fifth Avenue, Fort Lauderdale, as part of the Broadway Across America series. Performances are 8 p.m. Tuesdays-Saturdays, 2 p.m. most Saturdays and some Wednesdays, 1 and 7 p.m. Sundays with no performances Christmas Eve, Christmas Day or New Year’s Eve. Runs 2 ¾ hours including one intermission. For tickets visit www.browardcenter.org; by phone 954-462-0222. A limited number of $25 orchestra seats are set aside for each performance. A lottery will be held for 10 tickets at $10 for each performance. For more details, click here and go halfway down the article.