It’s the question most asked of theater critics these days: “Is ‘Hamilton’ really that good?”
A slew of celebs, including a texting Madonna, saw the musical last winter in its world-premiere engagement at the Public Theater, Barack Obama and Joe Biden saw it just last month in previews, Stephen Sondheim gave his blessing, calling it a “breakthrough.” After all that buildup, it’s almost anticlimactic to announce that “Hamilton” finally opened Thursday on Broadway at the Richard Rodgers Theatre.
Yes, “Hamilton” is that good, and the still youthful Lin-Manuel Miranda can be mentioned in the same sentence with Sondheim and even Cole Porter. No need to go into all the lyrics here, but Miranda has a syllable-by-syllable rhyme for “pseudonym,” and many other words, that is absolutely delicious.
And if you don’t come out of the theater humming the tunes, it’s because there are so many to choose from. Melody isn’t always what most distinguishes hip-hop and rap, but Miranda definitely has those chops, which may be his biggest step forward from his first Broadway musical, “In the Heights.”
Or is that a step backward in the right direction?
After all the hoopla about “Hamilton” being a breakthrough, it’s interesting to look at just how grounded the show is in vintage Broadway. It’s also refreshing, in a Broadway awash with shows about the British royalty, that America’s far more intriguing past is given a long-overdue dramatization, in this case, the famous feud between founding fathers Alexander Hamilton (Miranda) and Aaron Burr (Leslie Odom, Jr.).
Like an old-fashioned musical — old-fashioned as in pre-Rodgers & Hammerstein — Miranda doesn’t tell the story of how Hamilton became the favorite of George Washington (Christopher Jackson), much to the regret of Burr, through song.
Miranda, who also wrote the book, leaves that complicated narrative to the show’s few snatches of spoken dialogue and its recitative. (Is “recitative” the right word when the songs are hip-hop and rap?) Miranda’s songs, a few of which are neither hip-hop nor rap, are left to convey the character’s emotional state. It’s a nice switch from more “modern” musicals, which often over-pack the lyrics with crucial pieces of the plot, essentially muddying the music.
Early in the show, Hamilton exposes his naked drive and ambition (“My Shot”), his future wife (Phillipa Soo) reveals the nature of her love (“Helpless”), and Burr lets us know why he feels excluded (“The Room Where It Happens”). Each of these songs is an infectious showstopper. And every once in a while, King George (the delightfully fey Jonathan Groff) appears to offer a little ditty with no more object in mind than to entertain us by exposing the utter absurdity of the British royalty.
Hamilton and Burr’s rivalry could be more defined. They had major differences regarding the size of government and the country, but hey, “Hamilton” is a musical. Read Gore Vidal’s “Burr” if you want more politics.
For the emotional and physical energy of a new country being born, there’s “Hamilton.” David Korins’ unit set features a spinning turntable, and director Thomas Kail never lets his actors stop for so much as a breath. Most dazzling is Andy Blankenbuehler’s choreography, which seamlessly incorporates the principal actors with eight crackerjack singer-dancers, each of whom is a distinct (but often unnamed) character, and yet they function as a unit. The word “chorus” doesn’t apply here. And that’s a real breakthrough.
Miranda as Hamilton is the eye of this American hurricane. Unfortunately, his is not the most compelling stage personality; while Hamilton becomes more and more powerful, Miranda remains pretty much the same. Maybe that’s the point. Javier Munoz plays the title role at some performances; when buying tickets, he might be the one to see.