Chicago’s Hamilton franchise opened at PrivateBank Theatre on October 19, the same evening as the final presidential debate. In any other year that might be considered a sweetly symbolic coincidence: the republic seen then and now, at its fiery birth and in stable maturity. But things are a little different this year, aren’t they? This is the time of Hillary and Donald. The season of the lesser evil, when many of us wish we could just mark our ballots “appalled.”
Add to that all the traumas of the last few years, from Ferguson to Orlando, Cosby to Wells Fargo, Sandy (and Sandy Hook) to Hurricane Matthew, and you’ve got yourself one troubled body politic.
Yet I’d say it’s precisely the ugly dysfunction of the moment that’s helped turn Hamilton into the sold-out, heavily scalped phenomenon it is. While America gets a nervous tic waiting for the next horror to hit, Lin Manuel-Miranda’s musical takes a reassuring step back, not just to celebrate past triumphs but to suggest that everything we’re presently going through is tending toward the light.
As if you didn’t know, Hamilton tells the tale of Alexander Hamilton, the founding father we’re pleased to find in our wallets but haven’t otherwise given much love until now. Unlike such native-born, patrician contemporaries as Washington, Jefferson, Madison, and Adams, Hamilton was a precocious bastard from the West Indies, born out of wedlock to Rachel Faucette (who, from what I’ve read, deserves a musical of her own) and orphaned by the time he was 13.
The show chronicles its namesake’s life in remarkably scrupulous detail, given the limitations of a sung-through book, starting with his student days in New York and carrying on to his death during a duel fought against yet another homegrown patrician, Aaron Burr. We see Hamilton’s agitation prior to the Revolutionary War; his service during it; and his political battles afterward as, among other things, he writes the lion’s share of the Federalist Papers and campaigns to establish a national bank. We witness his marriage to Eliza Schuyler Hamilton; his passion for her sister Angelica; and his adultery with Maria Reynolds, which went disastrously public, triggering the nation’s first political sex scandal.
Through it all we see a pugnacious, flawed, unpolished, wildly talented outsider—a civic Mozart to Burr’s Salieri—whom Miranda places squarely in the American tradition of immigrants out to make good. As the song says, repeatedly, this Hamilton isn’t throwing away his shot.
And crucially, we see the whole thing in colors. Shades of brown, to be specific. Every principal role in Hamilton (including the title one, neatly performed by Miguel Cervantes) is filled—with pointed historical inaccuracy—by people bearing Latino surnames and/or dark skin. The concept leads to some deep ironies that go unremarked by Miranda: slaveholder Washington, for instance, played by black actor Joshua Kirkland; Jefferson’s black mistress and slave, Sally Hemings, appearing briefly opposite Chris De’Sean Lee’s Jefferson, also black, in a moment that comes across as the racial equivalent of an Escher print, tying real and invented worlds up in knots. These oddities together with certain elisions—women never quite taking center stage, Native American issues dispensed with entirely—demonstrate just how fine a needle Miranda is trying to thread.
It’s hard to fault him, though, for the battles he’s failed to fight when he’s kicked ass so beautifully in his chosen theater of operations. Whatever the shortcomings of the show, the sight of black Washingtons and Latino Hamiltons is inspiring—a potent way of telling us that American democracy can survive the roilings of an angry season. That we’re not here to be white, black, brown, or anything but free, equal, and prosperous.
So then, Hamilton is rousing. Is it good, too? Yes, exceptionally. But not as innovatively as some have claimed. The famous hip-hop inflections of the score constitute only a small pivot away from conventional Broadway-style tunesmithing. Compositionally, as politically, the show is more about continuity than disruption.
Miranda is not the next Stephen Sondheim—not at this point, anyway. Just now he’s more like the next Stephen Schwartz, which is not at all a bad thing to be. An artist who, like Miranda, wrote his first hit (Godspell) while still in college, infusing it with pop idioms drawn from the culture around him, Schwartz went on to create smart, pleasing entertainments like Wicked. Miranda seems to possess a similar sort of genius. As he did with his 2005 breakthrough musical, In the Heights (which can be seen in a fine Porchlight Music Theatre production extended through December 3), Miranda brings an openhearted exuberance to Hamilton, leavened with showmanship and great wit. v