If the idea of a hip-hop musical about American history triggers painful flashbacks to cringe-worthy junior high school classroom rap lessons, rest assured that Hamilton, the audacious new musical from In the Heights creator Lin-Manuel Miranda, is worlds away from "Yo, Teach" Sh-Sh-Shakespeare freestyling. Yes, Hamilton tells the story of founding father Alexander Hamilton through hip-hop and R&B, but it does so with a lived-in fiery passion, not pedantic awkwardness. Miranda has so thoroughly identified with Hamilton's immigrant struggle that his musical concept feels shockingly organic, and almost inevitable. Who's to say the Continental Congress debates weren't rap battles?
The high-velocity show unfolds over the course of two-and-a-half hours on a mostly bare stage accented with ropes, exposed brick and wood, all evoking New York City's nautical past. The costumes also stay true to the period, but nothing else about Hamilton feels distant. It's a sung-through musical, using musical theater structural traditions as a springboard into an American rap score, with nods to everyone from Grandmaster Flash to Notorious B.I.G. The synthesis of genres—Broadway style & hip-hop—is a major theme of Hamilton: what makes America vital is the way new forms emerge from the interplay of disparate forces.
The bulk of the cast is comprised of black and Latino performers, with Miranda, the son of a Puerto Rican immigrant, robustly filling out the title role. The non-traditional casting is Miranda's way of taking ownership of America's birth story, typically viewed through the eys of privileged white males. Here the engine of America's power refuses to be delegated to the background and bursts to the fore, with Hamilton's scrappy biography serving as the show's center of gravity. (Ron Chernow’s exhaustive book on Hamilton was Miranda's source material for the project.)
The most memorable role performed by a white man here is, fittingly, King George III, brought hilariously to life by Brian d'Arcy James, who nearly steals the show as the arrogant, embittered loser watching his overseas empire crumble. Hamilton's doppelganger, Aaron Burr, is drawn with elegant nuance by Leslie Odom Jr., and Daveed Diggs is pure delight as Thomas Jefferson (and, earlier, Marquis De Lafayette).
Miranda also emphasizes the importance of Hamilton's wife Eliza Schuyler (Phillipa Soo) and her sister Angelica (Renée Elise Goldsberry), both of whom are intellectual revolutionaries who wind up shaken but not defeated by Hamilton's sordid betrayal. Most of Hamilton is exuberant and funny, but when the passion that propels the show settles into Eliza's song of disillusionment, the effect is suddenly heartbreaking. It's one of several moments where Hamilton packs more emotional punch than I anticipated. (There are a couple of other moments where it's borderline sappy, but these are isolated and forgivable.)
The score is performed live, but the band is sequestered backstage, and at times the music sounds a little canned—I wished the musicians were visibly part of the action. But I have no other gripes. The choreography, by Andy Blankenbuehler, is executed with breathtaking precision, a supercollider of vaulting bodies and arresting tableaux; Thomas Kail's direction is a master class in flow, and Miranda's lyrics and music are inspired, particularly in Burr's lengthy power broker vamp "The Room Where It Happened." It all builds to a powerfully soulful ending that, on the night I saw it, instantly brought the audience to its feet in rapturous applause, as if they couldn't wait to send some energy rushing back toward the source.
Hamilton has been extended through May 3rd, and it's entirely sold out. However, The Public Theater is holding a lottery for each performance for a pair $10 tickets. The lottery will begin each day at midnight for the performance that same day, and winners will be notified three to four hours before show time. A limited number of $20 tickets will also be offered via lottery for many performances, details here.