The Play’s The Thing LIVE EDITION- Hamilton

This past Friday, I was fortunate enough to see Hamilton in Chicago.  Now, I’ve had a long history with Hamilton.  I first became aware of Lin-Manuel Miranda the first time I watched the Tony Awards in 2008.  In the Heights seemed interesting, but I didn’t really seek it out for a few years.  I was still relatively new to theatre, so I stuck with the mega musicals that a lot of teenagers are first introduced to.  Eventually, I crossed paths with In the Heights again but this time it sucked me in.  Not only was Lin and the cast clearly talented, but it was unlike anything I had experienced before.  I rarely heard rapping in musical theatre (and it still isn’t too common) and it had an array of Latin music that gave the show a special energy.  It also felt like a very personal piece.  When I finally saw it in one of my final years of high school, it became one of my favorite musicals.  During this time, I wanted to know what Lin was working on, so I would periodically check Wikipedia.  One of the things that would always be listed was something called The Hamilton Mixtape.  It was first just a concept album, but it eventually switched to an actual stage show.  Throughout the years, there would be an update or two, but I always wondered when- or if- it would actually happen.

Let’s fast-forward to my junior year of college.  For my spring semester, I was going to NYC as part of the New York Arts Program, which is an internship program for Midwest college students.  I heard news that Hamilton was finally happening Off-Broadway.  It was impossible to get tickets.  We think it’s difficult to get tickets now, but the Public Theater run was so much worse.  Granted, it was probably cheaper, but it was harder to get.  It’s a smaller theater and it was a limited run.  I didn’t get to see it then.

I would take any taste of Hamilton I got- except bootlegs.  When they first posted the advertising clips on YouTube, I would watch those a lot, but they got taken down.  The NPR live-stream of the album was a godsend for me.  I remembering listening to the entire album the first day it was posted while in my dorm TV lounge and sobbing by the end of it.  I was obsessed.

I became really excited when the Chicago production was first announced.  Being from Indiana, Chicago isn’t too far of a drive.  The day the tickets were released, my mom and I were in the Disney Store on our phones trying to get tickets.  We decided to go a bit further out because earlier shows were taking forever to load.  It wouldn’t be for months, but I finally got my tickets. Between the time I bought tickets and saw it, I calmed down a bit.  I was still excited, but I wasn’t chatting everyone’s ear off about it.

It’s somewhat strange going into a show with high expectations.  It isn’t something that happens often for me.  I usually try to go into entertainment hoping the show will be good, but not setting the bar too high.  Some of my favorite theatre experiences have happened when I went into them with zero expectations.

Fortunately, Hamilton lived up to the hype.

The cast was extremely talented.  There was even some pleasant surprises.  I opened my Playbill to discover that Wallace Smith was playing Hercules Mulligan/James Madison.  He played Judas in the 2011-12 revival of Godspell and I listened to that album a lot in my senior year of high school- especially his version of “On the Willows”.  He had probably the hardest dual roles and he did the change very well.  Chris De’Sean Lee was hilarious as Marquis de Lafayette and Thomas Jefferson.  I loved Karen Olivo’s Angelica Schuyler as I knew I would.  Miguel Cervants was a great Hamilton and also has an amazing voice.  Aubin Wise- the Schulyer sisters standby- went on as Peggy and Maria Reynolds and was great.  Jonathan Kirkland was a powerful George Washington.  Every time Alexander Gemignani went on as King George, the audience was dying of laughter.  I was pleasantly surprised by Wayne Brady as Aaron Burr (even if I was slightly saddened that I wouldn’t be seeing Joshua Henry perform).  Casting celebrities is always iffy, but he did a great job.  His performance of “The Room Where it Happens” was especially good.  The rest of the cast, including Ari Afsar and José Ramos, were great.

Seeing the show, it is easy to see how most of the technical aspects won Tony Awards.  The show relies heavily on visual storytelling, both with the acting and tech.  I really have to give director Thomas Kail credit for everything being so cohesive.  No technical part glaringly stood out.  My only minor complaint is that I wish the set itself was a bit more visually versatile.  I loved the two turntables, but the surrounding brick and wood was somewhat monotonous to look at.  However, it did make the colorful costumes and lights stand out more (which were both gorgeous, by the way).  I am deeply saddened that the Tony Awards no longer has a sound design category because Nevin Steinberg’s sound design was masterful.

Hamilton is a masterclass in stage pictures and movement.  I cannot describe how brilliant Thomas Kail and choreographer Andy Blankenbuehler are.  The rewind section of “Satisfied” is so clever and well paced it blows my mind.  Turn tables can be gimmicky, but they use it to their full advantage.  I have two moments that continue to stand out in my mind.  The first one is the song “Hurricane”.  It was never my favorite song on the album.  However, it was one of my favorite moments in the show.  At one point, the lights, sound, music, and movement come together to make it look like a freeze frame photo from the middle of a hurricane.  It was gorgeous.  Before I get to the second moment, I have to talk about the music and plot.

I think I’ve made my feelings about Lin-Manuel Miranda clear about now.  The man is a genius and the songs are great.  I could go into a deep lyrical analysis, but I feel everyone has done that and it would make this post twice as long.  If you are interested in lyrical analysis, I would highly encourage you to read the annotations on Genius.com because they give more analysis than I could hope to cover.  I do want to compliment his use of themes.  Listen to the different melodies and notice how they are reused.  It’s very complex.  I’m sure there’s a thesis in analyzing the musical structure of this show.  My mom commented that she preferred the first act over the second because it has much more action and the second act is more about Hamilton’s personal life.  It is a fair point.  The second act mainly discusses Hamilton’s personal mistakes while the politics take a secondary role.  It is important to note that there was a lot less physical fighting and more philosophical arguments during that time period, so the shift kind of had to happen.  While I’m sure someone would be delighted about a rap discussing Hamilton’s financial structure, it’s not the most commercially viable idea.

I want to acknowledge this musical is almost entirely sung (or rapped) through.  The only exceptions are a few lines between “Dear Theodosia” and “Non-Stop” concerning a letter- but there is still score underneath- and a moment I will discuss later.  This is important for a few reasons.  First of all, like Lin-Manuel Miranda mentioned in some interview, it’s the only way to fit a lot of Hamilton’s words in a small amount of time and make them digestible.  Most sung-through musicals follow this idea: music can fit in a lot of information and emotion in a limited amount of time.  There is a reason the musical Les Mis is probably the most faithful adaptation of a thousand-page book.  Secondly, it keeps the energy going.  The third reason is the dramatic impact of my other stand-out moment: Hamilton and Burr’s duel.

If you listened to the album, you already know this but once Burr fires his gun, for the first time in the show the music stops.  It’s jarring.  When I say that, I don’t mean it in a bad way.  It’s effective drama.  I got a little bit of this on the album, but I didn’t get the full effect of it until I saw it live.  Hamilton wonders during “My Shot” if dying is “like a beat without a melody”.  In the moment before he gets shot by Burr, he raps about his life in several different reprises, but there is no music underneath underneath him; it’s just howling wind.  His hypothesis is proved true.  So much of Hamilton’s life is making the most of his time;  he is outpacing death and it finally catches up with him.  It was also visually stunning by using a similar effect in “Satisfied”.  They used the turn tables to recreate different moments in the show, so not only were you getting musical reprises, you were also getting visual reprises.  Overall, it’s a stunning moment.

The final thing I want to discuss is the political climate I saw the show in.  Between the time I bought tickets and the time I saw the show, a presidential election happened.  Hell, when I first heard the music, the primaries had yet to happen.  We as a country has seen a lot in politics during the past few years.  New points in the show keep becoming more and more relevant.  I actually saw Hamilton on Holocaust Remembrance Day and the day the Muslim ban was signed (Yes, I know it’s not “officially” a Muslim ban, but we all know that is its purpose.).  There were a few lines that stood out to me and the rest audience.  Obviously “Immigrants: We get the job done” got a huge applause.  A week after the Women’s Marches, “And when I meet Thomas Jefferson, I’m ‘a compel him to include women in the sequel” also got a big cheer.  However, the line that stood out the most to me in the political climate was “Winning was easy, young man. Governing’s harder.”  I know that seems like a really obvious thing, but it’s something that needs to be said.  Winning is so much different than governing.  In order to win, you can say terrible things and bully others.  You can’t do that as an actual leader.  At least, if you want to be a good leader.  You are not just making decisions for the people who voted for you, you are making decisions for everyone.  Governing involves empathy, diplomacy, and compromise.  I think it’s safe to say that in the first few weeks, the new administration is failing on that front.  Contextually, I know it’s not entirely the same, but the line did spark a connection in me.

This show is also important for this current political time because it acknowledges that the founding fathers were actual people with flaws and that disagreed.  People tend to refer to the founders of this country as they were some perfect monolith.  It’s the “Founding Fathers”, not a collection of individuals who came from different backgrounds with differing opinions.  It’s important to remember that because- let’s be real- the Jefferson,  Madison, Hamilton, Burr, and Washington would all have different opinions about what’s going on now.  They weren’t perfect human beings and we should recognize their flaws.  This show also shows the people that history forgot were important to shaping history.  We remember Alexander Hamilton and George Washington thanks to women like Eliza Hamilton.  It gives a voice to people we forget about.

Casting is important too.  The cast is extremely diverse.  With all the protests and political action currently happening organized by people of every background, it’s powerful to see the people who formed our government reflect that.  It also just reflects America as it is today.  Historically, most forms of media lack diversity.  It’s starting to change now with shows like Hamilton, but we still have a ways to go.  Representation is important because it creates empathy between everyone by normalizing diversity.  Hopefully, the show inspires more people who aren’t white, cishet men to run for office or at least continue to be politically active and stand together.

Obviously, this show has a lot of facets to discuss.  It will be interesting to see how this show influences the national conversation, politically and theatrically, in the coming years.  If you are fortunate enough to have the chance to see Hamilton, I would highly encourage you to take it.  Do not throw away your shot.

If you have seen it, let me know your thoughts!