The following is a public service announcement to audience members who saw “Hamilton” for the very first time on Wednesday, when the musical opened its four-week run in Baltimore:
Congratulations. You took the advice that Aaron Burr imparts repeatedly in Lin-Manuel Miranda’s blockbuster musical — you waited for it. And the production audiences will see at the Hippodrome Theatre through July 21 is in most regards the equal of those in New York, London, Washington and Chicago.
You waited while people violated the child labor law in the fall of 2015 just so they could afford tickets early in the blockbuster’s Broadway run. You waited while “Hamilton” picked up 11 Tony Awards, a Grammy Award for best musical theater album and the 2016 Pulitzer Prize for Drama.
You waited when a touring version of the show moved temptingly nearby last summer for a three-month run at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington.
You knew you wouldn’t be throwing away your shot and that the musical would eventually hunker down in Crab City. And you were right. You are now part of the conversation about a show that has become a cultural touchstone for this generation.
But, just as the turntable that’s a central feature of David Korins’ design reverses at a crucial moment in the musical’s plot, let’s rewind the action and begin at the beginning:
“Hamilton” tells the story of how, in the musical's opening words, “a bastard, orphan son of a whore / and a Scotsman, dropped in the middle of a forgotten spot in the Caribbean / by providence, impoverished, in squalor, grow up to be a hero and a scholar.”
The musical was inspired by Ron Chernow’s biography of Alexander Hamilton; as Miranda read it, he was struck by the similarities between the founding fathers and rap pioneers, from their literary virtuosity and relentless work ethic to their self-destructive tendencies and sex scandals. To emphasize that point, all of the major characters, from George Washington to Thomas Jefferson and the Marquis de Lafayette who in real life were white are portrayed by performers of color who alternate between performing rap songs and R&B ballads.
In the very best musicals, the show itself is the star. Individual performers — regardless of how talented they may be— can be replaced without any obvious loss of quality.
“Hamilton” is one of those musicals.
As the “ten dollar Founding Father without a father,” Edred Utomi makes each tongue-twisting he delivers clear. That’s no minor accomplishment; this musical packs a whopping 20,520 words into not quite three hours. Chances are that the notoriously chatty title character speaks nearly half of them.
But though other characters describe Alexander Hamilton as a man who was brilliant, driven, arrogant and magnetic, I wish I’d seen evidence of those qualities in Utomi’s performance.
Miranda has acknowledged “Les Miserables” as one of his inspirations for “Hamilton.” Both musicals are driven by the relationship between a “hero” and “villain” who are mirror opposites of the same personality. (Historians will tell you that the good guy/bad guy distinction between Hamilton and Burr was less clear in real life. Both men were admirable, culpable and flawed.)
Actor Josh Tower gives us a Burr who is half-feline. He depicts a man who is all power and coiled energy waiting to strike beneath a supple, graceful facade. It’s a marvelous performance that reaches full force in the second act in “The Room Where It Happened.” The audience catches just a glimpse of the envy and insecurities that drove this talented man.
Unlike the real George Washington, who was 6 feet tall, the actor Tre Frazier is shorter than most of his fellow performers. But then something interesting happens — Frazier brings so much authority and dignity to his portrayal of the first president that the actor seemingly grows a little taller each minute. And what a voice that man has! Deep, booming and resonant, his “History Has Its Eyes on You” shows the audience a Washington strong enough to admit his mistakes. In “One Last Time” he gives us Washington at his wisest; he knows that his retirement will teach his young nation the lesson it needs to learn about how to make a peaceful transition of power.
The bewigged King George is always an audience favorite, and Peter Matthew Smith’s three, too-brief appearances on stage are a sparkly, campy delight. Smith was enjoying himself so much singing the British pop-inflected “You’ll Be Back,” that I yearned for the character to throw off his robes and launch into an exuberant soft-shoe. (Note to Tony Award-winning choreographer Andy Blankenbuehler: It’s not too late to create a dance for His Royal Ridiculousness and insert it into the show. Really; the audience won’t mind.)
Hannah Cruz managed the difficult trick of turning Hamilton’s wife, Eliza, into an interesting saint. Though Cruz delivers a warm and rich rendition of Eliza’s signature number, “Helpless,” about falling in love with the penniless immigrant on his way up, Cruz doesn’t portray Eliza as a doormat. The actress’ much-debated haircut — shaved on the sides and long on top — imbues Eliza with an edginess that adds a dash of salt to her character’s sweetness.
Though it is three hours, Miranda's musical is so elegant and sophisticated that both acts passed too quickly. The show is rich, seamless and a compact wonder of construction. The dance informs the musical phrasing which informs the lyrics and vice-versa.
“Hamilton” also inescapably is very much a product of its time, which is a large part of the reason it has become a phenomenon. It is as much about an America under construction in 2019 as it is about an America under construction in 1776.
I found myself wondering if that timeliness would become “Hamilton’s” downfall. Will the musical hold on to its popularity, I wondered. Will it stand the test of time and continue to be performed regularly in 2076?
Age is no kinder to works of art than it is to human beings. Other musicals that made a big cultural wallop when they debuted (such as Jonathan Larson’s “Rent” from 1996) now don’t seem to have much to say. Rap may be today’s language of the streets. But, inevitably, it will be supplanted by a new means of expression, just as jazz was. Most cruelly, today’s disrupter of the status quo will become tomorrow’s elderly statesman. (Hey, if it can happen to John Waters, it can happen to anyone.)
Over time, “Hamilton’s” virtues will start to seem more familiar and less innovative. The musical’s flaws (it’s female characters are thinly drawn, and the musical mostly glosses over the founding fathers’ ownership of slaves) will start to be more troublesome.
Only those musicals that continue to teach successive generations about themselves will continue to be revived. “Les Mis” will be one of them, I think. So will Stephen Sondheim’s psychologically astute look at marriage and human nature in musicals ranging from “Company” to “Sweeney Todd.”
And — and I’m going out on a limb here — I think “Hamilton” will be part of that elite group. At its core, this is a musical about how things get created and the kind of people who create them. It’s the outsiders, the people living on the margins whom everyone dismisses, the people who are young, scrappy and hungry, with a chip on their shoulders and a vision before their eyes, people who work like they’re running out of time. They’re immigrants in one way or another, and they get the job done.
There will always be places that like America in 1776 or Baltimore in 2019 are under construction. There will always be populations that rise up, reinventing themselves and the world around them.
I think that the people of tomorrow will continue to find in “Hamilton” a way to tell their own stories.