Nah, I don’t listen to hiphop. Not ever. But Lin-Manuel Miranda is building a beautiful bridge between that music and old farts like me with his new “Hamilton” musical, which has opened for previews at the Public Theatre in New York. I caught the show last night with the Girl of My Dreams, and was blown away. If you can get to New York in the next couple of months, you’ll curse yourself for not seeing this one. (Its run has been extended to early April.)
Several years ago, Miranda performed the title song of the show for the Obamas at the White House, and that knocked me out. But that was a pale preview of the entire show — it’s way better to get it all.
The songs are powerful, the dancing’s exciting, the overall energy level is spectacular, and the underlying story of Hamilton’s life is almost beyond belief. I took a shot at encapsulating the Hamilton saga in my first book, The Summer of 1787, about the Constitutional Convention:
- “Slim and handsome, always dressed with meticulous style, he was an admired (if lengthy) speaker, spouting perfectly formed paragraphs and exuding a vital charisma. Hamilton’s oratory was the stuff of opera — as was his life story. Born to unmarried parents on an obscure island in the West Indies, Hamilton was effectively orphaned in his early teens. . . Arriving in New York without family connections or wealth, Hamilton rose like a rocket.”
- “In matters of government, Hamilton was a prodigy. . .. Writing his first newspaper essay when he was twenty, Hamilton made his pen a mighty weapon, producing diatribes, monumental reports, and incisive analyses. He wrote in five months more than fifty of the essays in the landmark Federalist series, and was arguably the most prolific advocate on political issues this nation has seen. Jefferson invoked biblical diction when he noted ruefully, ‘Without numbers, he is an host unto himself.'”
- “Hamilton’s fall would be a spectacular as his rise, combining a sordid public adultery, a mortifying loss of political influence, and the death of his twenty-year-old son in a tragic duel. The final act was his own death at age forty-eight in an equally senseless duel with that cynical archvillain, Vice President Aaron Burr. Pure opera.”
Miranda not only portrays Hamilton in this show, but also wrote the nearly three dozen songs and the story (based on the outstanding Hamilton biography by Ron Chernow). Some of the songs have unpromising titles like “The Adams Administration,” and “The Election of 1800,” but they’re uniformly fabulous. Indulge me in highlighting a few highlights:
- Miranda has great fun with his portrayal of King George III, who may have the hottest show-stopper of the evening, “You’ll Be Back.” Luckily, the rueful monarch gets two reprises, and he’s uniformly great.
- Miranda’s political insights are sharp. When he has Aaron Burr sing of his overpowering desire to be in “The Room Where It Happens,” he captures the ambition that drives political figures. When Jefferson, Madison and Burr frolic happily because Hamilton has self-destructed politically (see “sordid public adultery,” above), he allows us to wallow in the elation that is part of the addictive drug of the life political.
- Miranda also digs into his characters’ personal lives — falling in love, having children, losing children. As I’ve written about Hamilton, Miranda is way too young to be this smart. His depiction of Hamilton’s complicated relationship with Washington is spot-on.
- Notably, the show doesn’t demonize Aaron Burr; indeed, Miranda allows Burr to be a three-dimensional figure and even (on occasion) sympathetic. As the author of a book on Burr (one I hope is clear-eyed about his virtues and weaknesses), American Emperor, I was impressed by how close Miranda came to being fair to a man who is easy to portray as a “cynical archvillain.” Indeed, the show is more fair to Burr than is the Chernow biography.
In short, the history in this show is remarkably good. Not perfect, of course. It muddles the run-up to the Hamilton-Burr duel, in significant ways. The show takes other liberties with history — the ones I noticed were mostly occasional flipping of chronology –but they didn’t bother me.
Don’t wait any longer. Get your tickets! This is an outstanding show.