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Everyone is talking about Hamilton the musical, a new show at the Public Theater, and they should be. Okay, “everyone” might be 1. all my friends who love theater as much as I do and 2. all the people I follow on Twitter, but it really is getting a ton of buzz, and it deserves it. I saw it on Sunday March 22, with my best friend, who was visiting from California. We bought the tickets way back in December, before the show was extended, because we knew that was the weekend she could come out to visit and we both wanted to see it. She’d been excited about it for ages, as had one of my friends here in NYC, since they’re both huge fans of Lin-Manuel Miranda, who wrote and stars in Hamilton and is best known for In the Heights.
For the record, I’m officially a big fan of Lin-Manuel now too. It doesn’t hurt that I got to see In the Heights at the Harlem Repertory Theater the night before (a post about that soon!).
If you’re not quite as tuned into the theater world as we obsessed musical fans are, the brief summary of Hamilton is that it follows the short life of Alexander Hamilton, the “ten-dollar founding father without a father”. It’s based on a biography written by Ron Chernow, which my bff bought and started reading as soon as we got back from the show. There’s too much to unpack in Hamilton for me to do it justice… at least until I see it again at the end of August. Yes, I already have a ticket for when it transfers to Broadway, purchased before I had even seen it. But without giving too much away, here are some of the thoughts the show spurred in me, tied to some of the amazing lyrics.
“Immigrants: we get the job done”
The U.S. is and was a nation of immigrants, Hamilton himself was an immigrant, and Miranda has crafted a show that reflects the diversity of the country. Hamilton brings together a variety of musical styles, with hip-hop as a huge influence, to tell Hamilton’s story with the music and language of today. Miranda has said that Hamilton is the “story of America then, told by America now. It looks like America now”. Almost all of the main players are non-white actors, including Miranda as Hamilton, Phillipa Soo as Eliza Hamilton (u/s Alysha Deslorieux, who was amazing), Renée Elise Goldsberry as Angelica Schuyler, Leslie Odom Jr. as Aaron Burr, Christopher Jackson as George Washington, and Daveed Diggs as the Marquis de Lafayette and Thomas Jefferson. King George III, the only major role played by a white actor, was originated by Brian d’Arcy James and is now played by Jonathan Groff.
“My name is Alexander Hamilton. There’s a million things I haven’t done, but just you wait — just you wait…”
Alexander Hamilton is the heart of the show. He is constantly on edge, driven by everything he wants to do and hasn’t done yet. He’s constantly thinking about his legacy, and his family and friends ask him “Why do you write like you’re running out of time?” over and over again throughout the show. He does write like something is riding him, like he knows his time is limited. I saw Lin-Manuel play the lead in tick, tick….BOOM! at Encores! at the New York City Center last summer, and this recurring line in Hamilton reminded me of Jonathan Larson’s show.
tick, tick… BOOM! is a three-person musical based on Larson’s autobiographical one man show and follows Jon, a composer who hears the ticking of the clock as he approaches his thirtieth birthday. Larson’s show is made more poignant by the fact that he died at age 35, just before his show, RENT, had its first preview off-Broadway. All of Hamilton is threaded through for the audience with the knowledge that Hamilton’s story, too, will be cut short by his duel with Aaron Burr. Hamilton has a million things to do, and he is running out of time, and somehow, in this production at least, he knows it.
“Who lives, who dies, who tells your story?”
Hamilton’s story is told by Aaron Burr, the “damn fool who shot him”, in a fantastic performance by Leslie Odom Jr. Burr is narrator, antagonist, and foil, all in one, Hamilton’s opposite and his twin at the same time. Burr weaves a cohesive story out of all the disparate elements, and yet despite the through lines and themes of Hamilton, when the show end and Hamilton’s story has been told, it’s still a messy, outsized tale. History, even when it’s turned into a show like Hamilton, is not symmetrical the way fiction is. Miranda writes nuanced relationships, and Hamilton himself is full of contradictions; he and the other characters are not idealized here but are instead fully realized and fully human, with all their flaws on display.
The characters in Hamilton don’t really need to be told that “history has its eyes on” them, because they all know. They know their fates have a place in the history books and all they can do is try to make sure the story they want told is heard. Eliza Hamilton sings of being part of the narrative, and when she’s betrayed, she takes herself out of the narrative, because she decides she doesn’t owe history – posterity — the story of her pain. And yet here we are, watching an actor sing about it. With my love of stories about story, I am 100% the right audience for this show.
“We hold these truths to be self-evident that all men are created equal—and when I meet Thomas Jefferson, I’ma compel him to include women in the sequel!”
I’ve loved the musical 1776 since high school, so there’s a precedent for me being a fan of shows about the American Revolution. But 1776 is a show about a bunch of white men and two women whose only songs, while lovely, are mostly about their husbands. “Hamilton” has a trio of sisters and two of them play pivotal roles in Hamilton’s life. While I would’ve loved to learn more about each of them, both Eliza Hamilton and Angelica Schuyler are strong, fascinating women and the actors who play them have been given some great material to work with.
“Look around, look around, at how lucky we are to be alive right now”
The Schuyler sisters sing of being lucky to be alive in a time of change, amidst the powder keg of the early days of the revolution. After the war, being lucky to be alive takes on a new meaning when so many have died. There are layers and layers to the show, and if it’s a little long – the editor in me thought the first act could’ve ended closer to the end of the revolution, when Hamilton notes that he still has so much work to do – it’s hard to say what could be cut. While watching everything felt vital to creating the characters and telling the story and making us understand how one person had such an impact on this country in such a short time.
There’s more to say – the set and costumes work well, the choreography is great, the performances are all wonderful – but this is probably too long as it is. Maybe when I go again in August (by which time the cast album should be out!), I can touch on a few more elements. But to wrap things up, let me say this is a show that made me laugh and cry and laugh and cry some more. “Hamilton” has made these people, this period, real for the space of a few hours, and I was totally engrossed. If you get a chance to go, I know you will be too.
The run at the Public is sold out, but a number of tickets are set aside for a virtual lottery through TodayTix and an in-person lottery. I may try to go again, and if you can get in, you should go, for the chance to see it in the intimate Public space. But if you can’t, tickets for the Broadway run are on sale and previews start in July. While you’re waiting, follow Lin-Manuel Miranda on Twitter to get your Hamilton fix, or watch this interview, or read this fabulous profile.
Do you want to see Hamilton? If you’ve seen it already, what did you think?
P.S. My favorite parts (SPOILERS AHEAD): Angelica’s song, “Satisfied”, with its amazing rewind of events; every time King George III was onstage; Burr’s “The Room Where it Happened”; any time Hamilton argued with someone (so, the whole show); and all the sad songs, because that’s apparently who I am. Also, Thomas Jefferson.
Photo credits to @ppyajunebug and the nice women who took photos of us with the actors.