Review: In ‘Hamilton,’ Lin-Manuel Miranda Forges Democracy Through Rap


This review by Ben Brantley appeared in The New York Times.

They’re brewing up a revolution down on Lafayette Street. And even theater reactionaries seem destined to be swept up in its doubt-defying ardor.

“Hamilton,” Lin-Manuel Miranda’s independent-minded new musical for the masses at the Public Theater, shot open like a streamlined cannon ball on Tuesday night. When one of the young rebels who populate this vibrant work says, “History is happening in Manhattan,” you can only nod in happy agreement.

“Happening” qualifies as both an adjective and a verb in this instance. Adapted from Ron Chernow’s 2004 doorstop biography of Alexander Hamilton — “the 10-dollar founding father without a father,” as the show’s lyrics put it — this speeding bio-musical has become the most fashionable (and unobtainable) ticket in town.More important, “Hamilton,” which is directed with vigor and finesse by Thomas Kail and features the multifarious Mr. Miranda in the title role, persuasively transfers a thoroughly archived past into an unconditional present tense. Written and composed by Mr. Miranda, this work may reap the pattern-bestowing benefits of two centuries of hindsight. Yet it exudes the dizzying urgency of being caught up in momentous events as they occur.

How “Hamilton” achieves this then-is-now effect could itself be said to qualify as historic, at least on the progress-challenged continuum of the American musical. In telling the story of Hamilton — and confreres that include George Washington, Aaron Burr and Thomas Jefferson — via rap and R&B ballads, this sung-through production sounds a lot like what you’d hear if you turned the radio to a mainstream pop station.

To which you may well say, “So what?” But this confluence of what’s heard on the American musical stage and what’s heard on the airwaves and in the clubs hasn’t existed for at least six decades.

During the first half of the 20th century, the American songbook was often dictated by Broadway tunesmiths. But by the late 1950s, songs from musicals had become a quaint breed apart from the songs that America danced to and sang in the shower. And though many major talents have tried to close that gap (including Mr. Miranda in his amiable but less thoroughly realized Broadway hit “In the Heights”), Spotify-friendly tunes have tended to show up only in those cumbersome recycling centers known as jukebox musicals.

But, lo and behold, there are songs throughout “Hamilton” that could be performed more or less as they are by Drake or Beyoncé or Kanye. And there’s none of the distancing archness found in those recent (and excellent) history musicals at the Public, “Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson” and “Here Lies Love.” “Hamilton” isn’t cool; it’s utterly sincere, but without being judgmental or pious. And its numbers come across as natural and inevitable expressions of people living in late-18th-century America.

Acknowledging no disconnect between its sound and its setting, “Hamilton” bypasses the self-consciousness of anachronism. What’s more, it convinces us that hip-hop and its generic cousins embody the cocky, restless spirit of self-determination that birthed the American independence movement. Like the early gangsta rap stars, the founding fathers forge rhyme, reason and a sovereign identity out of tumultuous lives.

It also feels appropriate that the ultimate dead white men of American history should be portrayed here by men who are not white. The United States was created, exclusively and of necessity, by people who came from other places or their immediate descendants.

So we find Hamilton and his French comrade in arms, the Marquis de Lafayette (Daveed Diggs), triumphantly caroling, after a decisive battle against the British: “Immigrants. We get the job done.”

Hamilton came to New York as a teenager from the colonial island of Nevis, and his pedigree hardly guaranteed success. To quote from the show’s opening moments, “How does a bastard, orphan and 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 poser of that musical question is Aaron Burr (Leslie Odom Jr.), who would become Hamilton’s friend, rival and eventual nemesis. In part, this show unfolds as a contrast in temperament and deeds between these two men.

Mr. Miranda’s Hamilton, somehow cocksure and insecure at once, is the unedited, effusive, garrulous one, who wears his feelings and his opinions on his flowing sleeves. Burr, played with caressing silkiness by Mr. Odom, smiles more, says less and never takes a firm stand on anything. He seethes enviously in the shadows, commenting and plotting, an Iago with an inconvenient conscience.

But this production isn’t just “The Hamilton and Burr Show.” It exists in a continuous, densely populated state of flux. David Korins’s gleaming wooden, scaffolded set (suavely lighted by Howell Binkley) appropriately features a “Les Misérables”-style turntable at its center, a whirligig of time passing.

And as choreographed by Andy Blankenbuehler, with a wide-ranging vocabulary that eludes stylistic ruts, the large ensemble (clad in witty, shorthand period costumes by Paul Tazewell) becomes a perpetual-motion machine. Even during solo numbers, we’re aware of other people onstage, exhaling the sense of varied and multiple lives contingent upon one another.

Many of those lives are the stuff of legend. There’s General Washington (Christopher Jackson), who takes on Hamilton as his right hand, and James Madison (Okieriete Onaodowan) and that master of flash, Thomas Jefferson (Mr. Diggs again), with whom Hamilton conducts rap standoffs in cabinet meetings on subjects like the national debt.

There is also, pre-eminently and hilariously, King George III, played with vaudevillian brilliance by Brian d’Arcy James (who — say it ain’t so — leaves the show on March 1) and sings snooty heartbreak ballads of rejection in the bouncy mode of Beatles-era Brit pop. Throughout, Mr. Miranda proves himself a master of matching musical style to character.

And we love, but love, the assertive revolutionary women, whose idea of a pickup line is, “I’m looking for a mind at work.” That declaration comes from Angelica (the commanding Renée Elise Goldsberry), Hamilton’s intellectual soulmate and the eldest of the captivating Schuyler sisters.

The others are Eliza (Phillipa Soo, fabulous), whom Hamilton marries, and Peggy (the gorgeous Jasmine Cephas Jones, who later shows up in the role of Hamilton’s notorious partner in adultery, Maria Reynolds). Mr. Miranda understands that love, like history, is rarely straightforward. And “Helpless,” the ravishing song that chronicles Hamilton’s courtship of Eliza, makes room for a haunted romantic ambivalence.

“Hamilton” consistently finds muted, blurring shades — of feeling, of morality, of character — within its incident-and-fact-packed story without ever sacrificing narrative clarity. And the sheer scope of what Mr. Miranda crams into his precisely but exuberantly chiseled lyrics is a marvel. (Five minutes into the show, I realized the lyrics had already covered, rather thoroughly, the first 100 pages of Mr. Chernow’s book.)

The show finds the vivacity in matters of constitutional debate and financial structuring, while pausing to assess the human casualties of glory-chasing existences, lived consciously in the eyes of history. That’s the stuff of the second half, which isn’t quite the unqualified upper that the first act is. (At two and three-quarter hours, the production could still be trimmed by 15 minutes.)

But it’s probably not possible to top the adrenaline rush of revolution, when men can chant, “Hey yo, I’m just like my country/I’m young, scrappy and hungry/And I’m not throwing away my shot.” Ambitious, enthusiastic and talented in equal measures, Mr. Miranda embodies those sentiments in a show that aims impossibly high and hits its target.

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