A report by Jeffrey Fleishman for the Los Angeles Times.
While the country confronts the violent reemergence of white supremacists, Los Angeles is welcoming an antidote in “Hamilton.” The hip-hop musical about equality and inclusion, officially opening here Wednesday, is a testament against the racism and cultural wars that threaten the spirit of the Constitution.
Since its Broadway debut in 2015, the Tony Award-winning work by Lin-Manuel Mirandahas insinuated itself into the national imagination. A fast-moving, melodic, syncopated and clever portrait of Alexander Hamilton, a Founding Father who was born poor on a Caribbean island and died in New York after a duel, it has become one of the most successful and hyped musicals in history.
Perhaps more important, it has slipped quicksilver through our politics and turned a centuries-old orphan’s tale into a parable that praises American diversity at a time we are challenging the essence of who we are as a country. It pushes forward principles desecrated over the weekend by far-right racism that shook Charlottesville, Va., turning a city that celebrates a university founded by Thomas Jefferson into a battleground of epithets and hate.
That violence and specter of torch-waving white supremacists was preceded in recent years by police shootings of black men, rising anti-immigrant fervor, deepening cultural schisms and seething identity politics. For the millions who have downloaded and memorized the soundtrack or packed theaters in New York, Chicago, San Francisco and now L.A., “Hamilton” has provided an answer to that rage and division, offering hymns of solidarity that speak to the ideals the country has long espoused.
“Hamilton has been an explosive cultural agent,” said Douglas Brinkley, a presidential historian and a professor at Rice University. “The left embraced ‘Hamilton’ as a counterweight to Trump. During the campaign Trump talked about building a wall. ‘Hamilton’ was a symbol of otherness, how our country has been enshrined by people not born on our soil.”
Long before the musical arrived in L.A., the show’s brash immigrant with the big story to tell has been on our lips and in our earbuds. For two years, the songs of “Hamilton” have chimed from iPhones, drifted through car windows, rattled off laptops in coffee shops and left fans contemplating what they would sell to see it. When opening night finally arrives at the Hollywood Pantages Theatre, the musical may seem like a mythic relative we’ve heard a lot about but have yet to glimpse in full. It lifts a message that existed only as music into the communal experience of theater.
“It’s maybe the most famous show in the history of shows. The way it’s penetrated the culture is unbelievable,” said Christopher Ashley, who won a Tony Award this year for directing the musical “Come From Away.” “It reimagines the Founding Fathers not as a bunch of puffy white guys but of telling a story of immigrants and casting a show with what immigrants look like now. It connects the story of America as an immigrant nation to its first moments. They do that with incredibly smart and cunning artistry.”
“Hamilton” symbolizes the rebel spirit and democratic ideals that stitched 13 new colonies into a country that would stretch between two oceans. With a cast far more racially mixed than the European-descended men who penned the Constitution, the play’s power is that promises of equality made in the 1700s should never be forsaken. The American dream, the play suggests, belongs to all, not to the resentful and narrow vernaculars reverberating through red and blue state battles.
It is the “quintessentially American story,” said President Obama at a “Hamilton” performance last year at the White House. “A striving immigrant who escaped poverty and made his way to the New World and climbed to the top by the sheer force of will.” Obama said that the play, which he joked was the only thing he and former Vice President Dick Cheney could agree upon, was “a story for all of us and about all of us.”
That sentiment has been threatened by vitriolic politics and President Trump’s anti-immigrant rhetoric. “Hamilton” entered the fray in November when cast member Brandon Victor Dixon told Vice President-elect Mike Pence, who was in the Broadway audience, that he feared the new administration would not “uphold our inalienable rights.” Conservatives criticized Dixon’s comments, which were delivered from the stage, as harassment, but the moment crystallized the debate over civil rights and citizenship.
The play does what theater has espoused since Sophocles and Shakespeare: let art speak to the splendor, rancor and disturbances of the times. This tradition to distill and make human the larger forces at bay has defined great American plays from Arthur Miller’s “Death of a Salesman” to Tony Kushner’s “Angels in America.” It is also present in a number of socially and politically charged works that have shared Broadway with “Hamilton,” including “Oslo,” about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and “Sweat,” Lynn Nottage’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play about the plight of the working class set in Pennsylvania.
“So many of these shows this year rhyme with and interact with politics,” said Ashley, artistic director at the La Jolla Playhouse. “Theater and the news are talking to one another in very exciting ways right now.”
Miranda, whose roots are in Puerto Rico, chose to embrace Alexander Hamilton, a destitute boy who sailed from his home, found a new land, fought against the British with George Washington and became America’s first secretary of Treasury. The play, propelled by R&B, pop and hip-hop, was inspired by Ron Chernow’s biography and features the towering, if flawed, men of the day: Washington, James Madison, Thomas Jefferson and, of course, Vice President Aaron Burr, who killed Hamilton in a duel in 1804. In the Los Angeles production, Hamilton, Burr and Washington are played by black actors.
Hamilton’s image appears on the $10 bill, but history did not exalt him in biographies and memorabilia as it did Washington. But his tale, as told in the play’s lyrics, was astonishing: “How does 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?”
That appeal has sent “Hamilton” trouping across the United States. By the end of 2018, the show will have opened in at least 18 cities, including Denver, Seattle, Houston and London. It is on pace to gross about $140 million this year on Broadway alone. With an expected long New York run and touring shows, “Hamilton” could easily cross $1 billion, putting it in a league with “Wicked,” “The Lion King” and “The Phantom of the Opera.”
The power of “Hamilton” is that it “crosses over every single demographic that you can think of. It is one of those ‘universal’ hits that come along every once in a while,” said Michael Ritchie, artistic director of the Center Theatre Group in Los Angeles. “Although it isn’t the first Broadway musical to mix hip-hop, rap, melody and classic Broadway vocals, it is, by far, the most successful effort to date.”
Much of that allure has been driven by the will and charisma of Miranda, who wrote the show’s music, lyrics and book and starred in the New York run. He has become the play’s ambassador, a puckish impresario who pops up on awards shows, late-night TV, newscasts and just about anywhere an iPhone captures light. He epitomizes the integrated, digitized, global and myriad-accented scion of the Twitter age.
“To me the aesthetic is what is resonating, gobsmacking folks,” said Quiara Alegría Hudes, who collaborated with Miranda on his earlier musical “In the Heights” and whose play “Water by the Spoonful,” which will open at the Mark Taper Forum in January, won the Pulitzer Prize in 2012. “The pure thrill of the language … the rhythmic cadences. How very acrobatic and athletic our familiar old language can become. Lin’s muscular, vibrant writing is as thrilling as a roller coaster.”
That language speaks to Los Angeles, a multicultural city that is about 50% Latino and echoes with inflections from Armenia to Iran and from China to Chile. But “Hamilton,” which won 11 Tony Awards and a Pulitzer Prize, also nods to tradition and is a reminder that theater, which long ago was surpassed by movies for captivating the wider culture, remains a potent force.
“Hamilton is very much constructed like a classic Broadway musical. It’s a dark musical and it ends in certain ways tragically and triumphantly at the same time,” said Kushner, whose “Angels” won the Pulitzer Prize and two Tony Awards for best play (for parts 1 and 2). “It taps into the deep streak of tragedy that runs through shows we don’t think as being tragic, like ‘Oklahoma’ or ‘Carousel.’ ”
He added: “The brilliant use of hip-hop and rap in ‘Hamilton’ and its real integration into the central meaning of the show is a big challenge asking us to move into the 21st century. It raises certain questions about how the(theatrical) form might be stuck in its glory days of the mid-20th century and even earlier.”