If you are not an artsy or craftsy New York person, you may
not be aware of the latest phenomenon that has moved uptown to Broadway. It is
a musical called Hamilton written by and
starring Lin-Manuel Miranda, the Tony award-winning brain behind In the Heights a few seasons ago. This
musical is based on the 800-page tome by Ron Chernow about the life of the
Founding Father, first Secretary of the Treasury, and immigrant about to be
displaced from the ten dollar bill by a woman, likely Eleanor Roosevelt.
None of this makes this a unique theater experience. What
does is that this lengthy play is almost all in rap and the Founding Fathers
are all played by actors of color, black or brown. The play opened downtown to
rave reviews and has reproduced the buffo critiques on the Great White Way when
it opened last week. I had heard about it for months, so I bought the tickets
long before the Broadway transfer.
Sadly, I was disappointed despite the rest of the audience
going crazy and the rest of the world following suit. Am I just being my old
curmudgeonly self? I don’t think so. But I am being my OLD self.
We had seen the 2014 Tony award-winning musical A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder
on Wednesday evening and loved it. It was not at all traditional in that one
actor, Jefferson Mays, played 8 different members of the same family. The
computer-generated effects were a hoot and the play was a sensational, gentle
and funny send-up of English family tales complete with gender bending and men in dresses.
Hamilton, less so.
First, I don’t get rap music. Rap is poetry set to a beat.
That gets it one of the three elements of music. Melody and harmony are still
missing. To be fair, the score of Hamilton
does have some English pop (when King George shows up) and some R and B and
soul as well. So I did not feel neutral about the show just because of the rap
Second, the dancing was frenetic, Twyla Tharp on steroids.
The chorus was Rent on speed and
there is a presumption throughout, that you know the story of the Revolution
and the Founding Fathers (I never knew that Thomas Jefferson resembled a
foppish Prince bedecked in purple and Aaron Burr was Iago. Who knew? And what
if you were seeing this on a visit from Finland? Would you actually believe
what you were seeing as representation of truth?) There is also a lot of Les Miz in here with the big production
numbers and cannons. Hamilton is, if
nothing else, big and loud.
Third, the players were fine but if you are going to tell
the story of America’s birth speaking in rhyme at 500 mph, you better have
people doing it who can enunciate clearly or use subtitles. There are also
discontinuities in the plot including the same actor playing Hamilton’s son at
9 and 30 or so. What?
The first act is a confusing mess, but the second much
clearer and far less frantic.
Hamilton will make
history just as its namesake did for originality. The real man was the hardest
working immigrant to aid in this country’s birth. That Lafayette and he were
friends and fellow immigrants is funny given the current discussion about those
coming to our shores from afar led by Mr. Trump. Without the immigrant
Hamilton, no American monetary system.
will now be acceptable theater language as it should be. But at some point, the
art has to stand on its own. Hamilton
didn’t do that for me. It was a little Rent,
a little Les Miz, a little Miss Saigon and a lot of commotion.
Contrast the choices made in this show spanning several
years with those made in All The Way
the recent Broadway and Tony award-winner starring Bryan Cranston as LBJ that
was written around a single year in his life between November 22, 1963 and the
election of 1964. Everything was clear and gripping. In Hamilton everything is muddied and bit off. It’s not a bad show by
any means. It just is not the greatest thing since sliced bread the media would
have you believe it is.
We sat next to a couple celebrating their 50th
wedding anniversary at the show. They loved it. They said the reason they did was
because they had read the Chernow book and taught it in a class. I did no prep
work when I saw The Music Man, the Sound of Music, Man of La Mancha, Chorus Line
or Jersey Boys on Broadway. If I
have homework to do before the curtain rises, please print that on the ticket.
Otherwise, pay attention to what you are trying to do. Stay on task.
And, by the way, take Jackson off the 20 for a woman and
leave Alex alone on the 10. He earned his place on the bill and unlike those on
the 1, the 2 and the 20, he didn’t own slaves.
History is, indeed, written by the winners. Especially those
of pale complexion.