When “Hamilton” debuted at the Public Theater early this year, plenty of us viewed it through the prism of color. Here was a multiracial band of performers, led by composer Lin-Manuel Miranda, who couldn’t look more dissimilar from the lily white Founding Fathers they were portraying.
The casting was an implicit statement that America was always meant to be inclusive. If you didn’t get the point at first, you certainly did when Miranda, as the title character, met eye-to-eye with French aristocrat-cum-soldier Marquis de Lafayette after a victory over the British: “Immigrants. We get the job done.”
By the time I saw “Hamilton” again this week -- it’s just opened at the Richard Rodgers Theatre, with an advance that I imagine would thrill the founder of the nation’s banking system -- issues of ethnicity, for me, had by-and-large faded into the background.
Instead, Miranda’s sweeping, largely sung-through musical about Alexander Hamilton, an orphan who became George Washington’s right-hand man, took on a second life as a master class in musical theater creation.
The pastiche of musicians to influence the score is blink-or-you’ll-miss-it beguiling: Notorious B.I.G., Gilbert & Sullivan, even Jason Robert Brown, whose “The Last Five Years” gets a nod (“Nobody needs to know…”) when Hamilton is ensnared in a sex scandal. (It was Ron Chernow’s 2004 biography of Hamilton that first set Miranda’s gears churning on the book.)
With its original creative team and cast largely intact (Jonathan Groff inherits King George’s crown, first worn by Brian d’Arcy James) in a larger and more solid space, “Hamilton” arrives burnished and proud, though two performances struck me as having evolved considerably from the musical’s debut.
The first is Leslie Odom Jr.’s Aaron Burr, the slick and spasmodic narrator who early in their relationship advises Hamilton: “Talk less. Smile more. Fools who run their mouths off wind up dead.”
Odom’s Burr is a stop-at-nothing climber obsessed with relevancy, fully exposed when he raps about wanting to be in “The Room Where It Happens.” Yet somehow, the kinetic Odom makes Burr’s admiration for his lifelong rival come through in every scene. Odom is just magnetic here.
Enchanting, as well, is Phillipa Soo as Eliza, Alexander’s wife, one of the three Schuyler sisters, who have fairly earned comparisons to a revolutionary version of Destiny’s Child. Her siblings are the marvelous Renee Elise Goldsberry—already a Drama Desk Award-winner for her performance—and Jasmine Cephas Jones. (The three are pictured below, with Goldsberry out front and Soo at left.)
Daveed Diggs, doing double duty as Lafayette and Thomas Jefferson, is a hyper-caffeinated and charismatic White Rabbit, by way of Willy Wonka. Christopher Jackson’s Washington is confident and good-humored. Groff has the crowd on his side and hits all the right notes, even if he appears more of a prince than a king. Anthony Ramos is endearing as Alexander’s son, Philip.
And of course, there’s Miranda, whose performance complements his work behind-the-scenes. His Hamilton is an astute, painfully flawed free-thinker whose efforts in war and peace inevitably prop up the people in his midst, though his failures are profound on the homefront.
David Korins’s turntable set helps keep the nearly three-hour musical moving swiftly and is used to great effect in the climactic moments between Hamilton and Burr (telegraphed stunningly during the first act in a song called “Duel Commandments,” which takes its beats from Biggie’s “The Ten Crack Commandments”).
I don’t think “Hamilton”—which, like Miranda’s “In the Heights,” is directed by Thomas Kail—has changed much en route to Broadway. More likely, Miranda’s music and lyrics are too textured to be absorbed in one sitting. Turns out, once you’ve gotten over the first wow, there’s plenty more wow to be uncovered.
Bank on it.
“Hamilton,” with an open-ended run at the Richard Rodgers Theatre, 226 W. 46th St. Tickets: $65.75-$156.75. Call 800-745-3000 or visit ticketmaster.com.