All the buzz you’ve heard about "In the Heights" scribe Lin-Manuel Miranda’s new musical “Hamilton,” which just opened at The Public Theater and has sold out nearly all of its limited run, is completely justified.
“Hamilton” is by far the most exciting new musical of the year, with its infectious score, powerhouse performances and fresh take on a seemingly stale subject.
Like Michael Friedman’s critically acclaimed rock musical “Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson” before it, “Hamilton” effectively uses the music of another generation — hip-hop — to tell the story of one of the history’s underappreciated heroes.
This time, it’s Alexander Hamilton (played by Miranda himself), a founding father of the United States. Among Hamilton’s many accomplishments? Instituting the nation’s financial system. Establishing our national bank and system of tariffs. Serving as chief staff aide to General George Washington during the revolutionary war. And shaping economic policies as the first Secretary of the Treasury.
That doesn’t even scratch that surface of what Hamilton achieved, all while being “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.” They don’t just put anyone on the $10 bill, after all.
It would be very easy for a historical musical to feel like a three-hour sung Wikipedia page. But Miranda avoids any of those cliches by creating a story focused much more on character than timeline. This is an intimate study of a man driven by his convictions — a constant underdog who worked tirelessly to make his world a better place.
It’s also a story that’s entirely sung-through, which is a rare thing to find in musical theater these days (think more “Les Misérables” and less “Mamma Mia!”). This approach makes Miranda’s lyrics and score all that more important. (Miranda’s also credited with writing the show’s book, which is inspired by Ron Chernow’s biography “Alexander Hamilton”).
Miranda’s a genius with words and melody, and each song in “Hamilton” is rich with emotion and wit. His layered arrangements (created with "Heights" musical director Alex Lacamoire) will draw you in, and his clever lyrics will leave you hanging on every word. Many of the songs — especially those infused with a hip-hop or R&B beat — sound like they could live at the top of today’s music charts, easily with Ne-Yo or Pharrell behind them.
Trust: you’ll want a cast recording halfway through the first act.
Of all of his talents, though, acting is probably Miranda’s weak point (though he’s grown a lot since “Heights”). Miranda gives Hamilton genuine charisma and boundless energy, but in moments of vulnerability, he’s still shaky in his convictions.
That’s barely noticeable due to the strong supporting cast surrounding Miranda, lead by Leslie Odom, Jr. (TV’s “Smash”) as Aaron Burr, Hamilton’s greatest foe. Burr is a conservative strategist, who rarely fights a battle he doesn't think he can win. This often puts him at direct opposition of our hero. “If you stand for nothing Burr," Hamilton asks him, "What do you fall for?”
It would be easy for Odom to play Burr as an outright villain. He instead makes us care for Burr — makes us understand Burr, right up until the end. Odom’s especially strong in the second act, where he turns the sly, dangerous song “The Room Where It Happens” into a show-stealing number.
Odom and Miranda aren't the only actors of color playing our white founding fathers. Only one white actor is cast in a principal role, and that's "Something Rotten" star Brian d'Arcy James as King George. If that diversity doesn’t say something about how America has evolved or lived up to its potential as first envisioned by the founding fathers, than what does?
Miranda’s “Heights” co-star Christopher Jackson (“Holler If Ya Hear Me”) is winning in a grown-up role as Hamilton’s mentor George Washington. Daveed Diggs find the fun in two roles: Marquis de Lafayette and Thomas Jefferson. Phillipa Soo ("Natasha, Pierre & the Great Comet of 1812") and Renée Elise Goldsberry (TV’s “The Good Wife”) both bring poise and strength to their roles as sisters Eliza and Angelica, who each fall for Hamilton in very different ways.
“Hamilton” is brilliantly staged by director Thomas Kail and choreographer Andy Blankenbuehler, who, like Lacamoire, reunite with Miranda after working together on “In the Heights.” The group proves to be an formidable team, creating polished and inventive moments that perfectly sync with story and song.
Tickets for “Hamilton” are going to be nearly impossible to get your hands on. The show is only playing through May 3, and every date is sold out. There are options (The Public offers a number of seats up for a $20 in-person lotto and a $10 virtual lotto through TodayTix), and I would be shocked if “Hamilton” didn’t extend or transfer to Broadway soon. So keep an eye out. You’ll want to see his story told.
“Hamilton,” through May 3 at The Public Theater, Newman Theater, 425 Lafayette Street. Tickets for non-members starting at $120. Visit www.publictheater.org.