When the curtain falls, who tells your story? What will your legacy be, aside from a few fond anecdotes, or whispered recollections, or lines on a page?
Let a couple hundred years go by, and even the brightest of stars is relegated to the stiff volumes of history, bearing little semblance to the living, breathing spitfire of a human they once were. How easily we forget that those men and women we read about in books were once as “young, scrappy, and hungry” as we fancy ourselves today. In one of the most explosive numbers of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s “Hamilton,” a seething Aaron Burr longs to be a fly on the wall of the secretive room where political powerhouses Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and Alexander Hamilton negotiate the placement of the new nation’s capitol. “I wanna be in the room where it happens,” Burr moans. In that moment, the young politician defines exactly what the visionary Miranda has done for us theatergoers: By breathing fire into those stiff volumes of early American history, the creator (and star) of “Hamilton” throws us headlong into the room where it all happened, harnessing the power of hip-hop to resurrect the men and women who bore witness to revolution.
Gleaning inspiration from Ron Chernow’s biography of one of the most crucial players in the birth of the United States and interpretation of its Constitution, Miranda brings Alexander Hamilton — whose face we know well from the $10 bill — to life, interpreting his complicated legacy in a way that feels more relevant than ever. Not only do the streets of Miranda’s 1700s Era New York City feel as alive as the streets of 2015, they also sound like they do today. It’s no coincidence that the musical’s official cast recording claims The Roots’ Tariq Trotter and Questlove as executive producers — “Hamilton” ebbs and flows like a masterful hip-hop, rap, or R&B album, with nods to the genres’ own revolutionaries, most notably Biggie and Tupac. “In New York, you can be a new man,” Burr (played by the electrifying Leslie Odom, Jr.) raps as he begins the story of the young Hamilton’s immigration to America and rise to power. The stage itself has the feel of a workshop, a place where a man, or a country, can build and rebuild; bare at its center and surrounded by simple wooden scaffolding, the space morphs easily from pub, to meeting room, to battlefield, nixing elaborate props or set pieces altogether. Instead, the performers’ bodies become the physical manifestation of bullets, explosions, and at one point, a desk. The openness of the space lends itself to letting the actors breathe; you’ve never seen a cast juggle history, both comic and tragic, with such passion. You’ve probably also never imagined Thomas Jefferson quite literally *dropping the mic* after a Constitutional debate-turned-rap-battle.
Miranda has received wide attention for blowing the lid off Broadway’s need for more casting diversity, and that is well-deserved, for he has assembled a group of actors as richly diverse as they are talented, with exceptional performances by Leslie Odom, Jr. (Burr), Daveed Diggs (playing the dual roles of Lafayette and Thomas Jefferson), Christopher Jackson (George Washington), and Jonathan Groff (a hilarious King George). The phrase “founding fathers” is thrown around so often, we often neglect the stories of the women integral to the development of young America. Sadly, a script about Revolutionary history could very well have minimized female roles, which is exactly why Miranda’s illuminating portrayals of both Eliza Hamilton (played by Phillipa Soo) and Angelica Schuyler (played by Renee Elise Goldsberry) feel so refreshing. Here we see Hamilton’s vision of America as an “unfinished symphony,” a nation of scrappy revolutionaries, of immigrants and their children, and of their children’s children. One could say the nation is as unfinished today as it was during Hamilton’s life, but perhaps that’s the point: We will never be “finished.” We will continue, though, in pursuit of an imperfect symphony, guided only by the stories of those who went before us.
It goes without saying that the reputation of “Hamilton” precedes itself, given its wildly successful run at The Public Theater. Since previewing to audiences throughout July and officially opening August 6th, the show has already drawn huge names to the Richard Rodgers Theatre, including the Obamas themselves. After Thursday evening’s performance, Meryl Streep could be spotted making her way backstage, no doubt to congratulate the cast on a job well done. Miranda and his comrades better get used to this kind of praise, for they teeter on the precipice of a Broadway revolution. You might say even A. Hamilton would be impressed.
Photos by Joan Marcus