THE STORY OF TONIGHT: The “Hamilton” Review

Ethel Merman.

Ha! You didn’t think I was going to start there, did you? But see, I’m not a professional reviewer, just a person living his life and including theatre in it as much as possible. Bear with me for a moment.

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If there was one Broadway figure who knew what the people wanted, it was Ethel Merman. And why not? Her career spanned over fifty years. Every major musical theatre composer wrote his best show for her: Irving Berlin (Annie Get Your Gun), Cole Porter (Anything Goes), the Gershwins (Girl Crazy), Jule Styne (Gypsy). Jerry Herman wrote Hello, Dolly! for Merman, and when she couldn’t do it, he bided his time with some snip of a girl named Channing and then gave Merman her show back. When she demanded he beef up this already ginormous role, he added two extraneous songs for her that improved the play itself not a jot. And she still won a Drama Desk award!

So Ethel Merman knew exactly what the people wanted . . . they wanted Ethel Merman!

Imagine going to see Gypsy on Broadway in 1960 and hearing the announcement that, for tonight’s performance, the role of Mama Rose would be played by Sheila Plumpf. It never happened. Merman was never out sick while her contract ran, and her contract ran and ran!

Which brings me to Hamilton.

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What do you do when a show that, over its incarnation becomes inextricably linked with certain performers – Lin Manuel Miranda, Leslie Odom, Jr., Phillipa Soo, Daveed Diggs – jettisons those performers? What are you left with?

A history lesson: My first inkling of Hamilton occurred eighteen months ago when my colleague, the dance teacher, took nearly a hundred kids to New York for five days of dance classes and theatre. She had managed to score enough tickets for some of her students to see a new show trying out at the Public; I believe the rest went to see Stomp.

Those who witnessed this early incarnation of Hamilton came home so enthralled with the performance that they could talk about nothing else. Their excitement was infectious and, between bouts of insane jealousy, I started to hope that here was another iconic show that would appear in bold face on future timelines of Musical Theatre History. I also had my doubts – not as to whether it was good or whether it would achieve this status – but whether I myself would really enjoy it. A hip hop musical about Alexander Hamilton? I didn’t think the idea was crazy. A musical based on Les Miserables didn’t turn out to be crazy. It’s just that rap music is not my favorite style. I always voted for the lyrical performers over the hip hop artists on So You Think You Can Dance. I have trouble with the violence and sexism that pervades rap lyrics (ahem . . . when I can follow the lyrics.) I acknowledge the skill and the cultural significance of rap. It just isn’t to my taste, and so I have politely left it alone.

Then came the CD, which I bought and listened to. Over and over. It inspired several thoughts: one, I’m going to have a hard time singing along with a lot of this! These lyrics are hard, maybe harder than those of my idol Sondheim. Two, this score is amazing, full of beautiful, exciting songs, and it really is a musical history lesson (with some license to truth-telling taken in the interests of dramatic effectiveness). Three, the dichotomy of Lin Manuel Miranda, the creator and former star of the show, is that he is much a child of musical theatre as of the music of the streets, and he has embraced tried and true fans of the art form as much as he has created a carrot to lure different folks into a musical.

So, I figured I could love this show when I finally saw it. Yet as the hype continued to grow, spiked by the show’s appearance on the Grammys (and its Grammy win) and the Tonys (which the show swept), it was this performance I wanted to see, the one starring Lin Manuel Miranda, Leslie Odom, Jr. and Phillipa Soo.

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And then, a week before I arrived in New York, they all left. So did Daveed Diggs, the only truly professional rapper in the cast, who played both Lafayette and Jefferson. I had to make a choice: allow my mourning of the fact that I had missed out on seeing the original production intact to cast a pall on my viewing, or make a decision that I would examine Hamilton, the play, not HAMILTON the hyped event. I chose the latter course, (but I grumbled a lot on the way to that choice.) And what did I find?

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Hamilton is a big, powerful show that more than succeeds in cramming a man’s lifetime into just under three hours of complex music and dance. It brings old American history to life. It actually makes an effective argument that America has unjustifiably neglected a major player in the creation of our country for far too long, and it corrects that error in a way that makes us embrace Alexander Hamilton as a newfound hero.

I believe the play’s structure builds in power as it proceeds and that the second act tops the first because, while the creators have done a fine job of dramatizing the Revolutionary War in Act One, the writing and the staging of personal life issues and of the construction of the new Union is even more brilliant. I don’t know whether choreographer Andy Blankenbuehler’s choreography will become as iconic as Michael Bennett’s for A Chorus Line or Jerome Robbins’ for . . . well, just about any Jerome Robbins show. I imagine that new productions over the years will reimagine this work in different ways. All I know is that I’m glad I saw these dances and this staging by Blankenbuehler and by director Thomas Kail. It was unforgettable.

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HAMILTON – 2015 PRESS ART – Richard Rodgers Theatre – Pictured: Phillipa Soo, Rene Elise Goldsberry and Jasmine Cephas Jones – Photo Credit: Joan Marcus

Hamilton is also a show built around nearly a dozen real life historical portrayals who have to act – many in contrasting dual roles – dance and sing various styles: rap, hip hop, R&B, and traditional musical theatre. And like any other great musical, the play is not impervious to lesser performs. In that sense, those who shone for me were, for the most part, the actors who had created these roles. Renee Elise Goldsberry, as Angelica Schuyler, was my Ethel Merman for the evening in the sense that I did not want to hear that she had been replaced with Phyllis Shlumpf! Easily my favorite sequence of the show is the pair of songs, “Helpless” and “Satisfied” which chronicle Hamilton’s meeting, courtship and marriage to Eliza Schuyler, first from Eliza’s point of view and then from her sister’s. When Angelica raises her glass in a toast and the entire cast literally moves backwards in time to show us another perception of how things happened, it became one of my favorite moments of musical theatre ever.

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When Christopher Jackson first enters as George Washington, striding downstage and crying, “We are outgunned/Outmanned,” he embodies the leadership of the future Father of Our Country. He makes you understand the inevitability of Washington assuming the mantle of our first president, and the nervousness that must have struck the nation when he stepped down from leadership and retired to Mount Vernon.

The other three major male actors must all play double roles. I appreciated Okieriete Onaodowan’s performance even more onstage because now I could clearly appreciate the diametrically opposite characters he played: Hamilton’s hedonistic ox of a pal, Hercules Mulligan, followed by the sickly future president and Hamilton foe, James Madison. Seth Stewart’s Lafayette made me long for the much-missed Daveed Diggs, but he redeemed himself quite a bit when he he sashayed onto the stage as Thomas Jefferson and dominated every scene he was in. I also missed seeing Anthony Ramos as John Laurens/Philip Hamilton, but understudy Andrew Chappelle did a lovely job.

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For me, the best of the new performers was Rory O’Malley, who proved that the role of King George is a show stealer, yet I have a feeling that what we were watching was O’Malley channeling Jonathan Groff (pictured left, who has admitted he himself channeled Brian D’Arcy James, who played the role downtown.) I think King George, like King Herod in Jesus Christ Superstar, is one of those roles that emerges intact from a creator’s pen.

I felt lucky to see Jasmine Cephas Jones, who originated the double role of Peggy, the youngest Schuyler sister, and Maria Reynolds, who lures Hamilton into a career-breaking sex scandal. The contrast was a joy to behold. Alysha Deslorieux did a fine job as Eliza Schuyler Hamilton. Miranda gives all his characters an amazing emotional arc to play, and Deslorieux hit her marks between youthful joy, wifely and maternal strength, and the devastation of loss to become the emotional center of the play.

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Which leaves us with the Big Two: Hamilton and his frenemy/nemesis Aaron Burr. How I wish I could have seen Miranda play Hamilton. That’s one for the books. And if not, I wish I could have seen Javier Munoz play him, for I hear that in many ways, he outgunned and outmanned Miranda. But I was left with Miguel Cervantes, the new swing for Munoz. And while that lead-up sounds like I’m going to deliver a death blow, I enjoyed Cervantes performance a lot. I just wasn’t blown away by it.

Austin Smith now plays Aaron Burr, and throughout the first act, I couldn’t help but be disappointed. There was something pulled back in his performance. I understand that Burr’s smoothness and unwillingness to commit deeply to any cause contrasts with Hamilton’s fierce commitment and buzzing energy, but in certain key moments, like the birth of his daughter (“Dear Theodosia”), Smith seemed numb. Fortunately, this all changed radically in Act II, when both Hamilton and Burr are plagued by a series of bad moves and great disappointments in their lives, sending them spiraling into opposite corners that will end in that fated duel which, for most of us, is all we ever knew about Hamilton before Ron Chernow’s book and this musical came along. At last, Smith caught on fire, taking over the stage in “The Room Where It Happens” and wondrously capturing the sense that events had sped out of control in the moments leading to the duel.

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Oh my gosh, that duel! I wish you could have seen the staging of that duel! For me, it’s the Act Two equivalent of the “Helpless”/”Satisfied” play with history, only this time, Blankenbuehler slows down time excruciatingly and allows us to inhabit Hamilton’s mind as he contemplates his final moments. It’s iconic musical theatre.

So, no, I didn’t get to see every bit of the original cast production. But I got to see enough of it to embrace the fact that the musical Hamilton is one for the ages. Take that, Ethel Merman!

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