Not since John Wilkes Booth made a surprise appearance in ‘Our American Cousin’ has a theatrical event so blown up the cultural landscape.
By Ted Hoover
Pittsburgh Current Theater Critic
I know you’ve probably been so laser-focused on the whole “Kate vs. Meghan” thing that you might have missed the local news: Hamilton’s in town.
Oh, you did hear?
Not since John Wilkes Booth made a surprise appearance in Our American Cousin has a theatrical event so blown up the cultural landscape.
How popular is Hamilton?
Mike Pence, who probably thinks you can “catch gay” from theater seats, saw it.
What the hell happened?
According to newly minted theatrical legend, Lin-Manuel Miranda (who made a splashy debut with 1999’s In the Heights) picked up Ron Chernow’s 2004 biography, Alexander Hamilton, in an airport while on vacation in 2008. The show opened on Broadway in 2015 winning 11 Tony Awards, a Grammy, the Pulitzer and, most significantly, a place in the zeitgeist.
‘Hamilton’ continues through January 27. Benedum Center, Downtown. 412/456-6666. www.trustarts.org
So what makes Hamilton a phenomena? For starters, there’s ubiquity; everyone’s got his picture (psst, check that sawbuck in your wallet). He was a Founding Father, first Secretary of the Treasury, killed in a duel and that’s just the highlight reel.
Miranda took that life and wrapped it up into what is truly the first “contemporary” musical since Hair. Hamilton’s score isn’t your typical show tune buffet occasionally flavored with contemporary sounds; Hamilton is hip hop and pop, R&B and rap, soul and, yes, good old-fashioned show tunes. It’s the first musical in a long time where the music you hear on stage is the same you heard on the way to theater.
In addition to non-traditional music, the production also features non-traditional casting; Washington, Jefferson, Madison, Aaron Burr, etc. are played by men of color. The official title is Hamilton: An American Musical and the sound and look of the production proves to be exactly that – the bubbling melting pot of our American experience.
So here comes the tour and, yes!, it lives up to the hype. It’s a blazing powerhouse featuring a young, vigorously energetic cast generating enough electricity to light a small city.
Miranda’s music is insanely entertaining and his ability to fuse so many disparate styles into a cohesive and compelling form is jaw-dropping. There’s so many stand-out moments I could literally start at the beginning and run through them all. But I’ll make mention of “Helpless” and “Satisfied”, two numbers from Act One.
In the first – a bright, bouncy pop tune – Hamilton meets the young woman who will become his wife. In the immediately following “Satisfied” the woman’s sister, with a furious, hard-edged hip hop beat deconstructs the meeting we’ve just witnessed in real time but using the plasticity of stage time. It’s too folded in on itself to explain, but reveals that as a musical dramatist Miranda can work at the same level as Stephen Sondheim.
As this production demonstrates, however, Miranda isn’t working alone. Say hello to the blistering theatrical genius of director Thomas Kail, choreographer Andy Blankenbuehler and music supervision and orchestrations by Alex Lacamoire.
The continual eruption of movement, an astonishing use of the physical space, the lucidity and shape brought to this sprawling story and the sumptuous color and texture illuminating Miranda’s music; these three men have taken virtuosity and polished it into brilliance.
But what’s up with all this praise – you know I had a few problems, right? As he showed with In the Heights, Miranda is, at his playwriting core, a sentimentalist, if not an out-and-out Romantic. Hamilton – for all its extraordinary bells and whistles – is really just old-fashioned entertainment, like one of those Hollywood movies where a real person life’s is edited, sometimes severely so, to fit the standard, cliched narrative with which audiences are comfortable.
Miranda’s Hamilton is about Big Men with Big Ideas doing Big Things … and the womenfolk do nothing but fall in love and stay out of the way. The actual Hamilton seems to have been a complete whore who used women for whatever he could get out of them, but since he’s the hero Miranda has to do some pretty fancy dramaturgical footwork to make and keep him likable.
Aaannd… I’m a bit ambivalent about the color-blind casting. On one hand, without it I wouldn’t get to see Austin Scott set fire to the Benedum stage with his sensory-numbing performance as Hamilton. And I would have been denied Paul Oakley Stovall’s powerful turn as Washington. Hannah Cruz and Stephanie Umoh wouldn’t get to explode their stunning voices in the roles of the Schuyler sisters and Josh Tower couldn’t have brought such venality to Burr.
But on the other hand – America is a hideously racist country. America has always been a racist country and our “greatness” was built by economic racism. Which makes hearing Americans say racism doesn’t exist especially nauseating. We love the stories we tell about ourselves, especially the one where we found the country as a beacon of freedom and liberty!
We actually founded the country so the white male gentry on this side of the ocean wouldn’t have to give the white male gentry on that side of the ocean the money made off land stolen from the natives and the systemic exploitation of slave and immigrant labor. But here in Hamilton we were like a big Benetton ad right from the start!
Don’t come for me, I know that’s not Miranda’s intent … and God knows the last thing I want to do is sit through yet another all-white musical.
It’s just something to think about in the few seconds you have before you’re knocked out of your seat, blown against the back wall and then lifted up into the heavens by this theatrical miracle.