By Rick Krueger
Hamilton at the Private Bank Theatre, Chicago, August 30, 2017.
On August 31, 1772 (245 years ago today — wild, huh?) a hurricane ravaged the West Indies island of St. Croix. Seven days later, a orphaned young man living there set the precedent for every newshound who’s camped out in Texas this past week. He wrote a letter describing his experiences at the heart of the maelstrom, along with the whipsaw play of his emotions in its wake. “It seemed as if a total dissolution of nature was taking place,” he wrote, “… sufficient to strike astonishment into angels.”
The businessmen of St. Croix were so impressed that they tracked down the letter’s anonymous author, took up a collection, and sent him off-island to be educated. And Alexander Hamilton emigrated to New York City, just as the nascent American Revolution began to gather speed.
Lin-Manuel Miranda’s “hip-hop American musical” Hamilton picks up the story from there. Audacious and ambitious, Hamilton has caught the public’s fancy like no other Broadway show in decades. Compulsively eclectic, Miranda vacuums up the linguistic play of Shakespeare’s verse, Gilbert & Sullivan’s patter songs, and the Great American Songbook, fuses them with the verbal propulsion of gangsta rap and the overblown passions of modern pop, and channels the whole melange into the super-sized personas and stranger-than-fiction lives of Hamilton and the United States’ other founders. The results have been spectacular: sold-out performances in New York and Chicago, mass appeal to an astounding age range, and acclaim across a surprisingly vast spectrum of cultural and political pundits.
I was skeptical about the whole thing until I streamed the soundtrack of Hamilton in early 2016 — and fell for it hard. If I had heard it when it came out, it would have been my #1 record of 2015. It’s one of those rare “concept albums” where, even with minimal visual references, the drama unfolds with crystal clarity. Hamilton, his reticent frenemy Aaron Burr, his mentor George Washington and his opposite Thomas Jefferson collide, contrive and conspire as they battle the British Empire, win independence, and struggle over the shape of a new nation. Winning the warm-hearted Eliza Schuyler (and her brilliant sister Angelica), Hamilton’s struggle with his own frailties and passions give his political enemies the motivation and leverage to take him down. The explosive finale sets high achievement and high tragedy side by side; Hamilton and Burr, unable to benefit from what they’ve built, are brought low by their fatal flaws and the collateral damage they unwittingly inflict. The music easily matches the ambition of the libretto; Alec Lacamoire’s suave orchestrations (ingeniously flavored with Americana and chamber textures) nestle in snugly with Miranda’s crazily rhythmic raps, coloratura vocal lines and bone deep grooves. It’s sharp, sophisticated stuff with multiple worthwhile layers to explore, as the video from the 2016 Tony Awards shows:
So when a Chicago production of Hamilton was announced, my sister and I (and our long-suffering spouses) were willing to wait for it. Even for a seat in the very last row of the Private Bank Theatre, behind a post. Suffice to say, along with a marvelous variety of nearly 800 fellow theater-goers (young, old and inbetween, Anglo, African-American, Hispanic and beyond), we were not a bit disappointed.
Hamilton as an album feels like an ensemble piece; the sweep of the historical drama, national and personal, subsumes the characters into a company of equals. Hamilton as live theater is a different creature, more intimate and more rich — focusing with cut-glass brilliance on individuals, the chain of events their interactions set in motion, the impact of their choices on the others. The stage set, a stylized New York City square, is tight and claustrophobic; the subtle use of onstage turntables brings characters together or tears them apart as events overtake their lives. Ensemble movement, choreography, and vocals all sharpen the focus on the man or woman in the spotlight. Every catchphrase — Hamilton’s “I am not throwing away my …shot,” Burr’s “talk less, smile more,” Eliza’s “that would be enough” — gains resonance and power with repetition, unleashing deeper emotional reactions in others, intensifying the relentless pace of the score and the story. Everything works together to pull the audience into the narrative, almost to the point of exhaustion. But for good reason; at the end of the night, Eliza Hamilton’s determined response to the shattering conclusion (“Who Lives, Who Dies, Who Tells Your Story”) becomes ours as well.
And I have to say something about the depth of Chicago’s Hamilton cast. Wednesday night’s performance featured three understudies in major roles, along with the alternate male lead — and if you hadn’t known, you probably couldn’t have told the difference. Joseph Morales gave a scrappy, unstoppable drive to Hamilton, the little guy among the giants; Carl Clemons-Hopkins caught Aaron Burr’s smooth surfaces and unsatisfied soul like lightning in a bottle; Jonathan Kirkland brought equal measures of gravity and desperation to George Washington as both general and president; Colby Lewis’ slick, overconfident Thomas Jefferson felt like Prince was back from beyond; Ari Afsar and Candace Quarrels relished the open-hearted, keen-witted natures of the Schuyler sisters. And, as expected, Alexander Gemignani stole the show as an antic, venomous King George III, killing it with his Beatlesque signature piece “You’ll Be Back” and his jaundiced takes on unfolding events.
One of the most striking effects of Hamilton is how it calls on Americans of all backgrounds, walks of life and ideologies to see the Founders’ story as, actually or potentially, their own; no small feat in today’s deeply divided culture. Long before Hamilton, one of my favorite musicals was 1776, in which Benjamin Franklin says to John Adams at a crucial turning point,
“What will posterity think we were, demigods? We’re men, no more, no less, trying to get a nation started against greater odds than a more generous god would have allowed.”
Hamilton builds on that insight, shows the enormous cost of kicking off the American experiment for the Founders and those they loved — and proposes that it was all worth it, for them and for us. In my book, it’s great theater operating at the highest possible level. If you get a chance to see it, I highly recommend it.
This review is dedicated to Laura Wonacott Asiala, my college newspaper editor from 1980-83. My thanks to Laura for her editorial insight and support back in the day, her friendship and kindness in the years since, and her unabashed love of theater in general and Hamilton in particular.