As I took my seat in the far-left orchestra section of the Richard Rodgers Theatre, I briefly worried that the musical “Hamilton” wouldn’t live up to its hype. For months, I’d been constantly lectured on how ah-mazing the show is, how it’s just a mah-sterpiece, how creator/writer/star of the show Lin-Manuel Miranda is an ah-bsolute gee-nius. I’d seen people who used to scoff at the notion of musical theater become die-hard “Hamilton” fangirls. I’d heard seasoned theater critics declare “Hamilton” the best musical they’d ever seen. I’d read articles by Broadway aficionados proclaiming a new dawn of musical theater with “Hamilton” as it’s rising sun. “Hamilton” is not merely a hit – it’s a knockout smash, and anyone who sees the show is forever changed by the glorious rapping and hip-hop dancing they were so fortunate to witness.
That was all I’d been hearing for months. So as I sat cross-legged in my seat, the lights about to dim, I wondered: could “Hamilton” really be that good?
By the last beat of the first song, I knew I’d been right. “Hamilton” isn’t that good…
As someone who has been going to musicals since I was too young to remember them, and whose parents played show tunes during long car rides to keep me entertained, and who’s seen “The Lion King” and “Wicked” and “Book of Mormon,” I am saying with sans a shred of doubt that “Hamilton” is, by far, the greatest show I have ever seen.
And nothing could have prepared me for it.
Even before the show started, the energy in the theater was electric. As with pretty much all Broadway shows, the audience was very white, but it did seem to be a younger, hipper crowd than the seas of balding heads present at most Broadway shows. Since tickets to “Hamilton” are basically impossible to get, everyone was clearly feeling lucky to be there. Also unusual was that everyone was at the theater and in their seats by showtime– no stragglers crawling to their seats between numbers here. And naturally, people were craning their necks trying to spot a celebrity in the audience. (On the night I went, Melissa McCarthy and husband Ben Falcone were also in attendance.)
At precisely 8:05 p.m., the house lights dimmed. The instantly recognizable (to me, at least) voice of Jonathan Groff, who plays King George III, came on the intercom, and he asked us to please silence our cellphones, make note of the nearest exit, and refrain from taking pictures or videos unless we had a death wish. The theater went pitch-black. The audience collectively took a deep breath. The hidden orchestra played a couple beats of intro. Then Leslie Odom Jr. stepped on stage, a dim, eerie spotlight finding him the exact moment he spoke the first words…
“How does the bastard, orphan, son of a whore and a Scotsman…”
And I fell into a trance.
Odom, playing Aaron Burr, finished the first lyric,
“Dropped in the middle of a forgotten spot in the Caribbean by providence impoverished, in squalor, grow up to be a hero and a scholar?”
And Anthony Ramos, playing John Laurens, picked up the second,
“The ten-dollar, Founding Father without a father…”
And then Thomas Jefferson and James Madison took it away with the third and fourth verses, the company members appearing out of nowhere and everywhere like some sort of magic show, and again Burr took the reins and sang the momentum-building fifth verse, belting the last line, “What’s your name, man!?” and, right before everyone’s hearts exploded from anticipation, Lin-Manuel Miranda took center stage and replied:
And the crowd went wild.
Literally; the audience applauded and the actors and orchestra paused for a second to let the cheering pass. I would have cheered, too, but I was too busy picking my jaw up off the floor.
If all this sounds crazy and hyper-dramatic, that’s because it was. But if you think I’m exaggerating, I promise I’m not, I swear I really felt like I was having some sort of out-of-body experience. I was mesmerized by the quick, clever raps being spit out and by the complex choreography and swelling harmonies. I broke into a wide-mouthed grin; my heart pounded in my chest but I couldn’t hear it over the music; I forgot to breathe; I think I cried a little bit! When the first number ended, I snapped out of it enough to look over at my sister (she’s been a fangirling over the soundtrack for a while now) and give her a look that said, “Oh my God, you were right, this is incredible.”
The musical is, of course, based on the true events of the life of Alexander Hamilton, one of the most influential Founding Fathers and the first Secretary of the Treasury. The musical follows him from his time as a young member of the Revolution through his tenure as General George Washington’s right hand man. Needless to say, several historical figures make appearances; in addition to George Washington (played by the fantastic Christopher Jackson), we see Thomas Jefferson (Daveed Diggs), James Madison (Okieriete Onaodowan), and even poor John Adams is name-dropped a few times, usually accompanied by an insult. But you don’t need to be a historian to appreciate the plot. After the exciting opening number the narrative gets going, beginning with the first time Hamilton and Burr met, depicted in the number “Aaron Burr, Sir.” Hamilton, a recent immigrant in New York City, informs the slightly older-and-wiser Burr that he has tracked him down to ask how he managed to graduate from Princeton College in two years, because Hamilton is looking to do the same. Odom’s Burr is reserved, he’s skeptical of the scrappy young man before him, but he’s impressed by Hamilton’s ambition and offers to buy him a drink. The complex relationship between the two men is one of the most important parts of the show; Hamilton’s and Burr’s lives keep intersecting, mostly to their displeasure, and the eager, teach-me-your-ways attitude Hamilton has towards Burr in that first meeting is a stark contrast to how the two feel about each other in their last.
Most of the relationships between the show’s characters are fascinating to observe, and merit some level of emotional investment on the audience’s part. The three men Hamilton meets after Burr– Marquis de Lafayette (Diggs), Hercules Mulligan (Onaodowan), and John Laurens (Ramos)– are all young Constitutional cronies, and they eagerly accept Hamilton into their circle. (Burr, however, is too much of a square.) Lafayette, Mulligan, and Laurens all brilliantly introduce themselves and state their reasons for joining the Revolution in “My Shot,” a rousing number that you should immediately add to your workout playlist, if you haven’t already. All three men have important roles in the first act and do not return after intermission, because the actors pull double duty as Jefferson (Diggs), Madison (Onaodowan), and Hamilton’s son Philip (Ramos). But while they’re on in Act One, they play key parts as Hamilton’s close friends and constituents, and do great things in every scene and song they’re in.
Hamilton isn’t all about men, though. A huge part of the story revolves around the exceptional Schuyler sisters, three brilliant women played by three brilliant actresses, and the show belongs just as much to them as it does to Hamilton. Angelica, Elizabeth, and Peggy Schuyler are introduced to us in “The Schuyler Sisters,” a lively girl-power number that reminded me of a showtunes-y Beyonce song. One of the best moments of the whole show comes after the sisters sing part of the Declaration of Independence, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal,” when Angelica says “And when I meet I Thomas Jefferson? I’m ‘a compel him to include women in the sequel!” And all the women in the company shout, “Work!”
Angelica, played by Renée Elise Goldsberry, is the eldest Schuyler, and she’s fiery and commanding and coveted by nearly every eligible bachelor in New York. She’s a rare intellectual match for Hamilton, something that attracts them to each other from the get-go. But she’s also fiercely protective of her sisters, and cares more about their happiness than her own, so when middle sister Eliza meets Hamilton and falls head-over-heels for him, Angelica introduces the two and celebrates their happy coupling. These feelings are explained in her song “Satisfied,” which is one of the best numbers and my current go-to in the shower. Goldsberry is extraordinary; her vocal abilities are almost alarmingly impressive, and she gives the boys a run for their money as the only woman who raps in the show.
I could go on and on about how great Angelica Schuyler is; I could probably write a whole article just about her. But then I wouldn’t get to the equally great Eliza, Hamilton’s wife. Played by Phillipa Soo, Eliza is a bit softer than her older sister, but she’s lovely and bright, and according to Angelica, “you will never find anyone as trusting or as kind.” Soo’s voice is gorgeous and pure, and her portrayal of a loyal wife and mother who endures strain, betrayal, and devastating losses is heart-wrenching. “Burn,” one of the most hauntingly beautiful songs in recent memory, gave me goosebumps and made me cry.
I won’t spoil the plot (though it is in your history textbooks) but I will say that for all the greatness in Alexander Hamilton, the way he treated his wife was shameful. The Reynolds Affair, a major scandal at the time, involved Hamilton carrying on an illicit affair with one Maria Reynolds (played by Jasmine Cephas Jones, who also plays Peggy Schuyler). And that’s not even the worst part. For what it’s worth, though, the event gives Jones the chance to shine a bit in the song “Say No To This,” because she certainly doesn’t get that chance as Peggy. (We never really get to know Peggy.)
This review would be incomplete without mention of two exceptional supporting actors, King George III (Groff) and George Washington (Jackson). King George has a couple hilarious cameos, singing his song “You’ll Be Back” and subsequent variations of it, and Groff makes a wonderfully self-obsessed tyrant. But it’s Jackson who steals the show as General Washington, a role that’s big enough and rich enough that it feels more like a main character than a supporting one. Jackson’s performance was one of my favorites– from the moment he steps on stage, you really believe he’s the mighty George Washington. Then he starts to sing, and his voice is like honey, and you decide that what the world needs most right now is that man in a spin-off.
Washington’s character is race-bent, meaning Jackson, who is black, plays George Washington, who was definitely not black. Every other recurring character is race-bent as well (the only exception is King George), which was done intentionally. Miranda has said this was done as “a way of pulling [the audience] into the story,” and that it “makes the story more immediate and more accessible to a contemporary audience.” This is definitely true, and is part of why “Hamilton” is such a huge sensation. You could delve deep into analysis of the race-bending, exploring how casting a person of color as a slaveowner affects the character, and discussing the commentary behind making the only non-race-bent character the tyrannical monarch. Or you could just sit back, relax, and enjoy the historical rap battles. Either way, you’ll probably like “Hamilton.” And if you’re anything like me and thousands of other people, you might even fall in love.
I think, for me, the reason “Hamilton” is so wonderful is that it tells an extraordinary story, and tells it extraordinarily well. Of course the music and dancing and theatricalities are fun to watch, but all that would mean nothing if it weren’t for the richness of the characters, the relationships between them, and the performances behind them. The show is top-notch entertainment, the live performance is a privilege to watch, and the album is 46 songs of pure musical fire. But between all the clever historical references and elaborate dance numbers that’ll teach you more about the Continental Army than a year of APUSH, there’s a story, and it’s powerful enough to shine through in every moment.
“Hamilton” is a story about strength and perseverance, about love and loss, and about what it means to leave a legacy. It’s about the stories we choose to build and the stories we choose to tell; it’s about how we live our lives; it asks us whether leaving a lasting impression on the world is more important than living happily in it. It leaves you thinking about the show’s final lines, thinking about who lives and who dies, thinking about your own story. You wonder who will tell it.
I left my seat at the Richard Rogers Theatre silent, in tears, dazed as I took everything I’d just seen in. A few minutes later, still unable to speak, I started laughing, because of how dramatic my own reaction was. I wasn’t sure whether I was going crazy, or if “Hamilton” really was that good.
But of course, it wasn’t that good. It was better.
COVER IMAGE COURTESY OF CREATIVE COMMONS