Just you wait
A review of Hamilton
Greenville, South Carolina is one of mine and my wife’s favorite cities to visit. We love strolling up and down the shady streets of the downtown area, looking in the boutique shops or sampling some coffee or gelato. Even more enticing is Falls Park on the Reedy, a gorgeous park situated around the Reedy River at the site of a natural waterfall. A striking pedestrian bridge soars over the park, offering picturesque views of the waterfall and allowing access to the park from either side of the river. The city of Greenville knows how special this park is, and it seems like there’s always something going on. On a warm sunny day, it’s tough to imagine a more pleasant place to be.
But when my wife and I visited Greenville last December, the weather was so horrible we didn’t even make it to the park. Luckily, Greenville has another asset that’s just as special as the park, and it’s just as enjoyable in rain, shine or snow. We were there to visit The Peace Center, to see a performance of Hamilton.
I know what you’re probably thinking: Finally! Some insightful Broadway musical review and analysis from Section 411. Okay, I’ll concede that I’m a little out of my comfort zone here, but it’s been a long time since I went somewhere for entertainment with such high expectations and had them exceeded so convincingly, and an experience like that is worth writing about.
(Hamilton is based on a biography of Alexander Hamilton, so while the overall ending shouldn’t be a surprise, here’s your warning that there might be spoilers from this point on.)
Lin-Manuel Miranda’s first musical, Into the Heights, was successful by most standards but pales in comparison to Hamilton. Since debuting in 2015, tickets for Hamilton have been nearly impossible to get on or off Broadway. When Sara and I heard Hamilton was coming to Greenville, we set our alarms on one Saturday in August and made sure we were ready to buy tickets when we got our chance. But we struck out: by the time it was our turn to buy tickets, the only ones that were available were on weeknights or not together or thousands of dollars. We had pretty much given up on seeing it when Sara’s friend Rose asked us in early November if we would be interested in tickets. They weren’t cheap, but I remember thinking at the time that if it really was a once-in-a-lifetime show, they’d be well worth it.
I’ve been to two other musicals at The Peace Center: The Lion King and The King and I. The Lion King’s sold-out crowd was boisterous with a lot of children and families in attendance, while The King and I’s crowd was a little more subdued, not quite sold out and a slightly higher average age. Hamilton’s crowd was different. There was a palpable buzz of excitement in the air. Not only was the show we were about to see among this generation’s most anticipated, but the rain that had been falling all day was forecast to change to snow as the night got colder. Sara and I found our seats about 10 minutes before curtains, but it seemed like we were among the last to sit down; everyone had made an extra effort to be in their seats on time.
Hamilton is a sung-through musical, meaning that unlike shows like The Lion King, there is no real dialogue, strictly speaking. All of the exposition, every character interaction, every bit of plot happens within a musical number. Hamilton blurs this line somewhat because some of its musical numbers are raps, but it doesn’t make it any easier on the cast: the script has the most words per minute of any modern Broadway musical with barely any breaks. I was left with a feeling of wonder that any human being could memorize that many words and perform them so well live – if anyone flubbed a line on the night we saw the show, I sure didn’t notice. I wouldn’t have gotten that feeling from watching a movie, which has the benefits of cuts and breaks and reshoots. I’m sure that Hamilton will be turned into a film at some point, but I’m also convinced that this script is meant to be performed on stage.
An interesting fact about Hamilton is that most of the main roles are filled by people of color. This was done intentionally: “It is essential to the storytelling of Hamilton that the principal roles, which were written for nonwhite characters (excepting King George), be performed by nonwhite actors,” the show’s producers have said. This type of casting is called color-conscious casting, and it’s perfect for Hamilton. It’s pretty ingenious. Because the cast is so diverse, it emphasizes that what makes America strong is its diversity. This supports a theme that’s referenced several times throughout the show, “immigrants: we get the job done.”
Joseph Morales played Hamilton’s eponymous main character, and doesn’t have many lines while letting the rest of the company introduce him in the first number. However, he finds his voice quickly. Miranda portrays Hamilton as an underdog with genius-level intellect, but with more than his fair share of arrogance and rashness. I was reminded of protagonists written by Aaron Sorkin: incredibly smart but maybe just a little too quick with their words. Sorkin’s characters often work harder than anyone else and are prolific in their output, and this similarity holds true for Hamilton as well. Near the end of the first act, Aaron Burr wonders rhapsodically, “why do you write like you’re running out of time?” But the answer is clear. Hamilton’s main character motivation is to “not throw away his shot,” to not waste his chance at greatness. He believes he has a chance to be great, but knows he has to play catch up to be recognized.
During the intermission, I noted that Miranda portrayed Hamilton’s negative traits so prominently it led me to wonder if Miranda even liked Hamilton. I leaned towards no at the time. But after watching the second act and relistening to the musical a number of times, I gained a better understanding of what I was seeing. First, I think Miranda sees a lot of himself in Hamilton, and so he points out Hamilton’s deficiencies as a way of identifying his own. Hamilton is accused of being too rash, writes “like he’s running out of time,” and often spends too much time at work; it doesn’t seem like much of a stretch to infer that Miranda feels this way about himself sometimes too.
But second, and more importantly, I was tricked. I thought I was seeing Miranda be less kind to Hamilton, but really, he was simply being more kind to Hamilton’s eventual murderer, Aaron Burr. Burr – played by Nik Walker at our show – is a revelation in this musical. He serves as the show’s mostly-reliable narrator, in that he’s normally able to stay impassive but sometimes can’t resist throwing a jab in at Hamilton. Miranda highlights many of Burr’s and Hamilton’s similarities: they’re both incredibly smart, they’re both orphans and they both have a role in the American revolution. By the end of the first act, they’re both fathers as well, and in a rare moment of unity between the two, they sing a beautiful duet to their newborn children.
Burr’s strategy to reach the top, however, is summed up in four words of advice he gives to Hamilton early on: “Talk less. Smile more.” This is inpalatable to Hamilton, who is a man of action and wears his heart on his sleeve. Hamilton always feels he has to share where he stands, and he finds it shameful that Burr won’t do this. It’s their main source of conflict throughout the musical, and as the second act progresses, the similarities between the two of them continue to force Burr and Hamilton to butt heads, with ever more painful consequences. However, it’s a testament to Miranda’s writing that Burr is able to gain the viewer’s sympathy early on and hold it until the very end. There’s a nice symmetry between one of Burr’s first lines and one of his last, which sum up Burr’s attitude as he tells the story: in the first number, he reveals, “I’m the damn fool who shot him,” and in his last, “now I’m the villain in your history.”
The rest of the supporting characters are all excellent as well. One of the best was Kyle Scatcliffe as the Marquis de Lafayette and Thomas Jefferson. I love the duality here: the same actor playing the legendary French general and noted Francophile Thomas Jefferson. Scatcliffe has some of the most technically challenging dialogue in the play (including rapping in French), but still gives both characters a certain charisma and humor.
Jon Patrick Walker is also a highlight as King George. He only makes three main appearances, but his numbers stand out because they’re true showstoppers; they’re slower in tempo, more grandiose, and more along the lines of what you’d expect from a traditional Broadway show. Walker is the only white actor in the cast, and each of his musical numbers are solos, slower and more grandiose. But they’re also hilarious, in large part because of the unwritten facial cues and body language he uses while singing.
Shoba Narayan, as Eliza Schuyler Hamilton, gives Hamilton tenderness and serves as its emotional center. Eliza’s numbers are more emotionally raw than any of the other characters, and Narayan’s voice handled them perfectly. Eliza grounds Hamilton, reminding him that he is loved no matter how successful he is in his military or political life. She begins her marriage as a totally deferential housewife who just wants her husband’s attention and affection, but as the play progresses, she discovers how to live on her own terms, especially when she’s treated unjustly. Eliza, who spent her marriage with Hamilton telling him that just being a husband and father “would be enough,” ends up outliving Hamilton by fifty years and becomes almost as prolific in her contributions to society after he’s gone.
Finally, Marcus Choi, as George Washington, is the show’s moral center. Washington is revered by most of the other characters for his wisdom and leadership, and Miranda uses Washington to deliver most of what we’re supposed to take away from Hamilton. Hamilton, Burr and others in the story are eager to define their own legacy, and worry constantly about how their actions will be perceived in years to come. Washington, on the other hand, knows that “you have no control [of] who lives, who dies, who tells your story.” In his last song, he sings that he’ll “teach ’em how to say goodbye,” setting the stage for that first crucial transition of power. Where Hamilton and Burr lean heavily towards action and passivity respectively, Washington is both at the same time.
Those are just the best of the best, but there are seemingly no filler characters in Hamilton. Even characters with relatively minor roles, like Peggy Schuyler, Samuel Seabury or Philip Hamilton, get a moment or two to shine. To that end, there are very few filler musical numbers either; even the expositionary numbers are entertaining or mercifully brief.
Hamilton portrays Alexander Hamilton as anti-slavery, a stance which angers Jefferson and Madison in the show as well as in real life. That schism was important because it’s the main reason that the U.S. became a two party system of government, which still exists to this day. I was left wondering: would slavery have ended sooner if Hamilton had lived longer? The Hamilton in the play was certainly against it, and after he died his wife did her best to keep up the fight. Would it have been enough? Indeed, Hamilton is just as much about his shortcomings as it is his accomplishments.
Perhaps Miranda’s greatest feat with Hamilton is that he manages to tell a 200-year old story in a way that’s still incredibly relevant today. The lyrics are rich with history but also rich with references to modern pop and rap culture, as well as modern politics. The music itself is technically impressive and super catchy. As the curtain fell and we stood up to leave the theater, I couldn’t find anything of substance to complain about. It’s hard for me to remember something that exceeded my high expectations so spectacularly. I can’t recommend Hamilton highly enough; if you get a chance to see it, don’t throw away your shot (and invite me!).
As if to end the evening in style, the rain which drenched Greenville all day had changed to snow while we were watching the second act, and was already an inch deep as we walked out of the Peace Center. Maybe this was an annoyance for anyone who was driving, but since we were staying in the hotel right next door, Sara and I didn’t have to worry about that. Instead, it felt like a curtain call on an unforgettable night.
Thanks to Sara Sawczuk for reading several drafts of this post, and especially for helping me execute a much-needed colon cleanse on an early draft.