If you’ve flipped through any magazine, opened any newspaper, or perused any blog in the past month, you’ve probably read about Lin-Manuel Miranda and his new show, “Hamilton.” The ’02 University graduate wrote “In the Heights” while living in La Casa his sophomore year, and returned to the CFA last September to talk about his life, his time at Wes, and the show he was about to bring to life, which debuted Off-Broadway in January and came to Broadway this summer, along with a slew of rave reviews and detailed profiles of its creator.
“Hamilton” tells the story of Alexander Hamilton, beginning with his arrival in New York and ending in his dramatically ironic death. It’s told in the style of an opera, with nonstop music mostly comprised of rap, hip-hop, and jazz, along with hints of a few other genres. The cast is almost entirely black or Hispanic, which is a deliberate decision by Miranda that brings the show into current conversations about race, equality, and diversity.
The most stunning quality about “Hamilton” is the way that it brings a topic that seems so remote into the urgent present, exploring topics like race, gender, and change that could not be more prevalent to modern-day society. He balances current speech, clothing, music, and style with 18th-century language, costumes, and subject matter. Take the costumes and set design: they make it clear you’ve entered colonial America, but their modern minimalism (corsages and riding pants for ensemble members with bare brick walls in the backdrop) updates the show. The result is a historically accurate piece that simultaneously reminds its audience how current the show really is.
In addition to Miranda’s ingenious lyrics and singing talent, he assembled a phenomenal cast to help him deliver the story. Leslie Odom Jr., best known in the Broadway world for his role on the TV show “Smash,” expressed Aaron Burr’s bitter jealousy while making him completely understandable and relatable. Daveed Diggs, who raps for an experimental L.A. group called clipping., switched between fast-paced, syllable-stuffed rap verses and loud, flamboyant jazz, playing both Marquis de Lafayette and Thomas Jefferson. “Heights”’s Christopher Jackson elegantly portrayed George Washington’s quiet yet irrefutable leadership, along with the controversially paternal attitude he held towards Hamilton. And finally, in a strategic move to provide a recognizable face for more classic Broadway fans, Miranda threw in a hammy Jonathan Groff as King George III, who occasionally showed up between scenes, covered in luxurious furs and gold ornaments, dripping with condescending pomp, and singing short British pop-influenced numbers about how much America would regret becoming independent with the intentionally sour tone of a bitter ex. In terms of non-cast members, Miranda stayed true to his Wesleyan roots, appointing Thomas Kail ’99 as director. Kail, who approached Miranda shortly after his graduation with major script changes to “In the Heights,” produced both the Off-Broadway and Broadway productions of the show.
Miranda has said repeatedly in interviews that after reading Chernow’s biography of Hamilton, he saw the same story in Hamilton that he associated with immigrants like his own father and rappers like Tupac and Jay-Z: a determination and grit that drove them to pull themselves up by their bootstraps and, as Hamilton’s signature song claims, “not throw away their shot.”
Miranda fluidly wove rap culture into the Founding Fathers’ stories, not only by using the musical genre, but also by throwing in playfully modern phrases like “lezdoit” or acting out a senate meeting in the style of a daytime-TV talk show. He applies the obnoxious, yet somehow endearing gloating sometimes used by rappers about their money or success, such as when Jefferson throws dollar bills and shouts, “You ain’t gon’ be president now!” after a particularly nasty scandal comes out. Another modern touch is the brief “Oh shit” that Hamilton impulsively utters upon hearing his friend is having an affair. These brief breaks into modern vernacular remind the audience that while this story takes place in the past, it’s not so distant from where we are now. It’s one of the many aspects that bring the show into the present, and makes the audience see the characters not just as the faces on bills or names on documents but as determined, flawed, authentic humans.
At a time when activists press for social change in every realm, from LGBTQ discrimination to the same racial oppression that was happening almost a century ago, “Hamilton” captures the feeling of being young and demanding change, becoming part of that change, guiding it, and leading it. Miranda’s Wesleyan background is anything but surprising, given the activist tone of the show.
It occurred to me in the first few minutes that night that female roles would probably be sparse, given the lack of opportunity for women at the time to take part in any of the decisions being made about the country. I can assure you the show is not going down in history as a large step forward for strong female characters – but Miranda did his best to give the few women in the show some complexity and grit.
In the finale of “Hamilton,” the cast softly chants, “Who tells your story?” Miranda did more than tell Alexander Hamilton’s story – he made it matter more than it ever has. He used it to explore and address a myriad of immediate issues that our current society wants, and needs, to discuss. He showcased a stunningly talented and diverse group of young, promising performers. He subverted the generally elitist and white-dominated nature of Broadway, and altered the role of musicals in our society. He gave audiences the pure entertainment that we expect from Broadway, and then went further by adding crucial current politics to the mix. He created the harmonious combination of intellect and creativity that I see so often at Wesleyan, and that makes audiences think about weighty issues while simultaneously enjoying themselves.
Its subject matter aside, “Hamilton” is a revolution in and of itself.