Tell me if you’ve ever experienced this before…
All of your friends, as well as pretty much every professional critic online and in the press, have hyped something—a TV show, a movie, a book, or whatever—to the point where you think, “OK, I’ve got to see this.”
And then, when the day arrives and you sit down to watch the show or read the book, you get to the end of it and reflect on the experience. But instead of being blown away, your first thought is, “Huh? That was really good, but seriously… it wasn’t that good. At least it wasn’t a waste of time.”
I’ve finally seen Hamilton live, and I can definitively say that the above scenario is NOT the case with this show. In fact, just the opposite happened for me. I departed the Durham Performing Arts Center last Friday night thinking about how much richer, and how much more beautiful, funny, heartbreaking, and—most surprisingly—relevant Hamilton is in this particular moment. Lin-Manuel Miranda should enjoy the accolades and awards and income streams that he has received thanks to this show. He should relish them as part of an amazing, once-in-a-lifetime experience, because Hamilton is a once-in-a-lifetime show. It is his masterpiece, and I am pretty sure that he will never again write something at this ridiculously high level of artistic quality.
Where to begin?
I should divulge up front that I am a huge fan of the Original Cast Recording. By “huge,” I mean that I have roughly 75-80% of the show memorized. I can start singing at the beginning and make it all the way to Alexander’s interjections in “Farmer Refuted” without missing a single syllable of anyone’s part. So Hamilton is not exactly an unknown for me going into the live performance for the first time.
Considered in isolation, the music is a brilliant tapestry of disparate musical genres woven together with such skill that you don’t really notice that you’ve jumped from lyrical hip hop to modern Broadway introspective soliloquy to ’40s-style dance-sequence showstopper to ’60s British pop and back to ’90s & early ’00s rap battles. It flows seamlessly, and the genres themselves often inform or expand upon the action and the characters’ motivations. The various components work together to reinforce and magnify the impact of each other.
Here is one example of this carefully calculated relationship between musical genre, plot, and character. When Thomas Jefferson comes back from France to kick off Act 2, he tells us that he has “basically missed the late ‘80s.” (1780s, that is.) His entrance song is a big, old school jazz production number full of boogie-woogie bass lines, ragtime syncopations, and Southern flair. Throw in some James Brown soul and a touch of funk, and you’ve got Thomas Jefferson’s musical style before he’s up to speed on the situation in Hamilton. We’re in on the joke that a lot has changed since he left these shores for Europe, because everyone else is speaking and singing in more modern rap, R&B, and hip hop styles. Jefferson has got some musical (and expositional) catching up to do, because he’s way behind the times!
Thankfully for the plot, Jefferson is a quick study. By his first cabinet meeting, he throws down mad rhymes in a rap battle with Hamilton over whether or not the Federal government should assume the States’ debts. This newly informed and fully in-control Jefferson speaks fluent 8 Mile and will not be bested by anyone. He even gives us a laugh-out-loud, literal mic drop as he closes his argument — a great touch in the live show. As if to prove the point, he closes his argument in the second cabinet meeting with a Biggie Smalls quote (“Hey, and if ya don’t know, now ya know”).
There is no question that the music can stand on its own.
But this live performance by the National Touring Company at DPAC demonstrated to me how much better the music and lyrics are when placed in the larger context of the stage action, the dance, and the free wheeling characterizations of amazingly skilled performers.
Consider the case of “Burn,” Eliza Hamilton’s poignant song after she learns of Alexander’s infidelity in Act 2. I’ve always considered that piece something of a let down on the cast recording. It seems small and pedestrian, as if a larger and angrier piece was called for in that situation.
But seen in person, “Burn” strikes just the right chords of disillusion, anguish, and pain turned inward. Shoba Narayan’s gorgeous slow burn—culminating in a stuttering, half-cried/half-sung “you, you… you!” while she literally burns Alexander’s love letters to her, one by one—rips your guts out. It’s as if she runs out of words to say, right in front of your eyes. I’ll admit it… that moment, combined with “Satisfied” and the “Finale,” made Hamilton join Les Misérables as the only musical theater pieces that have ever moved me to tears on first viewing. The emotions are real, and you feel them deeply. (OK, I’m excluding a few operas and chamber/symphonic works by Brahms, Mahler, Ravel, and Walton that get me every time. Those of you who know me well know that music speaks deeply to me.)
Speaking of “Satisfied,” seeing Hamilton on stage magnifies how central Angelica Schuyler is to the entire show. As she rewinds the story of her and her sister’s first introduction to Alexander Hamilton, Ta’Rea Campbell’s Beyoncé-like Angelica lays bare the inner conflicts that set the stage for later moments. She is in love with her sister’s husband, and the action on stage shows us how Angelica continues to be Alexander’s political muse, even after she moves to England. Eliza is Alexander’s domesticity, his refuge, and his escape; Angelica is his fire, his coach, and his intellectual sparring partner.
Angelica also gives us the first direct echo of modern issues in her entrance scene, when she declares, “We hold these truths to be self-evident / that all men are created equal / and when I meet Thomas Jefferson / I’ma compel him to include women in the sequel! (Work!)” That line elicited cheers of support in the theater the night I attended, and it wouldn’t be the last moment in Hamilton when the audience interrupted the show with applause specifically because the characters addressed current political debates and offered perspectives on them. The action in the story might take place 200 years ago, but some of those early debates and challenges are still with us.
The biggest cheers of the night in this regard were reserved for the Marquis de Lafayette and Hamilton himself — a Frenchman and a Caribbean-born immigrant—high fiving each other as they say, with clear intent, “Immigrants—we get the job done!” Cue the applause as the audience interrupts to let us know that Hamilton is just as much about the elections of 2018 and 2020 as it is about the election of 1800.
That is perhaps the singular genius of Hamilton: it is the ultimate extended episode of Schoolhouse Rock (I can’t hear parts of it without thinking “I’m just a bill…”), but with commentary on today’s issues, insights on timeless aspects of the human condition, laugh-out-loud humor that actually works, and a wide musical vocabulary that speaks 1960 as well as it speaks 2018.
What was different or a surprise about the live show?
First let me say the Joseph Morales is unbelievably great in the lead role. I was terrified that no one other than Lin-Manuel Miranda could ever do justice to the part. I was wrong to think that. Morales has a slightly different spin on aspects of the role and emphasizes certain words in the lyrics in new and interesting ways. Overall, his Hamilton is a triumph. I could not have been happier with his work.
The biggest difference for devotees of the Original Cast Recording, by far, is Nik Walker‘s take on Aaron Burr.
Let’s start with the original. Leslie Odom’s Burr is a smooth talker. As one character in the show sings, he makes you feel “like you could grab a beer with him.” He’s a plucky bad guy with lots of heart and lots of reservations. Someone you root for at times, even though you know deep down that you should hate that you’re rooting for him.
As the National Touring Company’s Burr, Walker gives us more of a smooth criminal than a smooth talker. You might grab a beer with this Burr, but you would constantly be careful about what you say to him, because he will probably use it against you in the future for his own gain.
Walker’s Burr is hushed but menacing—not a completely one-note villain, but certainly a more dangerous, calculating rogue than Odom’s sunnier version. He is friendly but manipulative, and you never doubt that he’s a bad guy. For me, he’s neither better nor worse than Odom’s more nuanced Burr, just different. It made the Burr-Hamilton relationship seem more antagonistic than I had imagined. Walker’s singing is lighter in depth but darker in tone than Odom’s, and this combination worked especially well in “Dear Theodosia” and “Wait For It,” the second of which brought down the house. Walker’s immense talent was on full display in that moment. That said, I prefer Odom’s reading of “The Room Where It Happens.”
Finally, John Patrick Walker has taken King George and completely made him his own. His comedic timing was brilliant! He had me laughing hard, even though I knew which lines were coming. It was all in the delivery, which was superb. When he dances across the stage and dumps a stack of copies of the Reynolds Pamphlet on Alexander’s head, it is pure comedy gold. Then Kyle Scatliffe’s Thomas Jefferson uses his stack of pamphlets to “make it rain” right in poor Alex’s face, and the pandemonium reaches its fevered peak. Brilliant!
My only regret is that I do not have tickets to another show between now and the end of its run in town. I left the theater on a high, and three days later I’m still in that elevated mental space. The experience was exceptional.
I cannot wait to see Hamilton again!