Theater Review: Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton Is Worth Way More Than $10

Lin-Manuel Miranda (at right) in Hamilton Photo: Joan Marcus

I don’t mean to suggest that you’re unpatriotic if you aren’t moved by Hamilton, Lin-Manuel Miranda’s sensational new hip-hop biomusical at the Public. But in order to dislike it you’d pretty much have to dislike the American experiment. The conflict between independence and interdependence is not just the show’s subject but also its method: It brings the complexity of forming a union from disparate constituencies right to your ears. It may confuse your ears, too: Few are the theatergoers who will be familiar with all of Miranda’s touchstones. I caught the verbal references to Rodgers and Hammerstein, Gilbert and Sullivan, Sondheim, West Side Story, and 1776, but other people had to point out to me the frequent hat-tips to hip-hop: Biggie Smalls, the Fugees, “Blame It (On the Alcohol).” And I’m sure that historians in the audience (the show was “inspired by” Ron Chernow’s 800-page Hamilton biography) will catch references that the rest of us fail to notice. (“The world turned upside down,” a repeated phrase in a number about the Battle of Yorktown, is the name of the ballad supposedly played by Redcoat musicians upon Cornwallis’s surrender there, in 1781.) But for all its complexity — its multi-strand plotting and exploding rhyme-grenades — Hamilton is neither a challenge nor a chore. It’s just great.

Whether it’s a watershed, a breakthrough, and a game changer, as some have been saying, is another matter. Miranda is too savvy (and loves his antecedents too much) to try to reinvent all the rules at once. In some ways, he’s not reinventing any, merely stretching them; this is, after all, a show intending to move to Broadway. Yes, it features an enormous canvas. Not even including flashbacks to Hamilton’s impoverished upbringing in the Caribbean — “a bastard, orphan, son of a whore and a Scotsman” — the story hits all the highlights of his public and private life, from his service in George Washington’s army to the extramarital affair that nearly sank him to the duel with Aaron Burr that did. In between, we are treated to dense servings of monetary policy, colonial courting, Founding Father rivalry, and Federalism. But politics, revolution, and compressed comprehensiveness are hardly novelties in musicals: Think of Evita or even Les Misérables. Thank God, Miranda tells his tale more wittily than do those lumbering pop operas; though it ends no more happily for its protagonist, Hamilton is joyful and funny. Partly this is because Miranda, in the title role, is, too. His Hamilton is no headachy diva or tiresome saint, but a kinetic, garrulous, eminently likable enthusiast. He will win you to his side at all costs. (One of the costs seems to have been to his voice, which sounded ragged at a preview performance.)

Still, as author, Miranda has not hesitated to steal a crucial device from his French and Argentine models. Like Eva Peron dogged and explicated by Che, Hamilton is largely presented to us by Burr, who narrates the action ironically. And to the extent Burr is also an independent character, a seething dark twin to his rival, he has also been turned into a Javert, which seems to me a promotion above his station. You can see why Miranda did it: The strands of acrimony in a life as big (and as filled with frenemies) as Hamilton’s are too diffuse to wind into a satisfying thread without an antagonist to pull them together and keep the story from straying too far from its themes. Burr — another orphan, though highborn — was the best antagonist available. But if Hamilton has a structural problem it stems from the choice to keep Burr on boil throughout the action, even when he has no real relationship to it. He sings songs about his wife and daughter (both, confusingly, named Theodosia) though we never meet them and, despite Leslie Odom, Jr.’s electric performance, don’t care to. They are off topic.

Is it coincidental that these songs are traditional ballads — the least of Miranda’s many skills? Both in language and music they seem vague and ordinary, especially in contrast to the marvels going on elsewhere. The story is almost entirely sung, in a blend of rap, hip-hop, and Broadway that still sounds new even though, minus the Latin flavor, it’s not very different from the blend Miranda used for In the Heights. The genres are divvied up according to their expressive characteristics, so that the three Schuyler sisters — Eliza was Hamilton’s wife, Angelica his romantic friend — get a Destiny’s Child–type trio; Jefferson, humorously if unfairly painted as an entitled party boy, gets a boogie-woogie called “What’d I Miss”; and, best of all, King George, in a brilliant comic turn by Brian d’Arcy James, gets a Carnaby Street breakup song not unlike “With a Little Help From My Friends.” (“You’ll be back / Soon you’ll see / You’ll remember you belong to me.”) Meanwhile, Hamilton and his band of brothers — the Marquis de Lafayette, Hercules Mulligan, and John Laurens — are musically characterized in a more contemporary idiom. Exact rhyme and traditional melody give way to fusillades of assonance and wordplay detonated by a sprung beat: “Lock up ya daughters and horses — of course 
it’s / Hard to have intercourse over four sets of corsets.” Daveed Diggs, Okieriete Onaodowan, and Anthony Ramos as the confrères deliver the sometimes harsh material with unusual charm.

They deliver something else, too, just by being cast. (Though all of the show’s historical personages were white, the principal cast, except for King George, mostly isn’t.) This is more than colorblind; it’s a key to the story as it projects into the future. (Miranda, whose parents, like Hamilton, came to New York from the Caribbean, is a vivid integrationist.) The use of musical genres that grew out of nonwhite American experience is also a way of projecting into the past. Miranda dramatizes debates in Washington’s cabinet as hilarious rap showdowns (complete with mike-drops) and, more generally, uses our familiarity with the internecine battles of hip-hop to make the exploits of our first citizens feel contemporary. The high-spiritedness of youth — Hamilton was 21 when independence was declared — is probably best expressed in the most current sounds; if this allows Miranda some easy laughs over the incongruity of men in frock coats trash-talking taxation without representation, it also helps us understand them. We would not want a score full of gavottes for a show about men with thin skin and quick triggers in a society that still permitted duels, at least in New Jersey.

Those duels, by the way — there are three of them — are superbly handled, the highlights of a riveting if at times overbusy staging by the director Thomas Kail and the choreographer Andy Blankenbuehler. The ensemble, in deconstructed versions of the authentic historical clothing worn by the principals, is almost always going at full throttle. (The costumes are by Paul Tazewell.) It’s almost too much to take in, especially when you may be fully occupied trying to grab all the details of Miranda’s best riffs. Indeed, the relentlessness of the show’s wish to make its points sometimes threatens to render it more smart than effective. Rap monologues with their compulsive innerness already have a monologic tendency, and Miranda has furthermore built the story on a foundation of themes rather than actions. (History is limiting in that way.) Some of these are apt: Hamilton’s mantra “I am not throwing away my shot” wonderfully morphs in meaning to produce useful ironies. Others seem forced, though. (Upon his son’s birth, and on occasion thereafter, he sings that the boy will someday “blow us all away,” which, suffice it to say, is not what happens.) Likewise, both Eliza (the lovely Phillipa Soo) and Angelica (Renée Elise Goldsberry, excellent) get lyrical leitmotifs that are perhaps too on the nose.

But Miranda’s ambition here, mostly fulfilled, excuses his narrative over-eagerness. And while conventional wisdom suggests he might further improve Hamilton by cutting — it was already cut substantially in previews — why get conventional now? A country, even after 239 years, must keep reinventing itself, but at some point the author of a beautiful and moving musical, whatever its flaws, should let it run, and move on. Miranda is just 35.

Hamilton is at the Public Theater through May 3.

*This article appears in the February 23, 2015 issue of New York Magazine.