1/31/2024 HAMILTON Broadway in Atlanta / Fox Theatre
WHO TELLS YOUR STORY?
How does an elder writer / whose prose could be tighter / who couldn’t be whiter,
Act like he knows / How to set down in prose / before it close(s)
an appreciation of the 2015 Broadway phenomenon Hamilton?
Always welcome in Atlanta, this is my first visit to Lin-Manuel Miranda’s tour-de-force “opening up” of American history to story-tellers more representative of contemporary America than can found in politically-approved textbooks. Yes, I’ve listened to the score more often than often, and watched the Disney video more than once. But seeing it live? Seeing it breathe and pulsate with passion and pain and song and vision and life?
Well, let me not throw away my shot of adding my praise to the deafening chorus of accolades already showered on Hamilton throughout the past decade!
Using Ron Chernow’s 2004 biography of Alexander Hamilton, Miranda fashioned a sung-through excursion through the “highlights” of the American Revolution as well as the struggle to not allow our infant country languish in its crib, a victim of partisan bickering and regional stress and pride. The score is an eclectic mixture of Rap and Hip-Hop, R&B and Pop, with straight-up Broadway balladry softening its edges. The score gets under the skin, while it dominates the earworm center of the brain.
Did I mention I’m not the biggest fan of rap and hip-hop (“who couldn’t be whiter” ) and was cool to the show when I first heard it? Until “It’s Quiet Uptown.” Just as I was
cool to In the Heights. Until “Breathe.” This is a bit of an irony since I AM a fan of the patter songs of the original “rappers” (Gilbert and Sullivan). So, it seems that once I am “into” a score at a story level, at a musical level, my unconscious resistance to anything “rap-esque” disappears in a whirl of appreciation.
Yes, some of the numbers in Hamilton are delivered at such a rapid pace they can barely be understood. It’s a credit to this particular cast that the fastest lyrics were delivered with near-perfect diction and were completely comprehensible. Or maybe they weren’t and I just know the lyrics well enough to actually hear them. I have developed some favorites here – the opening “Alexander Hamilton,” the rousing “My Shot,” The “Schuyler Sisters” intro, Jefferson’s Act II “What’d I Miss,” Lafayette’s rapid-fire “Guns and Ships,” the political smorgasbord of “The Room Where it Happens.” Of course, the ballads are equally memorable, especially “It’s Quiet Uptown” (my “in” for this show), Burr’s “Dear Theodosia,” Eliza’s sadly bitter “Burn.” And of course, all of King George’s songs with for their wit and wryness.
One of the joys of this show are the numerous Musical-Geek “Easter Eggs,” with quotes and allusions to South Pacific, 1776, Singin’ in the Rain, The Pirates of Penzance, and The Last Five Years.
Okay, the historical purist may quibble at some of the shallower aspects of the characterizations – these are founding fathers as viewed through a distinctly modern lens and, as such, it keeps complexities minimal – Madison is (almost) pure toady, Jefferson is (almost) pure strutting peacock, Lafayette is (almost) pure French Caricature, Washington is (almost) pure nobility, etc etc etc. But this is Hamilton’s story and we see the other characters through the lens of his experience. So, to my mind, there’s nothing wrong with this approach to history.
And let’s be honest, the real star here is Miranda, his score and his libretto – the touring cast brings it alive and are to be commended for making us not care we’re seeing “replacements” to the original cast. After almost ten years, how could it be otherwise? Commendations need to go out to Pierre Jean Gonzalez (Hamilton), Deon’te Goodman (Burr), Nikisha Williams (Eliza), Lencia Kebede (Angelica), Jared Howelton (Lafayette / Jefferson), Kendyl Sayuri Yokoyama (Peggy / Maria Reynolds), Tyler Fauntleroy (Laurens / Philip) and Neil Haskell (King George). At first glance, Marcus Choi’s Washington seems a bit diminutive for such an historically towering figure, but his characterization (and beautiful belt voice) soon convinced me of his expected stature. An ensemble of 15 backs up the principals, fills out the stage, keeps the segues smooth and rapid, and even steps into a few small one-scene roles.
All the technological aspects are beautifully realized, with Lights by Howell Binkley beautifully coloring the cast as well as David Korins’ singularly elegant set, with Paul Tazewell’s costumes setting period (as well as specific points in the characters’ lives) while remaining amenable to the quickest of quick-changes. The Sound Design of Nevin Steinberg overcame the many shortcomings of the Fox’s barnlike acoustics, mixing voice and orchestra to perfection. This is a cue-heavy show, seemingly dozens of sound and light and set-change and turntable cues per minute, it made me wonder how Production Stage Manager Jimmie Lee Smith was able to call them all and still breathe.
So, in the final analysis, is it possible for me to bring any new insights into a discussion of this oft-discussed show? Probably not. Even so, it’s my turn to tell the story of this company’s turn to tell the story. The bottom line is that this is a compelling narrative in its true historical context, in its filtered-through-diversity modern lens, in its expansive musical vocabulary, and in its apparent love of musical history, of rap and pop-music history (I am singularly unqualified to cite those “Easter Eggs” but there are plenty of on-line rabbit holes down which you may scamper if you so desire.)
Hamilton has a relatively long stay at the Fox (through February 25) – this isn’t its first tour here and I dare say it won’t be its last. It’s a story worth hearing every time it is told, and it is apparent that unfamiliar faces telling the story have a tendency to bring new energy, new surprise, new emotional beats to what ten years have turned into a very familiar story.
This current Touring Company tells Alexander Hamilton’s story. Tells America’s story. And memorably tells it with passion and with honesty and with not a little joy.