Having listened to the Hamilton soundtrack multiple times since it was released on NPR in 2015, I was curious about the musical. I happened to be one of those people who read Ron Chernow’s behemoth biography of Alexander Hamilton, our first Secretary of the Treasury and one of three authors of The Federalist Papers, way before a musical was ever conceived. The biography was one of many to chose from for a AP Government project back in high school, though at over 800 pages it was quite daunting. Luckily for me I read quickly, and was immediately swept up into Chernow’s gripping biography of a Founding Father I knew very little about.
Now with Hamilton touring across the United States and its sudden popularity among theatre lovers, I wasn’t certain I could get tickets under $800 during the tour. However, I was able to receive discounted tickets from work, and went along for the ride.
Listening to the soundtrack on Spotify is a much different experience than seeing a live performance. The stage looks very much like the hull of a ship, with ropes and pulleys and rigs hanging on the walls. The setup is reminiscent of Man of La Mancha, a simplistic stage that the actors manipulate to adjust to the story. As the prisoners do in La Mancha so do the background Colonists quietly push columns into place and change swiftly into redcoats, New Yorkers, students and wedding guests.
The centerpiece of the stage is a circular platform embedded into the floor. Separated into three wheels, the circular platform not only brings movement to stationary actors, and the illusion of quick movement across the cobblestone streets in New York, a steady march of two duelists, rowing across the Hudson, and the howling winds of a hurricane.
Undoubtedly, one of the most poignant uses of this platform hit me during “Hurricane.” Lights dimmed to a sea-green blue, and the ensemble stumbled across the platforms, as if scattered by the hurricane that destroyed Hamilton’s home on the island of Nevis. Hamilton stands at the center in a halo of yellow light, in the eye of the hurricane now destroying his chance at the presidency. During the finale the hurricane’s eye becomes a bull’s-eye, a target for Hamilton as tensions between Burr amount to the fated duel that would become ingrained in American history.
While there were a few hiccups with the sound, the actors managed to fill in the shoes of the original New York cast. Maria Reynolds, played by Amber Iman, belted out her first few notes in seductive, husky tones, a complete turnaround from playing Peggy in the first act. Rory O’Malley’s performance of King George nearly stole the show, despite his few appearances. He appears during other songs, gleefully reading copies of the Reynolds Pamphlets and strutting across the stage to throw them at Hamilton’s feet. An especially poignant moment was when Hamilton (Michael Luwoye) stood in front of Washington (Isaiah Johnson) during “History Has Its Eyes on You.” The lighting illuminated Luwoye, and his silhouette on the wall behind him looked exactly like the silhouette of an American president on coins.
The multi-ethnic cast reminds us that America is a melting pot, and how Hamilton too was an immigrant from the Caribbean. All at once the musical reminds us of America’s beginning, of the Revolution and the people who fought to create a nation; and yet Hamilton reminds us too of how far we have come, and of the racism and political tension eating away at modern America. In this regard, Hamilton works well on stage and its defiance of having a mostly non-white cast for the Founding Fathers and utilizing rap makes its very existence a political commentary. Alexander Hamilton’s turbulent life, it seems, is just as messy and full of mistakes as the history of our nation.
Don’t let the rap aspect fool you–it enhances, rather than hinders, Hamilton’s story and that of America’s. This highly-stylized musical brings a modern freshness to American history that no other recent narrative has done in fiction for the era. It is all at once a history lesson, its hard historical truths keeping the unconventional musical approach grounded in its structure. It was a delightful performance, and if you have the chance to see it…well…don’t throw away your shot!