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In the annals of history, Alexander Hamilton has been a bit of a foundering father. Sure, he wrote the bulk of The Federalist Papers and established the first federal bank as George Washington’s secretary of the treasury. But he also founded the New York Post (a dubious legacy, perhaps), became embroiled in one of the young nation’s first political sex scandals, and died at age 47 in a duel with then-vice-president Aaron Burr that thwarted two promising careers with presidential ambitions. Now he’s the center of an audaciously bold and brilliant new musical, Hamilton, playing through May 3 at the Public Theater, that should be marching onto Broadway before too long, with fife and drum in tow.
But this isn’t 1776 redux — or even Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson (which relied on a faux-emo score and a book that took a broad, Mad Magazine swipe at history). Composer-lyricist-playwright Lin-Manuel Miranda, who burst on the scene in 1999 with his rap-inflected score for In the Heights, has crafted a sung-through hip-hopera that hews closely to the facts of Hamilton’s life while feeling utterly contemporary at every turn. Aaron Burr (Leslie Odom Jr.) calls himself a “trust fund baby.” Hamilton’s sister-in-law and trusted confidante flashes proto-feminist tendencies. And debates in Washington’s cabinet about the utility of a national bank are presented as rap battles between the foppish Thomas Jefferson (Daveed Diggs) and Hamilton (Miranda), complete with catcalls from supporters and end-of-phrase mic drops.
The score is vintage Miranda, with melodic and lyrical nods to his diverse range of influences: Gilbert and Sullivan, Rodgers and Hammerstein, and Stephen Sondheim on the one hand; Biggie Smalls, Tupac Shakur, and the Fugees on the other. Miranda has long cross-pollinated his work, blending the looseness and syncopation of hip-hop and the more disciplined musical structure of classic Broadway. But here he ups his game, re-deploying motifs (and overlapping them) for greater dramatic power. He also uses internal rhymes with enviable precocity, as in Hamilton’s dismissal of Jefferson’s deference to Washington: “Always hesitant with the President / Reticent–there isn’t a plan he doesn’t jettison.”
The notably diverse cast — the main characters are all played by Latino or African American actors — is uniformly excellent. In the title role, Miranda captures the intelligence, impulsiveness, and boyish neediness of one of America’s first patriots. (Admittedly, though, his baritone-tenor voice is better suited to the tongue-twistingly tricky raps in his score than the more melodic phrases.) Phillipa Soo and Renée Elise Goldsberry are superb as the Schuyler sisters, who both fall for Hamilton (in memorably harmonic ballads). Diggs has a flair for comedic energy in his dual roles as Marquis de Lafayette and a slightly ridiculous Thomas Jefferson. And Brian d’Arcy James, the rare Caucasian in the cast, nearly steals the show as England’s King George III, whose bouncy British-pop number hilariously evokes royal hauteur. “When push comes to shove,” he sings, “I will send a fully armed battalion to remind you of my love.”
At nearly three hours, Hamilton could use some tightening. The show is dense with exposition, particularly in the opening few minutes, when biographical details are often rapped in daunting rapidity. There are also a few narrative detours that seem like cul-de-sacs. For instance, we see an awful lot of Aaron Burr, a moneyed orphan facing down his own issues with ambition and adultery, but despite Odom’s best efforts he never emerges as more than a schematic counterpoint to Hamilton. (Unless Miranda elevates Burr to a co-lead, a la Judas in Jesus Christ Superstar, Hamilton’s dueling partner should probably recede more to the background.)
That said, Hamilton never feels long, pulsing as it does with the vitality and rambunctious spirit of young revolutionaries. Thomas Kail, who first directed In the Heights, keeps the plot-heavy story moving, aided by the turntables of David Korins’ set, whose wooden scaffolding and brick walls suggest a colonial setting without overdoing the point. Howell Binkley’s lighting, too, hints at candlelight, while Paul Tazewell’s costumes suitably evoke the period with ruffly shirt collars and cuffs. (Perhaps Kail could borrow one of his corsets to streamline the show.)
In the end, Hamilton is an absolute triumph for Miranda, a tenor who’s taken the man on the tenner and captured the tenor of the great American experiment, both past and present. Grade: A