Jul 8, 2015

Up With Hamilton

I was recently contracted to write a preview of the Broadway transfer of Hamilton for Time Out NY, but the piece was spiked in favor of a no-doubt-excellent preview by the estimable Adam Feldman. Below is the piece I submitted. (My previous writings on the show are here, here, and here; I've also assigned two pieces about it for American Theatre, one by hip-hop theatre pioneer Danny Hoch, the other by National Review editor Reihan Salam.)
I’ve had an ongoing argument with fellow theater critics and observers ever since Hamilton, Lin-Manuel Miranda’s knockout hip-hop musical about our nation’s founding, caused a sensation earlier this year at the Public Theater, selling out before its opening and extending for months, and announced its move to Broadway (performances begin July 13). The argument has never been about the show’s intrinsic merits: Most of us who were lucky enough to see it agree it’s a great show, maybe even a canonical musical, and it’s already a favorite for next year’s drama Pulitzer.

But can Hamilton survive a transplant from the Public’s intimate 232-seat Newman Theatre to Broadway’s Richard Rodgers Theatre, which seats 1,319? Should it have moved to Broadway earlier, before the recent Tony nominations deadline, while the show’s buzz was stratospheric, and stolen some trophies from another Public-bred show, Fun Home? More to the point: Is a hip-hop musical about American history with no stars a slam-dunk commercial prospect, or a huge gamble?

I’m on Team Slam Dunk, and I don’t think it’s just my heart talking. Yes, I already count Hamilton among my favorite musicals, and I heartily look forward to the day when my six-year-old stars in a high school production. But you don’t have to like the show to imagine this scenario: Tourists from the Midwest are in Times Square deciding which show to see, and the kids are all, “Holy shit, a hip-hop musical!” And the parents are like, “Hmm, it’s about the Founding Fathers? Interesting.”

Cha-ching! Take this family’s Hamiltons. It’s a reductive picture, of course--Miranda’s catchy pop score has nearly as much singing as rapping--and there’s an uncomfortable truth behind its appeal. Miranda’s previous Broadway musical, In the Heights, had a respectable run, won all the important Tonys, and is now part of the musical-theatre repertoire, but some think it would still be running on Broadway if it weren’t seen as an “ethnic” show full of hip-hop and Latin music. And while 1994’s Rent was a breakthrough for a generation of young theatergoers (and theatermakers, as Miranda himself has attested), its sexual frankness and multi-culti cast may explain why it hasn’t been a Phantom or Les Miz-style juggernaut.

But hey, Middle America! What’s not to like about George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and that guy who got popped by Aaron Burr? White dudes kicking British butt; that’s some Tea Party shizzle, right?

Not so fast. It’s true that Dick Cheney and Peggy Noonan loved the show at the Public as much as the Clintons and Paul McCartney and Busta Rhymes, and that it would be entirely fair to call Hamilton a patriotic show--if your notion of patriotism has room not only for the country’s checkered past but for its contested, multiracial present. This is where Hamilton will sneakily give those Midwestern tourists both just what they came for and something more: There’s nary a white face in the company, save for the actor playing a prissy, Britpop-singing King George (a role tailored for a show-stealing cameo, and as yet unannounced for Broadway). This isn’t simply a matter of colorblind casting: It’s integral to the show’s populist conception, and key to its force as something more than an epic-rap-battles stunt. By casting young people of color in these iconic roles, and pitting them against each other in a struggle for the reins of a new republic, Hamilton achieves what the best historical fictions do: It gives us a sense of possibility, of roads not taken, of something that was settled long ago being up for grabs.

It’s still up for grabs, isn’t it? As we enter another presidential election cycle and brace ourselves for fresh battles over immigration, foreign policy, and the size and scope of the federal state, Hamilton reminds us that we’d barely got this country started before we began squabbling and shooting each other dead. In one of the show’s most incisive numbers, Aaron Burr stands outside the famous private meeting at which Hamilton dined with political foes Jefferson and Madison and cut arguably the most momentous backroom deal in American history: Hamilton got to found a national bank headquartered in New York City, and in return Jefferson got to stick the nation’s capital in a slave-owning Southern swamp. But Burr is less worried about the implications of that historic faultline, which reverberated through the Civil War and sends out aftershocks even today; instead, in a typically American posture, he simply envies, and one day hopes to join, the movers and shakers who plot and scheme in “The Room Where It Happens.”

That kind of multilayered observational detail may give some idea why it’s not just the up-to-the-minute pop score that makes Hamilton ring with contemporary relevance. The show has enough political machinations, alliances, and betrayals to fill a season of House of Cards; it’s also got a sex scandal, a cover-up, and a shootout, not to mention the 18th-century version of texting (letters) and tweeting (pamphlets and broadsides).

In short, it’s a safe bet that Hamilton will be huge--huge enough that that imaginary scene, in which a Midwestern family nabs tickets at the TKTS booth, is an unlikely one for the foreseeable future.

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