Feb 5, 2015

Hamilton's New York Moment

From left, Daveed Diggs, Christopher Jackson, Lin-Manuel Miranda and Leslie Odom Jr. from the cast of “Hamilton.” CreditDamon Winter/The New York Times
One of the most infectious sentiments in Hamilton, Lin-Manuel Miranda's great new musical about our country's founding fathers, is voiced by the women. The socialite Schuyler sisters, one of whom Alexander Hamilton actually married, the other of whom he loved at least as much as his wife, have a song about how lucky they feel to be living in New York City at the moment they are--that it's the most exciting place in the world to be right now. Among the many ways Hamilton viscerally connects musty old Colonial history to today (reminding us that the revolution was a protest movement led by young, ambitious, often hotheaded men of all classes who agreed about very little; that gun violence has always been a key part of the American character, and so on), the notion that New York City is where it's at--a self-perpetuating myth that keeps young people pouring into it, even in our vastly unequal post-Bloomberg age--feels very moving and immediate for me right now.

Because whenever my enthusiasm for my profession or for the state of contemporary theater flags--and to be honest, it does on occasion--something like Hamilton comes along, whacks me upside the head, and lets me know: Oh yeah, this is why I do it; this is why I'm in New York City right now. To be sure, the intrinsic merits of Hamilton transcend its specific provenance as a hip-hop/pop musical written by a talented Nuyorican and performed at the Public Theater by the best multiracial cast on a New York stage at present--it seems clear already that this show is going be with us for as long as there are stages in America. But just for the moment I feel like basking in the glow of not only the show's brilliance but its specific, irreducible New York-ness, and the fact that I'm around to see it, rave about it, and--luckiest of all--report on it for the paper of record.

Last week, as the city was about to shut down for a blizzard, I sat and talked with Miranda, who plays Hamilton, and with the actors who play George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and Aaron Burr, at Fraunces Tavern, where all those real historical figures hung out. It was historic.

In conversation and on social media, I've compared the show to Sweeney Todd, and that's not hyperbole--it has some of densest yet sharpest lyrics I've ever heard in a musical, and as such gives almost tactile pleasure just in the hearing of them, in a way that tracks with my experience of Sweeney. It's a comparison, I hasten to add, that I would not have expected to make about a show by the songwriter of the very pleasant, competent In the Heights. With this sophomore effort, though, it is as if Sondheim skipped directly from Saturday Night to Sweeney. Seriously. I think Lin gives a clue as to why here, taking a cue from the Sondheimian motto, "Anything you do/Let it come from you":
“With ‘Heights,’ we took great care to make sure everyone felt very taken care of: ‘We’re gonna be rapping, and you’re gonna get a lot of information at the same time,’ ” Mr. Miranda said. “I wanted to be a little more selfish with this — I wanted the lyrics to have the density that my favorite hip-hop albums have.” That’s why Mr. Miranda initially billed the project as “The Alexander Hamilton Mixtape”: “It was easier to think of it as a hip-hop album, because then I could really just pack the lyrics.” He soon realized, he said with a laugh, “I only know how to write musicals.”
I will close in saying that today happens to be my birthday, and I can't think of a better way to spend it...than seeing Hamilton again tonight.

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