Book, Music, Lyrics by Lin Manuel Miranda
CIBC Theatre, Chicago, July 19 2018
It might be a foolish thing to write about Hamilton. It’s been written about enough. Having seen it twice, I’ll try and put a different spin on it. I’ll be lucky enough to see it a third time in October – Hamilton is turning into a very debilitating and expensive addiction I think.
Most Hamilton reviews focus on the ‘hip-hop’ or ‘rap’ style of the show (it’s neither, but there are elements) or the diversity, using actors of color to tell the story of the founding fathers while reflecting how America looks today. Both are interesting topics, but not nearly the most interesting things about the show and both have been written about to death.
No, today, I want to write about the real genius of Lin Manuel Miranda – and it isn’t just his rhyming ability (which is admittedly amazing). I’ve been trying to settle in my brain how describe the intricacies and complexities of what’s going in the show both musically and lyrically (as well as in terms of story-telling) and it is very, very easy to get overwhelmed. With each listen, and if you’re lucky, each viewing, something new reveals itself, connections get made, rhymes leap out, motifs become clearer or show themselves to be deeper than you thought. The best way I can think about describing it is this: spirals.
This show – Hamilton – spirals.
What do I mean? The most obvious examples are musical motifs probably – many characters have a melody that repeats throughout the show for a variety of reasons – even if it is simply their name (e-LIE-za). This isn’t new in musical theatre – it happens all the time, especially with the big mash up of these themes in the first act closing number. “Non-Stop” in Hamilton isn’t too far from “One Day More” from Les Miz in this regard. These repetitions though seem to take on heightened significance as events move forward. My favorite example (spoiler). The number “That Would Be Enough” in the first act shows us the discussion between Alex and Eliza as she begs him to stay home and reveals her pregnancy. It ends with a simple piano melody that isn’t part of the rest of the song. Fast forward to Act Two – Philip (their now grown son) has been killed in a duel. The heartbreaking poignant song “It’s Quiet Uptown” begins, and it begins, and builds upon the EXACT SAME PIANO MELODY dropped sneakily into Act One.
I hate that I know this and think about this.
I could go on all day – the repeated lyrical phrases (Look Around, Look Around), (Wait for it) etc sometimes remain the same throughout – sometimes they morph into something new. Don’t even get me started on ‘un, deux, trois, quatre etc’.
Waiting, by the way – turns out to be a big theme here. Particularly for Aaron Burr. Not Hamilton – Hamilton doesn’t wait for anything. Waiting takes us into the overall theme of time, waiting, history, and legacy.
Time. Legacy. Narrative. Time, Waiting, Urgency, Time.
“Why do you write like you’re running out of time?”
“There’s a million things I haven’t done, but just you wait. Just you wait.”
“Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day” (with a little help from William Shakespeare)
“I’m willing to wait for it”
“For the first time I’m thinking past tomorrow”
“One last time, we’ll teach them how to say goodbye.”
and on and on….until the final half of the final number, when Eliza explains what she’s done in the last fifty years – the fifty years she outlived her husband. How she told his story, and Washington’s and the soldiers who fought with him. How she used her time. And every instance of Eliza using the word ‘time‘ in this song is supported by the ensemble behind her, and I want to blubber and weep.
I wasn’t lucky enough to see the OBC. We did see the Original London Cast back in March so my only real comparison with them and the OBC Cast Album.
Overall, the cast was very strong with two notable standouts.
Miguel Cervantes as Alexander Hamilton. Amazing. I don’t think anyone, with the exception of LMM, could do this role better.
The other big surprise was Jin Ha as Aaron Burr. The first (to my knowledge) Asian to play Burr, he was outstanding. Better than the Burr we saw in London. Ha really fleshed out this character for me and made me sympathetic to Burr’s arc. How painful to be diligent and careful and smart yet so painfully ordinary when standing in the shadow of Hamilton (shades of Salieri in Amadeus). Ha is so new to the role, I couldn’t even find a photo of him in costume. He was an understudy for several roles previously.
The Angelica and Eliza in Chicago, Montego Glover and Jamila Sabares-Klemm weren’t my favorite. I thought the London cast was superior as well as with the role of Lafayette/Jefferson and George Washington. However, the difference between how much better Hamilton and Burr were compared with their London counterparts was huge.
Another lesson learned – Hamilton is much better seen from slightly above. Front of mezzanine is perfect. We were in the stalls in London (Orchestra) and totally missed out on much of the lighting and turntable effects. There are over 850 lighting cues in this show and they tell the story in their own right.
Now – how many times can I see this? How many different casts? All I know is that I’ll be seeing the London cast again on October 18th – with a bunch of cool high school kids.
Hmmm…. Chicago 2019 maybe?