It’s a great history lesson. It’s a gymnastic dance performance. It’s a riveting narrative. It’s a clever rap session. It’s an authentic hip-hop musical, almost like an opera. It’s a whirlwind of energy. And it’s a remarkably true story. What is it? It’s “Hamilton,” the hottest Broadway show in many years.
We know that just about everything that is endlessly hyped usually disappoints. Just two things immediately come to my mind where for me there was no let down: the Grand Canyon and “Hamilton.” Now the anticipation ratcheted up was enormous. I bought the tickets when my friend turned 90 years old. It seemed like an appropriate birthday present, this story from the deep past. After all, for many dinners and evenings she had kept me fascinated with her eyewitness retelling of history from the first half of the 20th century. Now we were both going to see early American history come alive on the stage of the Richard Rodgers Theatre.
Let it be told that my friend will shortly be 92. Yes, she and I waited almost two years to get in to see this show. I also invited my 15-year-old granddaughter and another friend a generation younger than I to join us. With that span in ages, we were going to get an accurate demographic spectrum of reactions.
We LOVED it, all of us, from the opening number to the last sad moments of Hamilton’s life. It was witty, it was impassioned, it was fun, it was sexy, it was literate, it was tragic and it was wonderfully written, sung, acted, costumed and staged.
In truth, Lin-Manuel Miranda, inspired by Ron Chernow’s biography, “Alexander Hamilton” (2004), had great material to work with. Hamilton’s life had everything a playwright could have asked for, with perfect timing now for such a story. Hamilton, born out of wedlock in the mid-1750s (exact year uncertain) and orphaned when his mother died in 1768, comes as penniless immigrant from the Caribbean to make his way. He had distinguished himself through his writing at an early age, and men of means sent him to New York. He arrived in the midst of the pre-Revolutionary tumult, was accepted at King’s College (now Columbia University), met some of the key figures of the day and became George Washington’s aide-de-camp, in good part because he spoke French and could translate between Washington and his French ally.
He fought against the British at Yorktown in 1781, married the second daughter of a rich New Yorker, authored the majority of The Federalist Papers, became a successful lawyer, went on to be the first secretary of the treasury, from which position he established the banking system of the nascent United States, was blackmailed in what was one of the nation’s first sex scandals, and ultimately died from a bullet fired by his longtime rival, Vice President Aaron Burr, during a duel on a strip of land above the Hudson in Weehawken. If it sounds like a peripatetic life, that certainly describes the fierce energy of the play about him.
I had the same feeling about this play as I did so many years ago when “My Fair Lady” with Rex Harrison and Julie Andrews ended, that I had just witnessed some sort of breakthrough Broadway event. And as the characters of “Hamilton,” the Founding Fathers, come alive the way they did in that other excellent historic play, “1776,” we recognized them for their magnificent talents and their all-too-human faults.
The erudite New York Times drama critic, Ben Brantley, had this to say about the play when it opened on Broadway in August 2015. “I am loath to tell people to mortgage their houses and lease their children to acquire tickets to a hit Broadway show. But ‘Hamilton’ … might just about be worth it.”
So it’s expensive (unless you win tickets through the lottery that has been set up), it requires patience to wait for the actual performance date on the ticket, and most of the original cast is long gone. But none of that matters. There was never a marquee name connected with the show, unless it was that of Miranda. But his acting wasn’t the reason to go, it was his writing: music, words and creativity. And all that is still there, a wonderful respite from the politics of today.