It really is all that.
Lin Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton, winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Drama and eleven Tony® Awards, including Best Musical, has been praised and praised as a “game changer” in musical theatre on the order of Show Boat (which addressed social issues instead of presenting pure froth) and Oklahoma (arguably, the first musical drama). I think that time will tell whether this praise has been warranted, but, to my mind there are several indicators that the boosters are correct.
First, Hamilton tells a serious story that is premised by an important question: why is that guy whose picture is on the $10 bill being honored in this way? Interestingly enough, Mr. Miranda’s answer is filled with contradictions. On one hand, popular historian Ron Chernow’s best-selling book of the same title renewed interest in Hamilton as a Founding Father; Mr. Chernow’s book is credited with “inspiring” the musical version. On the other, Hamilton itself often glosses potential answers, presenting events that are clearly important but rarely explaining why they are important.
Second, employing hip-hop as his principal musical genre Mr. Miranda necessarily incorporates some of the expectations of the genre’s typical story telling: young man “rises up,” seeks fame (and finds it not where he was looking), is rash and impulsive, lives hard – and sometimes dangerously – and dies young. But, he does so in such artful ways that it becomes immediately apparent that reducing Hamilton to these stereotypes misses the point: “who lives, who dies, who tells your story.”
Third, Mr. Miranda may be working with a kind of music that might seem antithetical to “Broadway,” but he’s also working well within the classic bounds of musical theatre expression: characters have songs that define them and their motives (for example, Hamilton’s “My Shot” is a wonderful “I want” song), and his sometimes-friend-sometimes-nemesis Aaron Burr is motivated by wanting to be in “The Room Where It Happens.” Major themes in the story are underlined and advanced by the reprise of major themes in the score.
Still, in the end Mr. Miranda doesn’t answer the seminal question of why Hamilton’s face is on the $10 bill. He pokes at it in a few ways, as having Jefferson, whose vision of America was diametrically opposed to that of Hamilton, casually remark that he tried to dismantle the financial system Hamilton devised for the country and couldn’t. (By the way, that financial system is a reason widely given for Hamilton’s picture on the $10 bill).
In short, part of the enlivening genius, and the maddening frustration, of Hamilton is that it provides no easy answers. Even when it looks as though it does, those pesky contradictions quickly proclaim otherwise.
By contrast, director Thomas Kail’s production is clear and carefully delineated, relying on light to focus attention and shadow to deter it (Howell Binkley’s lighting design is a study in this principle). Scene designer David Korins provides a space that becomes any needed locale and a central turntable helps maintain focus without calling attention to itself. Costume designer Paul Tazewell uses color and ornamentation to draw the eye. Sound designer Nevin Steinberg insures that words are musical accompaniment (led by Julian Reeve) are effectively mixed and that audiences hear the text plainly (often a problem at the Civic Theatre and a crucial element for enjoyment when the words go by quickly). Andy Blankenbuehler’s precisely-executed choreography also serves to provide both backdrop and focus.
Producer Jeffrey Seller had previously announced several new cast members in principal roles as the company transitioned from its Los Angeles engagement to a more traditional tour. Some of those who actually played the roles at Tuesday evening’s press opening were different from the announced performers. Company members Ryan Vasquez and Raven Thomas replaced Nicholas Christopher and Julia K. Harriman as Aaron Burr and Eliza Hamilton. Burr is perhaps the most complex character in the show, sometimes Hamilton’s compatriot, sometimes his rival. But, he is often the narrator, too, and Mr. Vasquez found his comfort level in narrating the story, which made the performance somewhat blander than might be desired. Ms. Thomas exhibited quiet strength in Eliza’s many sorrows, and while her singing might have been showier I was quite taken with this approach.
The other new cast members are Austin Scott as Alexander Hamilton, Sabrina Sloan as Angelica Schuyler, and Jordan Donica as the Marquis de Lafayette and Thomas Jefferson. The person who performs Jefferson must have a command of complicated hip-hop patterns, and Mr. Donica possesses such talents. Ms. Sloan sparkles as the Schuyler sister who is attracted to Hamilton but steps aside so her sister can marry him. She gets to be the conscience of the story, and she ably fulfills that role.
As for Mr. Scott, if he was nervous debuting as Hamilton’s title character, there was no sign of it. He was confident, relaxed, and sexy, as the role required. He interacted well with other characters, putting in small touches that often make the difference between an ordinary and an excellent performance.
San Diego audiences should have no concerns. Hamilton is in excellent hands and should prove to be the energizing experience local audiences have been eagerly anticipating. Performances run through January 28. Tickets are scarce to non-existent.