A hip-hop musical about America’s founding fathers: this concept no longer seems quite so absurd as it would have a decade ago. Hamilton, with a touring production currently presented by Mirvish, exists in the world now. Lin-Manuel Miranda’s cultural juggernaut has demonstrated that the life of the US’s first Treasury Secretary, Alexander Hamilton, perfectly mirrors a contemporary rap story: a poor boy from a broken home, with baggage and ideals, rises to prominence on his bold perspective and forceful writing.
Blending hip-hop and R&B, fusing them with the apparatus of traditional musical theatre, Hamilton feels both radically innovative and classic. With intricate musical motifs and astonishing lyrical density, it’s impossible to catch all of the wordplay and cross-references on a single pass. To properly appreciate this dynamic beast, you really should spend some time with the album or the original Broadway pro-shot on Disney+ (with the subtitles turned on).
I went into this production with several viewings and a multitude of video essay deconstructions under my belt. This doesn’t kill the magic in the least; I believe intimate familiarity with the material affords Hamilton its proper due. The biggest surprise of this current touring production was how drastically it shifted my emotional allegiance.
Though Hamilton is the protagonist and I certainly get him, I’ve always felt more for his friend-cum-rival, Aaron Burr. Hamilton’s relentless ambition is inspiring, of course, but I identified more intensely with Burr’s intelligent, thoughtful hesitancy and eventual resentment. This, I’ve now discovered, was mostly due to performance and my particular sensibilities.
At the risk of ruffling some feathers, I must confess that I don’t find Miranda a particularly compelling performer. I would even go so far as to say he was miscast in his own show. He’s got energy and attitude to spare, but I find his voice too weedy and his cocky charisma just never charmed me as intended. Leslie Odom Jr’s Burr, however, grabbed hold and just devastated me.
Enter Deaundre’ Woods! Suddenly, the brash and self-assured persona hits! The main appeal of Miranda in the role was an awareness of who he is and his relationship to the show as a construct and phenomenon. Woods’ Hamilton, with his aggressively boyish swagger, feels more fun and urgent on its own terms. I can now see him through Angelica and Eliza Schuyler’s affectionate gaze.
Donald Webber Jr. is sincere and riveting, though his Burr feels more like a proper narrative foil and not the sympathy stealing figure he’s always been for me. Most of the main cast were absent from the performance I attended, with standbys filling in for the Schuyler sisters and remaining founding fathers. This makes little difference as the persuasive theatrical machinery of director Thomas Kail’s staging propels any decent cast through its stirring gestalt.
Andy Blankenbuehler’s choreography makes thorough use of the ensemble with an elegant, fully integrated gestural language. Except for a handful of intimate scenes, they are a consistent presence, echoing the action and themes of the story with stylized, hypnotic punctuation.
David Korins’ scenic design features a backdrop of brick and stonework with loops of rope strewn from wooden catwalks and scaffolding. It suggests a port—a point of arrival and a place of work where something momentous is under construction. Paul Tazewell’s costumes playfully fuse the cravats, breeches and tricorn hats of colonial attire with a modern, deliberately theatrical aesthetic. I’m particularly fond of the sexy, sleeveless look of the ensemble’s bare waistcoats.
The portrayal of America’s founders by people of colour re-contextualizes the revolutionary war and birth of the nation, embellishing it with commentary on the plight of immigrants in a developing society. There is an exhilarating appeal to this high-concept interpretation of history; though an uncomfortable naivety creeps at the fringes.
Unsustainable capitalistic excess, extreme social division and a sense of immanent catastrophe loom large. In the current landscape, there is some grounded disenchantment with The American Experiment which feels on the brink of collapse and taints Hamilton‘s exuberant majesty.
“History has its eyes on you.” This electrifying phrase recurs throughout the narrative—an acknowledgement of purpose and achievement. History’s eyes—our eyes—are somewhat clouded now, straining to retain that vision of great potential yet overwhelmed by systemic failings. Regardless, as entertaining historical fiction and theatrical spectacle, Hamilton is absolutely stunning.