Monday, March 16, 2015

Unimpeachable Underdog "Hamilton" Just Werks

Early on, in his eponymous onstage role as Alexander Hamilton, composer-lyricist-bookwriter-arranger-actor Lin-Manuel Miranda refers to himself using the word "unimpeachable", and his onstage offering, a politically-steeped biography of one of the great Founders of the American financial system, fits the word precisely.

Off-Broadway at the Public Theater (but soon to swagger to Broadway, apparently at its own bravura-filled whimsy), "Hamilton'"s ambition crosses every border it reaches. The racial narrative of American history has never been treated more boldly, optimistically, or cleverly than here. It takes biographical drama and renders it 1) as simple and comprehensible as the masterworks of Disney's golden era and 2) a portrait so complex and understandable that it shocks, surprises, and delights. In terms of accessibility and musical sophistication, Miranda somehow wondrously creates a piece that is explosive, plosive, melodic, and quixotic, an album as full of jams and sick vocal licks as it is of dense lyric depth in rhythmically complex rap.

There's more, but you're not gonna believe me so I'll stop right here.

"Hamilton" tells the story of ambitious, quick-tongued, quick-witted Alexander Hamilton, a Caribbean-born unlucky kid plagued by failures, who writes himself out of poverty and tragedy, fights for American independence at George Washington's side, and argues a nation and a financial system into existence alongside the ego-driven bigwigs of his time. Does he sound like a 1700s financier or kinda like a rap artist? It should sound like both.

By all accounts, everything about "Hamilton" shouldn't work. It takes history seriously but makes jokes left and right, including a pop song sung three times by King George, characterizing him as a prissy, pouting monarch. Its cast, which includes at most four white people, colors in the founding fathers in a technicolor statement: "They were immigrants, we are immigrants. The question is not our color, the question is what we believe we can do." Also, it makes for a slightly more believable hip-hop musical that the cast of "Hamilton" bears no resemblance to any production of "1776".

Writer Miranda was inspired by Ron Chernow's biography of Alexander Hamilton, and his research reflects Miranda's nerdy love of history and his passion for stories. The first act, telling the revolution so fast and so thoroughly it'll give you whiplash, is well-researched, concise, and it also happens to be completely 100% perfect theater. It's got enough laughs, enough romance, song after exhilarating song, and the high-brow audience member will be wading up to her armpits in theme and characterization.

The second act reminds more of "In the Heights" with a lot of thoughtful songs accompanied with arpeggiated piano lines and emotive performances. The subtlety and combination of historically-accurate ideas is diminished as big words like "Forgiveness" get sung, like a big fat subtitle, by the background choir, or when Burr, in a fit of jealousy, busts out about his desire to be a part of the intimate workings of government ("The Room Where It Happens"), an emotion as applicable to career ambition or competition between friends as it is to American history. Lin-Manuel Miranda and Andy Blankenbuehler work overtime in Act Two to try to tell the rest of the story (which becomes significantly less compelling once the war is over) and at the same time bring it home to us as audience members. (Spoiler: They succeed.)

Although plenty of written genius fuels the success of "Hamilton", it is sustained and given life by its diverse, electrifying ensemble. The story is told largely through fluid scenes effected by an ensemble of six incredible dancers, who through a mix of hip-hop, period dance, and contemporary movement, make boots, breeches, and period jackets look really, really hot. The "Helpless" sequence, when Eliza Schuyler falls for Hamilton, the revolution battles, and the final bullet sequence particularly deserve attention.

Leslie Odom Jr.'s Aaron Burr, playing the man who would eventually kill Hamilton in a duel, is the unexpected narrator of the piece, entering to a chorus of snaps and a low piano with the wordy opening question:
"How does a bastard, orphan, son of a whore (and a Scotsman!) dropped in the middle of forgotten spot in the Caribbean by Providence, impoverished in squallor, grow up to be a hero and a scholar?"
He ranges from funny asides ("trust me, baby, I'm a trust fund baby!") to a hero of his own story, to a jealous rival with grace and dripping confidence. Like almost everyone else in the show, his vocal performance shows a few points of weakness that only accentuate his charisma as storyteller. Ironically, he is arguably the protagonist, singing and rapping much more frequently than Hamilton himself.

Phillipa Soo (of "Natasha, Pierre, and the Great Comet of 1812" fame) and Renee Elise Goldsberry shine as the Schuyler sisters, Phillipa as the ever-faithful Eliza who marries Hamilton and Renee as Angelica, smart enough to match Hamilton but also smart enough to know she should marry up. Their first number together (an "I Love New York" number in a musical about the Founding Fathers!) and the songs "Helpless", "Satisfied", and "Take a Break" bubble with energy. There are too many incredible riffs and moments of vocal prowess to bother trying to write them down, and man, it is unexpectedly boss to watch these girls pop little hip-hop heel moves in bustle dresses.
Phillipa's soaring, ethereal voice is used very well, and Ms. Goldsberry matches her skill, not to mention that she raps as well as the gentlemen, with thrilling ease. Miranda gives race a subtle scouring in the piece, and he doesn't forget women either in his telling. Even if they get less stage-time considering their lack of political involvement, their emotional weight in the story is more than equal to the men, and their performances as much rewarded or more so.

Daveed Diggs, Okieriete Onaodowan, Anthony Ramos, and Christopher Jackson must be mentioned. As a variety of major characters, including Hamilton's son Phillip, Thomas Jefferson, and Jackson as George Washington, these four men set the show on fire. Rapping, dancing, or translating George Washington's real-life final address as President into song, they are incredible.

Lin-Manuel Miranda as Hamilton is darker, fierier, but just as joyous and boyish as Usnavi was. With a wheezy singing voice that belies the passion of his oratory, Hamilton is not always likeable, but he is always comprehensible, usually fascinating, and occasionally heroic.

Why does such an ambitious show, balancing high-brow biography, historical comedy, rap and hip-hop, succeed? First of all, it offers something for everyone, which I won't go into again.

Secondly, "Hamilton" invites us to reconsider how we look at history and how we look at our own lives. The figures that populate history were not defined by breeches and riding boots and quills, in the same way that we are not defined by fake glasses, the internet, or jeans, and by the end of the show the audience sees pretty clearly into the hearts of the men and women who helped in their way to make our country what it is. Instead of telling us which party to side with or who won the battle of history, "Hamilton" ends with a statement: We have enough time.

Burr informs us, with bitterness: "Life doesn't discriminate between the sinners and the saints, it takes and takes and takes."  Miranda's musical is not a call for justice as much as it is a great triumph of justice. Telling the Founding Fathers story as an immigrant tale reminds us that our differences don't divide us as much as we think. It also isn't a call to support one party or another.

I think, it's a call for excellence, for striving. Hamilton's life, hurried and untenable as it was, was full of purpose. Lin-Manuel Miranda doesn't come out and moralize about whether Hamilton's choices were all good--that would defeat the historical genius of the piece, which fails to show clear winners or losers. Unlike other historical musicals, "Hamilton" doesn't pretend that there's a consensus, even in the past. He leaves it to us to look at history, and to look at ourselves.

Alexander Hamilton lived 49 years. He was born a bastard, orphan, son of a whore, and he grew up to be a hero and a scholar, a father of a crazy, incredible thing. He couldn't control who lived, who died, or who told his story, but he could choose to live a story that he wanted, whether or not anyone else saw it as he did.

The next question is painfully obvious:

What's your story?