BWW Review: HAMILTON at the Tulsa Performing Arts Center
Don't be put off by the hype.
Legions of theatregoers and tastemakers have waxed poetic about Hamilton. Theatre critic extraordinaire Ben Brantley jokingly suggested that New Yorkers mortgage their homes for a ticket, saying "it really is that good" and Michelle Obama herself called it "the best piece of art in any form that I have ever seen in my life." Middle and high schoolers with no prior interest in either musicals or American history stream the cast recording on a loop. And it has won awards and accolades ranging from the Pulitzer Prize for Drama to the Billboard Music Award for Top Soundtrack.
This might leave a lot of Tulsans wondering what could possibly be so magical about this show. For a lot of seasoned audience members, Hamilton's intense popularity is an intimidating reminder of how much the art form of musical theatre has evolved over time. Many theatregoers enjoy the familiarity of a hummable showtune and the reassuring predictability of musical theatre tropes: the "I Want song", in which the protagonist's passion is introduced, the "11 O'Clock number" in which she prepares the audience for the show's climax, etc. What they don't want is to be subjected to a history lesson or a didactic, thinly veiled exercise in political correctness.
Hamilton is magical because it is able to accomplish so many different things at once, but perhaps the most unexpected of them all is this: for all of its incredibly innovative and visionary qualities, it is, at its core, a heartfelt love letter to American musical theatre and its power as a medium for storytelling. Author Lin-Manuel Miranda's ingenuity in reworking our vision of the American musical turns out not to be a gimmick, but an expression of passion for theatre as an art form. This is apparent superficially in the explicit references to other musicals (see "Nobody needs to know", "Sit down, John", "I am the very model of a modern major general"), but surfaces most profoundly in the show's form, melodies, and overall musical and narrative arcs (see Les Mis, Rent, West Side Story). Musicals are a unique art form in the sense that they provide an exceptional opportunity for certain musical phrases and themes to intertwine and reappear. As these melodies surface and return, providing flashbacks to the past and hints of what's to come, they help flesh out characters and intensify certain key moments. Hamilton capitalizes on this incredibly expressive and heartrending potential to an extreme. In doing this with such great skill and in a manner that fits the subject matter so beautifully, it takes its place alongside the classics in the musical theatre canon.
Hamilton is based on the 2004 biography by historian Ron Chernow, and its book, score, and lyrics were composed by Lin-Manuel Miranda, who also originated the title role. Hamilton is sung and rapped all the way through with no dialogue in between songs, and so listening to the cast recording provides a small window into the play as a whole. It tells the story of Hamilton's life: his arrival in NYC as a Caribbean immigrant, his struggle to prove himself and achieve greatness for his new country, his political alliances and rivalries, his marriage and the birth of his son, his involvement in crucial moments in revolutionary history, his infidelity and the resulting sex scandal, and finally, his death in a duel at the hands of his longtime friend and rival Aaron Burr. It is in fact Burr and not Hamilton who narrates the story - in the tradition of Judas narrating Webber's Jesus Christ Superstar, the audience watches their hero's journey through the eyes of the villain. In the first line of the show, Burr asks, "How does a bastard, orphan, son of a whore and a Scotsman, dropped in the middle of a forgotten spot in the Caribbean by providence, impoverished, in squalor grow up to be a hero and a scholar?" The rest of the show, in an equivalently verbose and poetic fashion, is dedicated to answering this question.
Many other American heroes and historical figures make appearances in Hamilton, and one of the most well-known characteristics of the show is its unexpected casting. In Hamilton, black, brown, and other non-white actors are cast in the roles of the Founding Fathers and other white characters from American history. Miranda has stated that selecting people of color to depict these historic roles was done with the purpose of making the characters "look like America today", and this decision has been commended from a number of different angles. For one thing, it provides an incredible opportunity for actors of color who are widely underrepresented on stage, it has the potential to make the show more relatable to a broader range of Americans (who might otherwise write off a musical about dead white guys), and it gives a diversity of performers an opportunity to demonstrate mastery of the diverse score and musical styles within it. But the reason for Miranda's choice runs even deeper, and relates to a question that our country is wrestling with in a very real and present way: What does it mean to be American?
By telling the story of an orphan immigrant and populating the landscape of America's founders with black and brown faces, Miranda highlights a crucial fact: even though the people who signed our Declaration of Independence were white-skinned, they had a whole lot in common with the immigrants and people of color who live in America in 2019. In Miranda's lyrics, they're "young, scrappy, and hungry" and they had to push to get ahead "by working a lot harder, by being a lot smarter, by being self-starter(s)." Like today's American immigrants, our Founding Fathers were exceptional not in spite but because of their status as outsiders - their perspective on the world was informed by their drive to reform and achieve, and those drives are what made them Americans. And so, the use of actors of color in Hamilton is not a gimmick but a statement about what it means to be an American, and how our shared values of freedom and equality were sparked by individuals who were initially dismissed because others thought that they didn't belong. In this sense, Miranda makes his vision of racially diverse American founders feel more authentic than a more historically accurate casting ever could.
Hamilton's cast (with direction by Thomas Kail) is stunning from top to bottom, with world-class vocals from Eliza (Erin Clemons) and Angelica (Ta'Rea Campbell) and performances from Hamilton (Joseph Morales) and Burr (Nik Walker) that rival the original Broadway cast. George Washington (Marcus Choi) and King George (Neil Haskell) were also standouts with powerful, scene-stealing moments. The ensemble brings the relentless energy of the score to life with beautiful harmonies and striking movement and dance sequences. This driving intensity is fitting for capturing Hamilton's extraordinary vitality - this is just a single example of form and function fitting together when seeing the show live. And the music is truly unlike any other show that you can get tickets for today - the styles range from hip-hop to R&B to jazz to Brit-pop and beyond (with remarkable orchestrations by Alex Lacamoire). Amazingly, this degree of variety is neither tacky nor disorienting, and its vibrant, wide-ranging nature is stimulating rather than scattered. Most of all, once again connecting style and content, this eclecticism is fitting for the story being told and the individuals being honored by that story.
Hamilton is a show about the power of stories and our ability to shape history regardless of our origin. In writing this show, Miranda has created an homage to the musical theatre greats of the past while paving the way for those yet to come. And quietly, without preaching of any kind, he has set a clear vision for how we will tell the story of the next generation of American heroes: by embracing our differences in origin and coming together around a passion not for what our country used to be, but for what it has the potential to become.
Hamilton will be at the Tulsa Performing Arts Center (101 E. Third Street) until September 8th. Go to tulsapac.com or celebrityattractions.com/hamilton to grab your seats while you can and visit hamiltonmusical.com/lottery for an online ticket lottery.