The house lights darkened on the most anticipated Broadway musical of the decade. Only moments before, the audience had been discussing the latest score for Game 2 of the Stanley Cup Finals. The Golden Knights were trailing 3-2 behind the Washington Capitals. But the moment Hamilton finally began, the game was forgotten amid a roaring applause.
Kids in the audience giggled with glee. And there was a slight murmuring as fans hummed along to songs or even anticipated lines before they were spoken. Because this was The Smith Center’s Reynolds Hall and not a movie theater showing The Rocky Horror Picture Show, the audience kept their sing-alongs as quiet and surreptitious as possible.
For those new to the musical’s mega-hype, Hamilton tells the life story of Founding Father Alexander Hamilton—from his humble roots as an orphan in the Caribbean to his hallowed place in history (right-hand to George Washington; constitutional hype man; founder of the national bank and first Secretary of the Treasury). Founding Father also-ran Aaron Burr plays the role of rival, antagonist and sometimes narrator.
The incomparable talent Lin-Manuel Miranda wrote the book, music and lyrics, after being inspired by the Ron Chernow biography titled, appropriately enough, Alexander Hamilton. The musical has garnered stratospheric box office success and a bevy of awards, including a Pulitzer Prize for Drama and a Tony for Best Musical. The main innovation of the show is that it modernizes and reimagines the story of America’s birth. Instead of being populated by representatives of dead white men, the main characters are played by minorities via color-conscious casting. The music is modern, including a large amount of rap and hip-hop.
If you’re any sort of fan, you probably already know this. But the question remains, how does it all play out in person at our city’s own performance hall?
We’ll start with the music. It’s fantastic. But no tickets are required to listen to the soundtrack. The joy comes in seeing the full production—costumes, set, dancing, acting, singing—give shape and sight to the sounds. If you’re lucky enough to score tickets—some are still available for sale and there’s always the $10 ticket lottery—it’s worth it to listen to the score in advance so you go in familiar with the songs. (If you’re not lucky enough to score a ticket, listen to the music anyway, because it’s so great.)
With 17 songs, Act One takes viewers from Hamilton’s youth through the winning of the American Revolution. Expect to feel that rising excitement in your heart as you’re whisked along the path of revolutionary fervor. The song “My Shot” becomes a theme that returns throughout: “I am not throwing away my shot/Hey yo, I’m just like my country/I’m young, scrappy and hungry.”
For those teachers out there wondering how to make history cool, take note of these lyrics from “My Shot”: “A colony that runs independently/Meanwhile, Britain keeps sh*ttin’ on us endlessly/Essentially, they tax us relentlessly.” The taxor in question is, of course, King George. A delightfully effete villain, he floats onto the stage in full royal regalia singing a hilarious love song (“You’ll Be Back”) to his colonial subjects. It not only has some great hooks, but acts as a prissy counterpoint to all the American earnestness: “Oceans rise, empires fall/we have seen each other through it all/and when push comes to shove/I will send a fully armed battalion to remind you of my love/Da da da dat da dat da da da da ya...!”
The show clocks in at about three hours, so use that 15-minute intermission to refresh yourself for Act Two, which also boasts 17 songs. Here the characters start in with the hard work of building a nation. I won’t say more so as not to give away the plot, but spoiler alert, somebody dies in a duel.
While the music may be anachronistic, the costumes harken back to history books. They’re elaborate and inspiring. They contrast with the set, which looks like a half-built warehouse or shipyard. Perhaps it reflects the idea that our country was and is under constant construction.
Hamilton has all the makings of the hit show it is. But there’s something more that makes it so extremely popular. These days, politics are in the zeitgeist. Political polarization has led Americans to question their national identity. Who are we? Where do we come from? And, most importantly, who would we like to be? Hamilton answers all those questions with a picture of our best selves: “Raise a glass to freedom/Something they can never take away/No matter what they tell you/Raise a glass to the four of us/Tomorrow there'll be more of us/Telling the story of tonight.”
HAMILTON Through June 24; Tuesday-Sunday, 7:30 p.m.; Saturday-Sunday, 2 p.m.; $69-$629. Reynolds Hall, 702-749-2000.