The Best Musical of the Year Is a Hip-Hop Show About Alexander Hamilton

Lin-Manuel Miranda's new Broadway play 'Hamilton: An American Musical' is inventive, educational, and also really, really good.

by John Keene
Aug 24 2015, 2:38pm

Ensemble and Lin-Manuel Miranda in 'Hamilton.' All photos by Joan Marcus

Alexander Hamilton's handiwork is woven throughout our contemporary American republic—from the vast power of our federal government, to the centrality of big banks in our national and global financial system, to the location of Washington, DC, on the banks of the Potomac River. Yet it is probably fair to say that Hamilton is one of the least known of the United States's "Founding Fathers." Even his majestic home, the Grange, which still rises in all its grandeur in Harlem, probably eludes the notice of most New Yorkers, let alone tourists.

If there is any work that might transform popular knowledge about Hamilton's life and career—as well as relate key facts about early US history and spark a deeper discussion about our present-day conflicts and future solutions—Lin-Manuel Miranda's biographical musical Hamilton: An American Musical, now playing at the Richard Rodgers Theatre on Broadway, is a prime candidate. Not only have Miranda (who wrote the book, lyrics, and music) and his collaborators fashioned one of the most original and riveting theatrical pieces to grace a New York stage in years—the best since Stew's 2008 musical Passing Strange, I'd argue—but he has created a pedagogical marvel that is never pedantic, a savvy display of hip-hop's range and vitality, and a political showpiece that avoids ideological pratfalls.

Although Alexander Hamilton's biography is clearly the musical's fulcrum, it presents a compelling overview of our current political divide.

Miranda had already demonstrated his skills as a lyricist and writer with his acclaimed 2008 musical In the Heights. With Hamilton, which he based on Ron Chernow's biography of the US's first secretary of the treasury, he succeeds in simplifying a complex story without rendering it simplistic. This biomusical gets most of the big facts, along with many of the small ones, right. We learn about Hamilton's orphan, out-of-wedlock origins on the Caribbean island of Nevis; his service as a secretary for General George Washington during the Revolutionary War; his courtship of the socially elite Schuyler sisters and marriage to one of them; his decades-long, increasingly tense relationship with Aaron Burr; his tenure in the new, post-revolutionary US government and battles with Thomas Jefferson and James Madison; his stint as banker and a founding editor of the New York Post; and numerous points in between, including the TMZ-worthy sex scandal with a married woman named Maria Reynolds he cannily seized control of toward the end of his life.

Miranda sketches these moments swiftly and confidently, grounding them in fantastic musical numbers. Although Alexander Hamilton's biography is clearly the musical's fulcrum, it could have been titled A Secret History of the Founding of America, because it presents a compelling overview of our current political divide. On the federalist side stands Hamilton, with his push for consolidating the colonies' individual powers into a national force and his reluctance to enter into other country's military conflicts, while on the other we see his antagonists pushing for states' rights, denouncing Wall Street, and wondering why the slave-owning states have to subsidize New York. Sound familiar? And yet Hamilton never beats its audience over the head while bringing these connections to life.

Phillipa Soo, Renée Elise Goldsberry, and Jasmine Cephas Jones in 'Hamilton'

Also crucial to how Miranda changes the game is his masterful, often dazzling use of hip-hop, in its many forms and styles, seamlessly fused to Tin Pan Alley show tunes, Gilbert and Sullivan songs, Brit pop, Euro-American classical music, R&B, Shakespeare's plays, and more, as building blocks for the entire piece. There are riffs on and stylistic echoes of a wide array of the genre's superstars, including Grandmaster Flash, Biggie Smalls, Tech N9ne, the Fugees, and DJ Jazzy Jeff & the Fresh Prince, as well as beat-box-flavored, Chopper, and freestyle-inspired moments. Especially notable are the rap battles; one between Thomas Jefferson (Daveed Diggs) and Hamilton (Miranda)—about the federal debt, of all things—brings the house down. Miranda has created what feels like a musical language not just for today, but for the future. More than once as I listened to Miranda's lyrical cunning, I thought that the score would make a brilliant rap concept album to rival those by Prince Paul or RZA.

Hamilton is a musical, however, and makes fullest use of the talented actors who bring it to life, bringing to the surface a deep current of American historical irony in the process. Instead of the usual whitewashing, here the American story comes to life through the voices and performances of a gifted, mostly black and brown cast. Among the many standouts are Leslie Odom Jr. as Aaron Burr, Hamilton's early supporter and eventual murderer. Odom starts out strong and continuously soars as the show proceeds. His set piece "The Room Where It Happens" is among the best in the show, his voice white-hot with resentment and envy. Odom endows his villainous role with nuance throughout the production, making Aaron Burr far more interesting than anyone might care to admit.

Other impressive performers include the dulcet-toned Phillipa Soo as Eliza Hamilton, the wife who must share her husband's affections with her sister, Angelica, vividly evoked by Renée Elise Goldsberry; and Diggs, a fount of humor and lyrical gifts, who plays both the Marquis de Lafayette and a Dougie-dancing, Cab Calloway–esque Jefferson in his Act II opening scene, "What'd I Miss." (In addition to razor-sharp comic timing and rap skills, Diggs's glorious coif alone ensures you will remember him.) The rest of the cast, including the nimble ensemble, sparkles too.

And then there is Lin-Manuel Miranda himself. Like a demiurge, Miranda commands the stage, every aspect of Hamilton appearing to course through his nerve fibers and emanate from his limbs. Whenever he raps, the words flow effortlessly from his tongue. And while he is perhaps less a natural singer or a dancer than others in the cast, when he utters the lines "I am not throwing away my shot," he tips the song's words with a gravity that feels as much Hamilton's life charge as Miranda's. His vision—striking, fresh, and so needed now—comes through whether he is onstage or not.

What is utterly clear when the cast takes its final bows at the musical's end is that Miranda not only has

Daveed Diggs as Thomas Jefferson in 'Hamilton'

not thrown away his shot but has fired one across the bow of contemporary musical theater. With its inventive use of nontraditional casting, Hamilton manages to draw out a latent, ironic historical thread we too easily forget, filling a stage with a mostly black and brown cast playing what some would consider roles to be reserved for white actors. At the same time, by re-situating black and brown people—voices and bodies at the center of the historical conversation—it literally brings to life those heroic "saucy boys, Negroes, [and] mulattoes" that John Adams—who comes in for bit of ribbing in several scenes—denounced in his defense of the British troops who had participated in the Boston Massacre. Add in the anti-slavery references and the dramatization of political compromises that sunk any post-Revolutionary promises of freedom, and it's clear that Hamilton is resonating on multiple frequencies at a time when the Black Lives Matters movement has shifted discussions in the public sphere.

Hamilton also offers one of the best and most compelling counternarratives to the increasingly extreme conservative rhetoric around immigration. Alexander Hamilton, Miranda never lets the audience forget, was an immigrant from a small island, with a sketchy education, no money, and few prospects, and became the target of constant social and political antagonism. Even factoring in the neoliberal undercurrent of the hardworking, self-made man the musical espouses, Hamilton artfully hammers away at the idea that power should be concentrated in the hands of an elite, or that opportunity should not be extended as widely as possible, repeatedly connecting this thread to larger ideas about race and class. Many of the musical's catchphrases, including "We are a movement," "Rise up," and "The world turned upside down," would sound as fitting at a protest as they do on Broadway.

This thrilling work of art sets a high and invigorating standard, and everyone who can—especially every student in each one of New York's elementary and secondary schools—should hurry to see it. They will enjoy it and learn a great deal from it, and then want to see it again and again.

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