Around the time Barack Obama won the 2008 election, I remember seeing a wonderful cartoon with silhouettes of the nation’s chief executives in chronological order. A long symmetrical lineup of white men in wigs ended with a beaming Obama in the final oval frame, his black profile contrasting proudly — celebrating inclusion while acknowledging difference.
Lin-Manuel Miranda’s lustrous, boisterous musical Hamilton presents a theatrical counterpart to that image. It’s the ultimate Obama-era musical. (Indeed, the Obamas have seen and reportedly admired it.) The production, which had garnered buzz even before it premiered last season at the Public Theater, has now secured a place as a titanic hit in this current Broadway version.
Directed by Thomas Kail, the kinetic storytelling deserves accolades for two reasons: First, an astoundingly talented cast sings, raps, and dances the biography of Alexander Hamilton, the American revolutionary firebrand turned statesman, and does it with fervor and a special connectedness. It feels personal. You just notice a palpable charge when performers like Daveed Diggs (as a fabulously brazen Thomas Jefferson) hold a stake in the show’s creation as they do here. Miranda himself plays the title role, keeping it solid and steady. He’s the most interesting performer to watch, in part because this square-jawed, ponytailed New Yorker is so blatantly not the character he portrays.
The other force here lies in Miranda’s brilliance as a lyricist: His dazzling wordplay balances biography, hip-hop homage, and boosterism. His precise and evocative lyrics suffuse Hamilton with a sheer exuberance, especially in a cabinet showdown between the cantankerous star and his rivals. (“Keep ranting,” he tells Jefferson, his plantation-owning nemesis. “We know who’s doing the planting.”)
For all the talent on display, it’s surprising that a show hailed so widely as a watershed event wields no edge. Hamilton stays fairly anodyne. The production makes a joyful display of identity politics by virtue of its stunning cast — many of them African-American and Latino performers — and its fusion of hip-hop with Broadway ballads to tell the tale of the Founding Fathers. Although the show’s built on this terrific discrepancy, it doesn’t do much with irony. Hamilton narrates the war of independence from Britain, the drafting of the Constitution, and the formation of a new economic system, but it never elucidates a political critique.
“Who Tells Your Story?” the ensemble keeps asking in the finale’s refrain, suggesting that we might look differently at the Founding Fathers and their ideas of freedom and equality, depending on who’s depicting them. But Hamilton adheres to and cheerfully celebrates those American myths rather than challenge them, and the second half concentrates on the title character’s household and psychology, throwing away the sly stuff and morphing into a conventional musical. When a death in the family shifts things into psychology, the show expires, too. “Can we get back to politics?” Jefferson demands at one point — and he’s right.
It’s a shame gender roles, too, stay so traditional: The guys get the bring-down-the-house rap numbers and the women mostly have the ballads. (Renée Elise Goldsberry does a star turn as Hamilton’s sister-in-law, but her character’s largely a hand-wringing adjunct.)
Hamilton could almost be a school history pageant, adroitly told — nothing wrong with that, except for the missed opportunity to say something larger. If the modern French playwright Jean Genet played this same game, role-playing the Founding Fathers would reveal something more profound about power. In that sense, perhaps Hamilton‘s a little like the Obama administration itself, putting a new face on the American imperium, basking in the aura of change but rarely countering the nation’s values. “What’s the state of our nation?” asks Hamilton in the opening. That’s a question the musical only addresses obliquely. We’re left with a witty, highly engaging bio-romp, but no revolution.
Hamilton: An American Musical
By Lin-Manuel Miranda
Richard Rodgers Theatre
226 West 46th Street