Theater Review: Hamilton | Buzz Blog

Friday, April 13, 2018

Theater Review: Hamilton

A fascinating musical is more than just the sum of its songs.

Posted By on April 13, 2018, 10:02 AM

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click to enlarge JOAN MARCUS
  • Joan Marcus
The touring company of Hamilton arrives in Salt Lake City with the ferocious buzz of a superstar pop band coming to town—but a piece of theater isn't the same as a group coming on stage to play the hits. There are things you can't know about a show simply by listening to the songs, no matter how many times you listen to them. Lin-Manuel Miranda's Hamilton compositions have percolated through the pop-culture landscape for a few years, long enough to provide a vague sense that you might think you know what the show is about. And then you see the dramatic staging, and everything shifts.

On the most superficial level, it's the story of Alexander Hamilton (Joseph Morales), the "bastard, orphan, son of a whore" who arrives in New York just as the sparks of American revolution are beginning. The narrative follows Hamilton throughout his war service, his contentious friendship/rivalry with Aaron Burr (Nik Walker), his marriage to Eliza Schuyler (Shoba Narayan), and the political and personal tribulations that face him as the new American republic tries to find its footing.

Hamilton comes hard with the plot and character details—in addition to Hamilton's relationships with Burr and Eliza, there's his clash with Thomas Jefferson (Kyle Scatliffe) and the mentor/patron/surrogate father role played by George Washington (Marcus Choi)—and that's leaving aside the dense Schoolhouse Rock-in' introduction to behind-the-scenes machinations involving the creation of the Federal banking system. Every one of them feels fully developed, however, including the Amadeus-like Salieri/Mozart  dynamic between Burr and Hamilton, complicating the duel that eventually costs Hamilton his life (spoiler alert for anyone who doesn't know that story or never saw 1980s "Got Milk?" commercials).

It's particularly impressive that Miranda manages to pack all of that information into a story that's almost entirely through-sung, with many of the lyrics rapped at ferocious speed. And that's only one type of song in this score, which features not only blisteringly effective spoken word but infectious comedic ditties (like King George's "You'll Be Back" with its earwormy "da-da-da-da-da" refrain) and heartbreaking arias (like Eliza's "Burn").

What emerges most powerfully through the production, however, is the sense of Hamilton as alternate history in the best possible sense. Miranda's "immigrants: We get the job done" lyric might be ready-made for a slogan or a T-shirt, but it provides a way of thinking about what life circumstances drive people, and what can shape the way they're perceived by others. The rousing finale includes the anthemic repetition of "who lives, who dies, who tells your story," and it's this idea makes Hamilton most compelling, even beyond its emotional human connections. History isn't just a list of things that happen; it's the way those things are delivered to us, what is included, what is left out, who we frame as heroes and villains. Rap lyrics and color-blind casting of the Founding Fathers aren't simply part of a progressive pose. They're a way to force an audience to re-think the way our knowledge of American history has almost always been shaped from one demographic point of view.

As the play comes to a close, it appears obvious who will end up in the final spotlight. Then, startlingly, something different happens. Who is the hero of Hamilton? Who is the hero of any historical story? That answer almost always depends on who is telling it, or perhaps the power with which a storyteller can remind us that for every piece of history, there's another hero waiting to be uncovered.


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