NEW YORK – “Hamilton,” the first unchallenged hit of the Broadway season, is a superior musical inspired by Ron Chernow’s weighty 800-page biography of Alexander Hamilton (1755-1804). Hamilton was a founding father of the United States and one of the most important political figures in the early days of our nation.
The creator of “Hamilton” is Lin-Manuel Miranda, probably best known for his 2008 Broadway musical hit “In the Heights.” Here, he has turned Hamilton’s life into a harmonious work of art, penning the show’s book, lyrics and music, which he mixes with frequently infectious doses of rap and hip-hop songs as well as some lovely lyrical ballads for the women in the show.
Mr. Miranda even takes to the stage, acting the role of Hamilton at most performances at the Richard Rodgers Theatre on West 46th Street between Broadway and 8th Avenue.
As a man, Hamilton was an iconoclast and probably a genius. He was born out of wedlock on the West Indies island of Nevis to a French woman and Scottish father. His father abandoned the family and his mother passed away when he was 13, leaving Hamilton an orphan. But he was bright and home-taught. A local wealthy man funded his trip to the United States to be educated, first in Elizabeth, N.J., where he entered King’s College (now Columbia University). In his late teens and early 20s, he participated in the Revolutionary War, became George Washington’s top aide and eventually served in Congress. He founded the Bank of New York in 1784, wrote 51 of the Federalist Papers in support of the proposed Constitution and he was the first Secretary of the Treasury.
He married Eliza Schuyler (played by Philippa Soo) and they had eight children. In 1801, his first child, Philip, was killed in a duel with George Eaker, whom, it was said, he had probably insulted at a Manhattan theater. It was a foreshadowing of what would occur to Alexander Hamilton a few years later when he would be shot for a political infraction by Aaron Burr in a duel in New Jersey on July 11, 1804. He would die the next day in Greenwich Village at 80-82 Jane Street.
The musical Mr. Miranda has created takes an amazing, fresh look at Hamilton’s life and his historical narrative. Thomas Kail has staged it with buoyancy and it moves forward with a cycle of dances by Andy Blankenbueler. All of the musical numbers are fresh and natural and seem to grow and flow out of the action.
You don’t watch “Hamilton” as a spectator; you become a participant. Mr. Miranda draws you into the feelings of the 18th-century world of New York City. The stage setting by David Korins integrates the scaffolding and bricks of a city still under construction and growing and being built before our eyes. Howard Binkley’s lighting gives us candle-glowing drawing rooms, while outside, a dappled, 18th-century town.
Mr. Miranda has written such a sinewy story that you live it intently and intensely along with Hamilton and his fledgling revolutionary cohorts and naysayers, Besides Mr. Burr and Mr. Washington, there are Thomas Jefferson, James Madison and John Jay. Mr. Miranda brings them all to life by casting multi-ethnic actors, mainly black and Latino.
Aaron Burr is played by Leslie Odom Jr., an African-American, while Mr. Miranda’s family hails from Puerto Rico. The cast all wear 18th-century garb designed by Paul Tazewell – women in formal gowns or less formal clothes of the era and the men in colorful velvet frock coats with shiny gold buttons, white knee trousers and black leather boots. I think the only Caucasian man in the cast is Jonathan Groff, who plays King George III, and who has a Broadway show-stopping song of cynical advice to the colonists, “You’ll Be Back.”
Like every decision Mr. Miranda has made, the color-blind casting is brilliant and gives the show a dazzling, creative originality.
In the theater, as in life, nothing unique ever happens unless one person pursues a vision fanatically. Lin-Manuel Miranda was inspired by Alexander Hamilton, and look what he has done: He has created a knockout.
Bernard Carragher lives in New York and covers the arts and entertainment.