“How could ‘Hamilton’ possibly live up to the hype?”
That’s the question I was asking myself as I walked into the Richard Rodgers Theatre on Monday night. It’s a musical that has blown up like no other I’ve seen in the decade I’ve been following the genre. Its soundtrack is everywhere, resale tickets were selling for as much as 12 times their normal cost at their peak, the show won 11 Tony Awards, including Best Musical — and it even became the first musical ever to perform live from its stage at the Grammy Awards.
It was impossible to tune out the noise surrounding the show, and nearly impossible to tune out the actual music itself. I entered the theater having only heard a few songs from the musical, having waited nine months since the purchase of my tickets knowing very little of what I was about to see (besides having constantly heard that it’s one of the best musicals of our time).
The best thing I can say about the experience is that it lives up to the hype. As I’ve said before, Hamilton rests on a premise that shouldn’t remotely work. A hip-hop musical about founding father Alexander Hamilton? It sounds ridiculous on paper. However, Lin Manuel Miranda injects life into these characters by giving them songs with energy, drive and emotion. The show moves at a breakneck pace, telling the story of the rise (and fall) of one of the nation’s founding fathers.
Even though I knew the story of the show (shocking spoiler: Aaron Burr kills Alexander Hamilton), that didn’t mean the show lacked stunning surprises. There’s nothing like hearing most of this score for the first time with the accompanying visuals, meticulously created and staged by director Thomas Kail and choreographer Andy Blankenbuehler. Not only is “Satisfied” one of the strongest songs in the show, but the rewind effect between Angelica’s toast at Alexander and her sister Eliza’s wedding and when it plays from Angelica’s perspective is one of the strongest visuals in the show. The musical also employs a double turntable as a major part of its set, using it to great effect as it spins the action around the center of the stage. As the show moves along and duels occur, being able to keep the action constantly moving added to the frantic energy of the show.
Yet, a Broadway musical is nothing without its cast, and for the most part the cast of mostly understudies, alternates and replacements was strong. Miguel Cervantes, who will be playing the role of Alexander Hamilton in the Chicago cast, was on for the lead role, taking a few practice runs on the Broadway stage before Chicago rehearsals start in earnest. He definitely has the singing voice and rapping skills to take on the role, as he held the show together with the skills of a much more seasoned actor in the lead role. Seth Stewart was on for Marquis Lafayette/Thomas Jefferson, and while it was weird to see the role be played by someone who’s bald, he had the wit and energy the role requires. Lexi Lawson, the permanent replacement for Eliza seems to need more time to grow into the role, but the seeds of how good she’ll eventually be were there, especially with the emotion she brought to the song “Burn.”
The only cast member who I found to be somewhat lacking was Austin Smith, one of two actors sharing the role of Aaron Burr until Brandon Victor Dixon moves in later this month. In the first act, he seemed to lack passion and fire. He showed the emotions in “Wait for It,” but it was clear he wasn’t actually feeling it. However in “The Room Where it Happens,” something must’ve woken up in him, because he made me feel Burr’s jealousy toward Hamilton in a way that he hadn’t earlier in the evening.
However, there were still a couple members of the original cast left. Christopher Jackson showed me why he was nominated for a Tony Award as George Washington. He plays with the role as only someone who has spent a year-and-a-half finding the nuances in a character can. In his shining moment, “One Last Time,” Washington points across the audience saying “History has its eyes on you.” Because of Jackson’s delivery and all of the noise this year’s election had brought, that moment lands with one of the strongest gut-punches of the evening.
Still, eventually the performances I saw will fade away. I’ll forget Cervante’s heartbreak as Alexander’s son gets killed in a duel, Smith’s anger in “The Room Where it Happens,” Stewart’s sardonic looks at the audience as Jefferson, Lawson’s inflection as she sang “Burn,” and Alysha Deslorieux’s powerful belt in “Satisfied.” They’ll disappear behind an original cast recording I’m likely going to listen to hundreds of times in the future. But, I’ll never forget how those performances made me feel. I’ll never forget the laughs and the tears and the fun and the beauty that occurred in the room where it happens.