“What’s your name, man?”
To borrow a phrase from the show’s author, words fail.
Three weeks ago, I became one of the lucky few who got the chance to see “Hamilton” on Broadway.
Three months ago, I had never heard of “Hamilton.”
Back before Thanksgiving, my daughter starting saying that there was something she wanted me to listen to. I waved her off for a while: I was really busy, and it wasn’t just a pop song or two, it was an entire soundtrack! And the way she explained it, it sounded like the most ridiculous thing I’d had ever heard of: a musical about Alexander Hamilton. Sung mostly in hip hop. By a non-white cast…even though all the characters they were playing were famously white, and many of them were famously slave owners.
There was no way it could possibly work.
And then we finally had a quiet evening, and she played it for me.
Damned if it wasn’t brilliant.
It makes complete and total sense. The birth of our fledgling nation was a time of incredible energy and excitement and, yes, violence and pain; it was an uprising of people who had had enough; and it required thoughts to be expressed that had never been spoken in quite that way before. The rhythmic exuberance and youthful power of hip hop is so surprisingly perfect as the expression of this energy, this passion, that it seems completely obvious from the opening note.
(Here‘s creator Lin-Manuel Miranda on CBS Sunday morning addressing this: “We take it as a given that hip-hop music is the music of the revolution.” (at 1:47).)
This show is a phenomenon. It is sold out through the summer. In January.
The people lined up in front of the theater were singing the songs.
Selfie with the Schuyler Sisters (that’s my daughter, the reason for my obsession)
When the first actor came on stage to open the show, he couldn’t get through his first line. He sang, “How does…” and the whole place erupted like a rock concert: screams and shouts, hooting and cheering like a beloved icon had just strutted out to sing a 60s rock anthem. They had to stop the music for a good two or three seconds to let the cheering die down before he could continue.
And he wasn’t even the star of the show; that wasn’t even Hamilton’s entrance. (He had a rock star moment of his own.)
It was unbelievable. Electricity shot through the place, from the audience to the actors, from the actors to the audience.
Every element of the show works together to create magic: light and sound, main actors and ensemble, song and spoken word (there are a few). The ensemble sometimes represent a crowd of onlookers — dancers at a party, or rebels in the street, or patriots in the rebel army — and sometimes they are objects in the environment, forming a table or enacting the flight of a bullet, and sometimes they express the emotions of a moment with their bodies; in each case enhancing the performances of the main actors with powerful and energetic motion that I can’t really describe. They functioned almost in the way that water buoys a ship: swelling and swirling around the other actors and then receding, supporting and carrying, obvious but at the same time invisible.
I can’t remember ever having this kind of emotional experience at a play. As the final number began, my throat was tight and I had tears on my face, and as I surged to my feet with everyone else in the theater for the actors’ bows, I couldn’t cheer. I was so overcome.
One of the amazing things about this play is that each and every one of these actors is so uniquely talented. Leslie Odom, Jr., the actor who plays Hamilton’s lifelong nemesis, Aaron Burr, is so riveting that you can feel the entire theater lean in towards him whenever he is alone on stage. His most emotional number, “Wait For It,” renders the theater breathlessly silent (and I know my daughter and I were not the only ones crying). Daveed Diggs, who plays both Lafayette and Jefferson, is like lightning trapped in human form: unstoppable, fast-moving, electrifying. Phillipa Soo, who plays Hamilton’s devoted wife Eliza, tears your heart with her passion.
And none of these brilliant people is the star of the show.
That honor falls to the show’s creator, Lin-Manuel Miranda.
The first act song “Non-Stop” could as easily, I think, have been written about Miranda. The ensemble questions Hamilton’s drive: “Why do you write like you’re running out of time?/Write day and night like you’re running out of time?” Miranda spent six years writing and developing this play — book and music — after reading Ron Chernow’s 800 page biography of Hamilton; worked with the director, choreographer, orchestra director, light and sound and set designers to achieve his vision; and stars in it seven shows a week (he gets Sundays off). He is active on social media, engaging with fans. He is the definition of non-stop.
Seeing the play live is a completely different experience from listening to the soundtrack (which I do almost daily, and believe me, even when you’re not listening to it, these songs are living inside of you). For one thing, these performers are not just exceptional singers but excellent actors; particularly Miranda, whose performance was much more subtle and nuanced than I expected. In addition, I was struck by the fact that Miranda is not afraid to surround himself with greatness even if it means that he is occasionally eclipsed. How many superstars would have decided that they MUST be the center of attention at all times, that no Lafayette rapping at the speed of sound nor heart-wrenching Burr should ever take the audience’s eyes off of the STAR, the creative force, the all-powerful-awesomeness-that-is-LMM. Instead, Miranda not only reached out to pull these people into orbit around him, he wrote these parts for them. He wanted them to shine, knowing what they could do.
It’s that kind of play, and he’s that kind of person.
I know I said “words fail” at the top, but the truth is that I could talk about it endlessly. I can’t say enough (“non-stop”), but at the same time, I can’t find the right words to express what it felt like to be there or to describe what it was like. All I can say is, if you get the chance, GO.
The stage, before it begins…
(posted with apologies; there is really no excuse for how long it’s taken me to get this thing written)