When it played downtown at the Public Theatre earlier this year, Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton caused a stir, but it didn’t move to Broadway immediately because Miranda, who wrote the book, music, and lyrics for the show and also starred as American founding father Alexander Hamilton, wanted to make improvements to it and cut around 15 minutes from it.
On the Broadway stage, with a spacious and intricate set designed by David Korins, this musical rooted in hip-hop but encompassing many other styles spreads out so that the dancers take the space in a muscular and virile way that matches the tone of the show itself. Hamilton is a very macho, sometimes outright corny work about a man who is fighting against time who wants his “shot,” a refrain that is repeated over and over again. Like “his country,” he is “scrappy and hungry”—a lyric that also gets repeated many times. You might not care that “country” and “hungry” don’t rhyme the first time you hear this, but it starts to sound a little lame after the second, third, and fourth time.
Hamilton has serious stage virtues, so that it’s easy to see why it is wowing audiences. It packs in a very large amount of historical information and exposition from scene to scene, with comic physical movements by the chorus dancers to make all this info go down smoothly, and this smoothness extends to the personal story, too. The way that we are made to understand the very complicated triangular relationship between Hamilton (played in most matinees by Javier Muñoz), his wife Eliza (Phillipa Soo) and her sister Angelica (Renée Elise Goldsberry) is a model of stagecraft and swift character explication. The music and lyrics here are always propelling the show forward, and in the second act, when the songs take on a sadder, more inward key, Miranda is up to this challenge as well. He had a success with his musical In the Heights, but this show is a bigger, more ambitious effort. This is Miranda’s own shot, and it is clear that he has identified himself with Hamilton in order to get as far as he needs to go with him here.
Miranda’s identification with his lead character has its downside. Hamilton, this musical emphasizes, was an orphan with no money or connections to support his rise in America, first as one of the leaders of the fight in the Revolutionary War and then as a writer of most of the Federalist Papers, which still remain the model for interpretations of the US constitution. We are told again and again in lyrics that Hamilton is not good at dissembling and always speaks his mind, but we see very little of that in his behavior on stage, where he seems more like a schmoozer than a firebrand who can’t keep his mouth shut.
When Hamilton has an affair with a married woman that ruins his later political chances, Miranda slips this in as smoothly as he does everything else, but we don’t understand the affair beyond a repeated lyric for Hamilton: “My body says, ‘Hell yeah.’” We are told that Hamilton was a ladies’ man, but his womanizing, early and later, is dealt with so obliquely that it might as well not be there at all. The character of Hamilton here is just this great, tireless guy who somehow knows his time is limited, and Miranda’s musical celebrates him in a way that feels rah-rah simplistic. It gives the audience the sense that they are having a well-rounded experience with Hamilton without actually giving them one.
The portrayal of King George III (Jonathan Groff) as a supercilious fop gets some easy laughs that aren’t worthy of the seriousness that Miranda brings to the war scenes and the scenes of political jockeying, which are the best and most impressive sections here. The rivalry between Hamilton and Aaron Burr (Leslie Odom, Jr.), which simmers over thirty years of insults and political knives in the back and finally resolves itself in a duel that will take Hamilton’s life, is something that should be the through-line of the entire show but starts to feel like an afterthought, like something that needs to be there that doesn’t have enough weight on stage. Miranda gets caught up, instead, in extended scenes where Eliza reacts to Hamilton’s adultery and their young son Philip (Anthony Ramos) dies his own death in a duel. Miranda tugs very, very hard on the heartstrings in these scenes, so much so that some of the audience I saw this with were weeping at them. They are undoubtedly effective, these tearjerker scenes, and the production as a whole displays real showmanship and craft and cunning. But in identifying himself so heavily with Hamilton, Miranda loses some of the sharper edges that might have made this into a fuller picture of a complex man instead of a cheerleading session for him that finally bursts with all-out, albeit earned, sentimentality about him.