Hamilton startles Broadway out of its slumber

An historical musical about the first Secretary of the Treasury resonates with the power of today’s music

Lin-Manuel Miranda in the title role of the musical

SARA KRULWICH/The New York Times

Lin-Manuel Miranda in the title role of the musical “Hamilton” at the Richard Rodgers Theatre in New York, July 11, 2015. Hip-hop and musical theater seemingly have little overlap, but that is the space in which Miranda lives, the space that birthed ?Hamilton,? which opened last week to some of the strongest reviews in years. (Sara Krulwich/The New York Times)

Every so often something comes along that changes everything. As journalism adviser here at Elder, I preach to my students as often as I can that they “must write about their passion.” Well it’s time for me to back it up with some action.

First a little back story…

After completing the fall play, You Can’t Take it With You, I was speaking with one of the lead actors in the show, junior Andrew White. He mentioned if I had heard of a new musical on Broadway called Hamilton. He told me the music was phenomenal and that the show was sold out many months into the future. He said he listens to the soundtrack on Spotify. I filed the information and knew that perhaps when I had a break in my schedule, I would look on the internet to see if I could learn more about it.

Monday night of this week, I was working on my lesson plans for the next day and my preparation took me into the early hours of the morning. As I went to bed, I absentmindedly turned on the remote for the TV and it came on with Stephen Colbert introducing Jennifer Hudson and the cast of The Color Purple (which was to open on Broadway on December 10) singing a song entitled, “Push the button.” It was amazing!

For those of you who don’t know this about me, I love theatre and especially musical theatre. I have been involved in producing theatre for over 40 years of my life.  I met my wife doing a show. I have appeared with or directed all five of our children in shows as well. I now have the privilege of directing the fall drama for the Seton/Elder Performing Arts Series and have helped on the productions of the spring musicals by designing and building sets for the last four musicals dating back to Hello Dolly!

Cast album of Hamilton
taken from the internet
Cast album of Hamilton

Well, seeing that brief snippet on Colbert spurred me to begin a search online for Hamilton and what I read there was hard to believe. The critics were falling all over themselves in praise of Hamilton and its writer, composer and star, Lin-Manuel Miranda.

Check out this video of Miranda freestyle rapping on Jimmy Fallon and see if you think the guy has any talent.

Critics were trumpeting the show as the most original thing to be seen on Broadway in many years as it brought the street genres of hip-hop and rap music to the historical story of the “face on the ten-dollar bill.”

But the show isn’t entirely rap either. There is R&B and 60’s rock and even songs that sound traditionally like Broadway standards; all the time telling the story in a narrative that is fast moving and that will envelope you. Miranda is truly a genius on the level of Sondheim, Lloyd Webber or even Rodgers and Hammerstein themselves. People are saying that his work will change the face and future of the Broadway musical and I can’t disagree.

The next thing I learned about the story of the show was that Miranda got the idea when he was on vacation while reading an 800 page biography of Alexander Hamilton written by Ron Chernow. After reading two chapters, Miranda saw a kindred spirit in Hamilton who was an immigrant orphan from a Caribbean island who made his way to New York a few years before the revolution.  Miranda’s parents were immigrants to NYC from Puerto Rico in the late ‘50s.

Without making this a history lesson. I invite each of you to listen to the soundtrack of the show and read the Wikipedia page that recounts the synopsis of the show to find out all the details of Hamilton’s fantastic life. Suffice it to say that he was George Washington’s right hand man in the war and after. He wrote many of the words attributed to the father of our country.

Leslie Odom Jr., Jonathan Groff, Okieriete Onaodowan, Ariana Debose, Jasmine Cephas Jones, Anthony Ramos
Leslie Odom Jr., Jonathan Groff, Okieriete Onaodowan, Ariana Debose, Jasmine Cephas Jones, Anthony Ramos

He was instrumental in a deal that left the financial center of the country in New York City while the capital was moved to Washington DC as part of a compromise. He was also involved in a sexual scandal that would rival anything on TMZ today and came completely clean admitting everything in a paper that he published for the world to read.

The other poignant element to this show is that Miranda has cast the show with people of color in many of the title roles. Aaron Burr, Thomas Jefferson and James Madison are all played by minorities. All I can say is that as inconceivable as it sounds – it works. It is especially timely in the current climate of unrest with immigrants here in our terror-filled months of 2015. The show is a melting pot of musical styles and races much like our great United States itself.

After reading several glowing articles online I listened to the entire soundtrack Tuesday night and have been listening to it several times since. (In fact, I have headphones on now as I write this article)

One of Miranda’s real strokes of genius is to stage Congressional debates between Jefferson and Hamilton as “rap battles””

I was struck by this review that was posted on Amazon music from Alvin C. when I downloaded the MP3 files.

Warning: Don’t want your spouse to smack you? Your kids to kick your shins? Then avoid this album at ALL COSTS. You’ll ignore them. All. Brushing off this warning may cause severe feel good feely feelings. You may experience a spell of charisma, nostalgia, intrigue, etc. Once you’ve reached elation, forget calling for help. The addiction has now taken you. Soon your family will start experimenting with this album and know Aaron Burr and Alexander Hamilton are more than just a trivia question from the Got Milk commercial from 1993. Everyone loses.

Truth be told and joking aside, I can’t get enough of this album. The source material is certainly not all “feel good”, but the retelling of Hamilton’s journey was masterful. The musical blend by Miranda was hypnotic and brought up doses of nostalgia. Everything from the instrumental echoes of Grandmaster Flash to the slick rhymes of 80s/90s Hip Hop intertwined and woven with past Broadway styles was truly a fantastic experience for me. As for the story, I won’t spoil the content of the album. That would be stealing an opportunity from you.

I agree with this guy wholeheartedly. I can’t get enough of this music. And every time that I listen to the songs I hear another lyric with a rhyme that blows my mind. After listening to Miranda’s work I can’t think of a better way to tell this historical story of the birth of our country and the main characters that made it happen than with hip-hop beats and rap. One of Miranda’s real strokes of genius is to stage Congressional debates between Jefferson and Hamilton as “rap battles” complete with members of the assembly cheering them on. It’s hard to describe, you really just have to hear it.

If you don’t believe me, give a listen to the title song here. The rap battles are there, too.

Its hard to find clips of the show online because since it is SOLD OUT on Broadway for months, they really don’t need to advertise. But I did find this one on YOU TUBE  of the number  that covers the battle of Yorktown which gives you an idea of what the entire show experience would be like. I think you’ll agree that it is viscerally overwhelming.

Here are some great online video stories I just found from the PBS News Hour and CBS Sunday Morning.(one of my favorite shows)

Now as I was listening on Tuesday night, a story came across the internet that a second production of the show will be coming to Chicago in September of 2016. I am hoping to get tickets and see this production in the Windy City.

The Schuyler Sisters in the musical Hamilton
from the internet
The Schuyler Sisters in the musical Hamilton

So, there you have it. I have written about 1000 words about something that I am passionate about. It was story that was inside me and had to get out. I hope that a few readers of The Quill will check out Hamilton. It already is among the hottest things happening in the arts in the US and will be there for months to come.