A funny thing happened on my way to Hamilton, and it starts with a confession.
Musicals, and by that I mean grand, formulaic, song-and-dance stories about good triumphing over evil, just don’t have their intended effect on me. So, when Hamilton opened at The Public Theater in 2015, I did not jump at the chance to see a hip-hop celebration of the Founding Fathers and the birth of our country. History – or rather Lin-Manuel Miranda – proved my snap judgement wrong, however, and now anytime I’m forced to admit I threw away my shot, so to speak, to see Hamilton with the original cast for a ticket under $100, the revelation is met with embarrassment at my cynical mistrust of all musicals. Shame on me.
Now, in 2016, when there’s a million things I haven’t done, and ticket prices have hit the absolute limits of reason, why would I finally schedule a meeting with this record-breaking mega-hit that absolutely does not need another review?
The answer is as simple as “if offered one, you don’t say no to the hottest ticket on Broadway” or to its Revolootion. So I went, and, of course, Lin-Manuel Miranda is a genius, and, of course, the music is amazingly catchy and the lyrics whip smart, and, of course, the production is a cultural phenomenon that reflects our multiethnic country and its aspirations for betterment and the common good, etc., etc.
However, two things have changed since 2015. As Hamilton fans know, but perhaps not all the out-of-towers at the performance I attended were aware, the production’s now famous leads – Miranda (Hamilton), Leslie Odom, Jr. (Aaron Burr), Phillipa Soo and Renée Elise Goldsberry, (as Schuyler sisters Eliza and Angelica, respectively) and Daveed Diggs (Lafayette/Jefferson) – have left. Actors who originate a role can become the face forever associated with that character, and this cast has become the voices of theirs, expressing Eliza’s heartbreak, Hamilton’s “just you wait” braggadocio, Jefferson’s superciliousness, Burr’s scheming and Angelica’s self-sacrifice, for posterity, thanks to the album and iTunes.
The question on the minds of theater geeks, then, is how the second cast is faring. Miranda’s successor and longtime collaborator, Javier Muñoz, already played the title role for President Obama in July 2015, so he’s something of a known quantity. I saw a Sunday matinee featuring Muñoz’s alternate, Michael Luwoye, who makes his Broadway debut. Luwoye is solid and serious, as if he shares Hamilton’s “history has its eye on me” worries but he carried the ensemble in rousing numbers like “The Battle of Yorktown” and he was both genuinely interesting as the hyper-ambitious young revolutionary and moving as a grieving father. He brings an earnestness that contrasts with Miranda’s more edgy upstart, and though he faltered once or twice to hit his marks, he created the hero audiences had come to see.
The same is true for Brandon Victor Dixon as Burr and Seth Stewart in the double role of Lafayette/Jefferson: different physiques and strengths than the original actors, but, in their case, also a lot of fun to watch. Dixon has the biggest shoes to fill; Leslie Odom, Jr., won a Tony for his performance, thanks to his vocals, dancing and character work as Hamilton’s complex arch-rival. Dixon is a newcomer only to Hamilton, however; this Broadway veteran holds Tony and Grammy nominations for roles in Shuffle Along, Motown the Musical and The Color Purple. His Burr is a lanky, wiry arriviste who rolls his eyes in comic exasperation at Hamilton’s workhorse. Like Odom, he inspires sympathy, rather than opprobrium, for falling to pride, and his jumpy, nervous version of “The Room Where It Happens” brought down the house.
Stewart, who understudied Lafayette/Jefferson in the original Broadway cast, proves he wasn’t wasting anyone’s time; his Jefferson was the performance’s revelation for me: puffed up and overweening like a rooster, strutting and sidling like Muhammad Ali, ready with a sly smile and a wink. His “What’d I Miss” number was also a show stopper, and his prowling physicality counterbalanced nicely Luwoye’s stateliness.
Mandy Gonzalez, another seasoned actor (Wicked and numerous TV credits) was a strong and tough Angelica, more of a concerned older sister to Eliza, which failed to create a spark between them, and her vocalizing on “Satisfied” could seem more excessive than punchy. Lexi Lawson – also with a tough act to follow after Phillipa Soo’s Tony nominated performance – missed some opportunities as a vengeful Eliza but was sufficiently “Helpless” to win us over. Christopher Jackson (George Washington), Anthony Ramos (John Laurens/Philip Hamilton) and Okieriete Onaodowan (Hercules Mulligan/James Madison) continue strongly in their original roles, and anchor the production with their familiar voices and reliable presence. Rory O’Malley made a deliciously arrogant King George. All in all, everything is still good in the Hamilton ‘hood.
But the America we live in today is now just three weeks from deciding on its future in times that are almost as momentous as those in which Hamilton and his contemporaries lived. That’s the second thing that has changed in the 18 months of the show’s life. “How lucky we are to be alive right now!” is the refrain of the Schuyler sisters on the cusp of the new American nation, but I don’t know who, in the wake of the primaries we have just endured and the campaigns we are witnessing, or, for that matter, the very uncertain world in which we live, shares their confidence today. In 2015, Miranda’s Hamilton was a giddy proposition to celebrate the little-known architect of the capitalism on which we thrive in the US; in 2016, it is clear that system has also brought us the likes of Donald Trump, whose candidacy for president is based solely on his business success as a real estate magnate. That wouldn’t be an unusual curriculum vitae for a politician entering the ring in 1789, but watching Hamilton’s scolding of Jefferson in “Cabinet Battle #1,” it struck me Hilary Clinton must be yelling the same thing in her mind after every hot mic comment or fat-shaming tweet by her opponent: “Welcome to the present, we’re running a real nation…” Hello?
There are more than a few parallels between Hamilton and our current political moment that Miranda could not have foreseen but that are explained by the “history repeats itself” rule. I’m not the first person to observe this probably. Still, watching the entire story unfold in the Richard Rogers Theatre, rather than watching the DVD or listening to the cast album, brought them home. Hamilton famously used the press to argue his case when it served him, in the Federalist Papers and Reynolds Pamphlet. These defenses of his ideas and his character were a rather more exacting process than 5 am Tweeting, but there were Burr and Eliza deriding Hamilton for maniacally constructing his “narrative” for public consumption. Familiar? Hamilton was also a lawyer who successfully defended British Loyalists from lawsuits brought by Americans whose property had been seized during the Revolution. Although his argument brought the due process clause into our judicial system, it put me in mind, less favorably, of certain assurances made to Wall Street post-2008 that have come back to haunt in this election. And, clearly, Hamilton’s senseless affair with Maria Reynolds and the cover-up and botched confession it inspired cannot surprise anyone who has been tuned in to any form of media since the second presidential debate. In October 2016, it’s hard not to read Hamilton in the light of this political season, and vice versa.
In fact, Hamilton’s legacy weighs heavily on the choices we’ve been asked to make by both candidates. Do we choose a country that is open to the immigrants “coming up from the bottom” like Hamilton was? Do we want the diversified, modern economy Hamilton championed or one that depends on the economic vehicles of the past, like natural resources, as Jefferson did? Do we envision a country that works forcefully for the equal rights of all Americans as Hamilton dreamed? Do we trust our elected officials to be the firm and bold leaders Hamilton was convinced we need? Do we believe in paying taxes for a revenue stream that will put government plans into action? Do we think banks provide a valuable economic service and that the national debt should be reduced? The policies and ideas of Alexander Hamilton are all over this election.
But above all, and regardless of whether it’s a simplification of history or not, Miranda’s story proposes a much needed reminder to our political class. It’s what opposed Hamilton to Burr: on the one hand, convictions; on the other, opportunism. “If you stand for nothing, Burr, what’ll you fall for?” is a line I wish we had a Hamilton today to throw at everyone hiding behind the “not endorsing but voting for” oxymoron.
Wait, what am I saying? It’s just a musical, for goodness sake: romance, tragedy, hope and feel-good buttons galore. Eek! But if, as Donald Trump has now famously put out there, he would challenge the very foundations of our democratic process in the United States by refusing to concede defeat, the “world turned upside down” would be our world again, with reverse effects. So, cue the swelling overture…
You probably can’t get tickets until well after this election season (or not even until the next) but if you do, the current cast will certainly “satisfy” you, to use a final Hamilton-ism. For a reminder that political acumen, diplomacy and lay-down-your-life patriotism were once real qualities in our politicians with a single goal of building and maintaining a democracy (and all of that sung to an irresistible soundtrack), Hamilton still rocks.