Thursday, March 5, 2015

HAMILTON: Will Lin-Manuel Miranda Have The Magic Touch To Produce Another Broadway Hit?

With slightly less than two months to go before the major theater award nominees are announced, and with 16 Broadway shows yet to open before then, there can be no legitimate speculation about the 2015 awards.  

However, the same cannot be said for 2016, at least not if we are to believe the outpouring of acclaim that is buzzing about a certain new Off Broadway production that is set to make its move to Broadway this coming summer. 

That new show is Hamilton, Lin-Manuel Miranda’s long anticipated follow-up to his multiple-award winning hit musical In The Heights from 2007 (Off Broadway) and 2008-2011 (Broadway). Hamilton is currently in the midst of an acclaimed and nearly sold-out run at the Public Theater, where it closes on May 3. The Broadway production is set to begin previews at the Richard Rodgers Theatre (the same venue as In The Heights) beginning July 13. 

I attended a performance of Hamilton over the past weekend, and while it has a lot going for it, I would say that Mr. Miranda has very wisely warded off those who wished to make the move immediately, in time for its momentum to carry it through the current awards season. 

To be clear, I have no doubt it would be a strong contender, even in its current state, but it could use some work to solidify that home run its creator is looking for. It is too long, to begin with, running at two hours and forty-five minutes. More significantly, it has problems keeping its focus on the central rivalry between Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr.

For what it is worth, here are my specific thoughts on various aspects of Hamilton, including the pluses:

The Production

There is no faulting the production values, from the set to the staging to the use of the turntable system to the costumes to Andy Blankenbuehler’s outstanding choreography. This is a team that will know exactly how to make the best use of the humongous stage at the Richard Rodgers (the staging was a great strength of In The Heights, as well). The early scenes are especially strong in conveying the immediacy and youthful exuberance of many of the key players who were barely out of their teens when our fledgling nation was on the brink of its war of independence—Hamilton, Burr, Lafayette, and the Schuyler sisters, among them. Hamilton does a terrific job of portraying the youth-fed sense of adventure, righteous indignation, and confidence at the approach of the Revolutionary War. 

The Cast

First-rate all around, with no complaints at all. For me, the standout is Daveed Diggs in the dual roles of Lafayette and Thomas Jefferson. Just love his Act II opener, “What’d I Miss?” I also love the care that was used in bringing together the multi-racial cast for telling this most American of stories.  Finally, I appreciate the quiet but significant references to immigration, race relations, and political shenanigans that compel us to make connections between then and now. 

The Music

Mr. Miranda is an undisputed expert at using rap to tell a story. His mastery of the genre’s rhythms and intricate rhyme schemes puts him on a par with the likes of Stephen Sondheim and W. S. Gilbert, to whom he pays homage with a reference to the patter song “Modern Major General.” It is possible to question the co-opting of a style that is associated with a particular segment of our culture, but I will say that the way he has shaped rap makes the form completely accessible to a typical theater audience member. It’s almost as if he slows it down imperceptibly, so that ears unused to rap can catch every word. 

With Hamilton, rap is used almost exclusively for exposition, but, really, there is simply too much of it. It begins to feel as though it were being used as a means of engaging high school students in learning about U. S. history.  But this is theater, not school, and we don’t need to know everything that Mr. Miranda has absorbed from studying Ron Chernow’s hefty biography of his protagonist. Tell us what we do need to know, and move on.    

Beyond the use of rap, Miranda has provided some lovely ballads, a great comic number for King George that draws on a ‘60s pop tunefulness (reminds me of The Monkees’ “Daydream Believer”), as well as a couple of terrific toe tapping jazz-inflected songs. This is one wonderful and eclectic score. 

Whose Story?

The focus of the story needs to be on Hamilton and Burr. We do get to know Hamilton quite well, but Aaron Burr remains a cipher, known almost exclusively as a fence sitter for his unwillingness to commit to one position or the other. About the only other aspect of his life that is referenced is his love for his wife and for his daughter, both named Theodosia. Yet neither of these women appears as a character in the show.  I say, lose the song (and its repetition) about Theodosia, or, better yet, add one or both of the characters and build up the human side of Burr’s story in a way that is parallel to Hamilton’s. We get to know something of Hamilton’s son; how about Burr’s daughter? 

In order to tip the scale to incorporate more about Burr, the show could reduce some of the time it devotes to several other characters. There is an awful lot of George Washington, for example. Yes, Washington apparently was a father figure for Hamilton, but that is not the central relationship. Lose the bit about the Whiskey Rebellion and de-emphasize Washington overall. While you’re at it, figure out what to do with the Schuyler sisters. Hamilton marries Eliza, but why are we given so much information about his relationship with Eliza's sister Angelica, especially since there is no affair?  And why do we need the third sister, Peggy, to show up at all? Also expendable: James Madison and possibly John Laurens. 

Again, it's not that the actors playing these roles aren't excellent. They most certainly are. But where's the focus?  Too many characters have their moment in the spotlight, so that the central figures risk being lost in the shuffle.  

While you are figuring out how to better balance the characters, think about what to do with King George. He does have a great crowd-pleasing comic number, but do we really need to hear it three times? As an alternative to cutting back, a possibility would be to give him something else to do. Add a scene in England with the king and his counselors agonizing over the Revolutionary War. Give them a song and drop the two repeated solos. Bear in mind that one great number was enough for Andrea Martin to clinch the Tony for her supporting role in Pippin.  

The Ending

There is a perfectly good ending to Hamilton, the duel with Aaron Burr. The build-up through the previous duels and the stylized number “Duel Commandments” are very effective.  The way the final showdown between the rivals is staged in slow motion gives Hamilton ample time to say everything he needs to say, in the manner of Ambrose Bierce’s “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge.”  There is no need for the appended epilogue told by Eliza Hamilton. What could be more final that the finality of death?    

Looking Ahead

We know that Mr. Miranda is not planning to rest on his laurels, as he has excused himself from several performances in order to sit in the audience and take notes. I look forward to seeing what he does to tighten and focus what could very well be his masterwork. He has said that in Hamilton, he has found his Les Miz, but what he needs to find is his Hamilton and his Burr.  

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