Lin-Manuel Miranda's hip-hop musical finally reaches L.A., celebrating a time when politics was about passion, and everyone was an immigrant.
Call it Manifest Destiny: Sooner or later, “Hamilton” was bound to find its way to Los Angeles, and now that it has, Lin-Manuel Miranda’s hip-hop American-history musical feels every bit as significant and as satisfying as the country’s own westward expansion (even if, for those who want to get technical, this one-of-a-kind pop-culture phenomenon actually realized its sea-to-shining-sea potential back in March, when the national tour hit San Francisco).
Two years and 10 days after the New York-made, New York-set musical opened on Broadway, it’s the hottest ticket on the opposite coast, and with good reason: Hyperbole can hardly do justice to just how revolutionary Miranda’s Revolutionary War musical has been, and the only compromise in the traveling ensemble (which includes Broadway alternate Michael Luwoye in the lead, Chicago sensation Joshua Henry as rival Aaron Burr and best-in-show Emmy Raver-Lampman, from the original Broadway cast, carrying on the role of Angelica Schuyler) is not getting to see Miranda play Hamilton himself. Otherwise, the L.A. production faithfully recreates the Broadway experience, while allowing each of the performers to bring his or her own personality to bear on the characters they play.
Until “Hamilton” came along, hip hop was all about the Benjamins — big hundred-dollar bills, y’all — and so were most American history lessons, focusing on Franklin and the country’s first presidents. Most people probably couldn’t tell you a thing about what Miranda calls “the ten-dollar Founding Father without a father,” except perhaps that he’d been shot to death by Burr (a fact popularized by none other than Michael Bay in an award-winning “Got Milk?” commercial, of all things).
At the risk of revealing too much about myself, it was the ten-dollar bill that piqued my interest in Alexander Hamilton. Back in the year 1999, the U.S. Treasury — an organization which, it should be said, Hamilton helped to establish, serving as its first secretary under George Washington — redesigned the look of American money. The heads got bigger, and Hamilton got hot.
Thanks to a new artist’s liberal reinterpretation of a painting that hangs in the National Portrait Gallery (the original of which features Hamilton with a sharp, severe nose and a faraway expression), one of those old white guys gracing the face of U.S. currency suddenly ceased to look like a windbag in a powdered wig, and instead came off as a dashing young man with a fire in his eyes. Weirdly enough, I suddenly found myself crushing on someone who’d been dead for nearly 200 years — and I suppose, in his own way and for entirely different reasons, so did Miranda, who dug into Hamilton’s biography to find an incredibly rich story of “a bastard, orphan, son of a whore and a / Scotsman, dropped in the middle of a forgotten / spot in the Caribbean” that connected to his own immigrant experience, and the one he’d previously dramatized in “In the Heights.”
Just as the new 10-spot had flattered Hamilton, so too does Miranda’s brilliant musical, turning him into a tragic romantic hero who rose from poverty to become one of the most prolific and influential authors of modern democracy. The fact that “Hamilton” debuted during the Obama administration (more than that, in its early hip-hop mixtape form, it actually went viral after a private performance for Barack, Michelle and their inner circle at the White House in 2009) was all the more poignant, seeing as how Miranda and an incredibly talented multi-ethnic ensemble embodied everyone from Hamilton to Washington on stage, while leaving a white guy (Jonathan Groff, in the original Broadway cast) to play “the Man,” England’s mincing King George, tottering on the brink of a madness.
How quaint it all seems today, now that our commander in chief looks and sounds more like that dictatorial buffoon than the eloquent orator who preceded him. And yet, “Hamilton” couldn’t be a more vital show today, reminding audiences that all is not lost, that our country has endured the effects of venality, avarice and runaway ambition before. With Washington’s exit song, “One Last Time” (here performed with dignity and composure by Isaiah Johnson), it prepared us to say goodbye to a great leader, and to borrow one of the show’s more colorful phrases, it taught us that the nation can recover even after a subsequent lesser President “sh– the bed.”
“Hamilton” is a show about optimism and political engagement, one that underscores the message that here in America, it’s so often immigrants who “get the job done!” Obama was elected in part because of a greater turnout by young voters, and “Hamilton” extended that spirit from the ballot box to Broadway, which has traditionally been an old person’s space, owing to its prohibitive cost and conservative content (although the $10 lottery only goes so far to combat the $1,000 prices some pay for tickets).
Miranda made it hip, appealing to a younger generation by going beyond the superficial “Schoolhouse Rock” approach of writing catchy songs to deliver civics lessons, and reinventing the idiom altogether. He found an angle that resonated, turned political debates into rap battles and modernized everything from the language to casting in order to make certain truths more self-evident (not only that all men are created equal, but as Angelica sings, the fact that the authors of America’s independence needed “to include women in the sequel”). The central rivalry between Hamilton and Burr, and the decision to give the latter the best numbers (especially “The Room Where It Happens”), echoes the way “Amadeus” is seen from Salieri’s covetous POV, though no amount of comparisons can negate the ways in which it represents a radical departure from all that has come before.
And yet, “Hamilton” remains an incredibly well-designed musical, a fact that translates beyond the stages of the Public and Richard Rodgers Theaters where it played in New York. Although the show uniquely celebrates New York (reinforcing its importance in America’s early history, and reminding us Hamilton lost nothing in the Compromise of 1790 by agreeing for the capital to be located elsewhere, “Cuz we’ll have the banks / We’re in the same spot”), it does well on the road, reigniting interest in the country’s early history wherever it travels.
Regional maps from the recent presidential election revealed a troubling phenomenon in which big cities nearly all voted blue, while rural areas (even those not far from Los Angeles) went red. The thing about traveling Broadway shows is that they almost exclusively play big cities, which means Miranda’s progressive-minded message has been preaching mostly to the choir, and will continue to do so when addressing Los Angeles audiences. Is anyone here actually scandalized by the casting? That’s not the point, of course. Rather, “Hamilton’s” genius comes in challenging both the conventions and increasingly fascist politics of who gets to tell another person’s story. There’s a long, ugly tradition of white actors performing in blackface, whereas the reverse has too seldom been seen.
Luwoye, who played both Hamilton and Burr on Broadway (the former as alternate, the latter as understudy), may not look like either Hamilton or Miranda, but he’s one heck of a performer. Slightly shrimpier than most of the other actors, Luwoye uses his small stature to the part’s advantage, playing Hamilton as a man with much to prove. His early “I want” song, “My Shot,” cleverly forebodes his own demise, as does the repeated observation that Hamilton writes like he’s “running out of time.”
The show matches that sense of urgency, packing so much history and emotion into nearly three hours — including a devastating pair of second-act tragedies involving Hamilton’s wife Eliza (Solea Pfeiffer) and son Philip (Ryan Vasquez) that not only pulverize the audience, but reinforce the mystery of how Hamilton’s own legacy might continue (as Washington sings it, “You have no control / Who lives / Who dies / Who tells your story”). “Hamilton” is sung-through from beginning to end, sped along by music supervisor Alex Lacamoire’s propulsive orchestrations, yet dense in the amount of material it covers, and easy to follow, thanks to its clever wordplay and tight internal rhymes.
In the dual role of Thomas Jefferson and the Marquis de Lafayette, Jordan Donica isn’t half the rapper that Tony winner Daveed Diggs was, but he compensates in charisma, playing both the Francophile and the French officer with the exaggerated persona of a Disney animated character (which is amusing, since the approach is wholly unlike that of James Monroe Iglehart, who won a Tony for “Aladdin,” before assuming the role on Broadway). Even more cartoonish is Rory O’Malley as King George, earning the show’s biggest laughs as an incredulous monarch, certain that the United States won’t last.
From the period-inspired costumes and deconstructed wooden-scaffold set to the essential device of a double-rotating stage (key to the climactic duel), the Pantages production closely approximates the effect seen on Broadway, while adapting to a house with more than double the capacity (and nearly 10 times that of the 299-seat Public Theater). All three versions were directed by Thomas Kail, but are differentiated by the personalities on stage, as he allows the actors to adapt the roles to their respective strengths (a point made clear when the understudies and swings appear afterward, looking nothing like the actors for whom they might substitute).
And yet, whatever nuances these new actors may bring to the equation, two veterans of earlier “Hamilton” productions stand out as the ensemble’s strongest components. As Burr, Henry has to be every bit as good as whoever’s playing Hamilton, or else his tragic role as “the damn fool that shot him” doesn’t work. But the real standout is Raver-Lampman, punkishly assertive as Angelica (whom she plays with a black-to-blonde ombré mohawk), a character who’s non-essential to the plot, and yet hugely impactful, articulating the mistake of underestimating Hamilton — which, of course, we all did until Miranda corrected the record with his incredible, essential musical. And now, while it lasts, and no matter what the cost, Angelenos should do anything to be in the room where it happens.