Letter from Seattle: Miranda’s rights

Lin-Manuel Miranda's Broadway phenomenon "Hamilton" sucks up most of the theatrical air in Seattle. And it's headed for Portland.

By MISHA BERSON

SEATTLE — An assortment of plays and musicals is on the boards in Seattle at the moment. But the Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award-winning Broadway juggernaut Hamilton is upstaging them all.

Hamilton-mania ignited here a year before the national touring production of the Broadway behemoth hit town. And last autumn, hopefuls scrambled for scarce single tickets to the Paramount Theatre engagement, which runs here through March 18. It then heads south to open a stand at Portland’s Keller Auditorium on March 20.

“Hamilton” hits the road: bowling ’em over in Seattle, heading for Portland. Photo: Joan Marcus

Some latecomer Seattle fans are now willing to fork over double, triple the face value ($179) for a seat on ticket resale sites like stubhub.com and vividseats.com. Others pin their hopes on the show’s daily lottery, which offers a limited number of $10 seats to the lucky few for each performance. (The situation is unlikely to be different in Portland. Tickets for the 24-show run, through April 8, were swooped up months ago, and the same $10 daily lottery is available.)

Hamilton-mania has now reached fever pitch. Seattle media outlets that routinely ignore live theater are covering the frenzy. Even the more skeptical drama critics in town are declaring that the show far transcends their expectations, and is “life-changing.”   Walking out of the Paramount on opening night, I was surrounded by adolescents and adults who looked stunned with wonder as they searched for superlatives to describe what was, for them, a near-mystical experience.

I too appreciated Hamilton, though not with the unbridled ecstasy I witnessed in some. I’ll admit that Lin-Manuel Miranda’s high-velocity rap lyrics whizzed unintelligibly by me at times – partly because I’m generationally challenged in that regard, but also because the Paramount is a big old barn of a former movie palace that tends to swallow up even well-amplified spoken words (especially over the sound of a pit orchestra.)

I also was struck by how much (from afar, anyway) lead actor Joseph Morales vocally and physically resembles Miranda, who originally starred as 18th century statesman Alexander Hamilton in addition to conceiving, writing and composing Hamilton. It was uncanny and a bit distracting at first, like seeing film actors who wind up sounding and gesturing like Woody Allen when appearing in his movies.

For me, part of the triumph of Hamilton lies in something more thoughtful: its power to personalize political history in a way that doesn’t dumb it down. It also provokes reflection and a thirst for more information. It makes you want to dive into the detailed Ron Chernow biography of Alexander Hamilton it is loosely based on (all 800 pages of it), and gets you curious about even such dry Hamiltonian feats as the founding of America’s first national bank and establishing our first federal deficit.

Even more impressive is the show’s extraordinary ironic yet earnest juxtaposition of actors of color in the roles of the real-life white movers and shakers who set our democracy in motion. (See also African American painter Kehinde Wiley’s self-portrait as an upscale 18th century gentleman.) This casting is not window dressing, but a tactic that conjures a sense of modern liberation within the historical frame. And it invites non-white spectators to identify with and admire characters that in other depictions could seem remote and alien.

That is one of the several layers of current resonance Miranda brings to the saga of Hamilton’s fairly short but action-packed, influential life as a mixed-race immigrant with blazing ambition and talent, and a penchant for polarizing scandal.

However, none of this, even matched with a score that so cleverly welds a melodic show tune aesthetic to a hip-hop ethos, would have been riveting without Thomas Kail’s propulsive, bi-level direction and Andy Blankenbuehler’s plentiful break-dance-meets-Broadway-moves choreography.

Hamilton comes at you at 100 miles per hour, a power vehicle running on all cylinders. It’s the theatrical equivalent of IMAX but all human, all live, and with none of the techno-tricks designed to hypnotize and overwhelm. What seduces you here is a group of mostly black actors in velvet breeches and ruffled shirts, singing “I’m not throwing away my shot!” with a visceral intensity you can feel from the balcony, and an array of drifting, be-gowned young women exhorting you to “Look around, look around at how lucky we are to be alive right now.”

They’re singing about the exhilaration of living in a “New World” where revolution is in the air, history is in the making. The meta-resonance is obvious here: look around, look around, aren’t you lucky to be alive in a time when you can be here seeing Hamilton?

“Hamilton,” the phenomenon. Photo: Joan Marcus

But what lasting impact will this musical have on its sizable, ardent youth audience, who have also (in much greater numbers) fallen in love with the Grammy-honored soundtrack?   Will it woo them en masse to Broadway and other theaters for lesser phenoms?

Some years after millions of children devoured every new Harry Potter novel as they emerged a couple of decades ago, studies were done that in one case suggested young readers of J. M Rowling’s fantastical tales eventually became, compared to the average American: a) more tolerant; b) more empathetic; and c) less inclined to vote for Donald Trump. (One can’t help but wonder if they were so inclined anyway, given their upbringing and environment.)

But were these Potter-heads likely to pick up a book more than their peers, as they passed into adolescence and adulthood?   Not according to a 2007 New York Times report. It stated, “U.S. statistics show that the percentage of youngsters who read for fun continues to drop significantly as children get older, at almost exactly the same rate as before Harry Potter came along.”

I’m reminded of the father and teenage daughter I met in a Times Square café a few years ago. They were visiting from Texas to see the hit musical Wicked (a feminized kissing cousin of Harry Potter stories) — for the fifth time. I asked, were they going to attend anything else on or off Broadway? Nope. They never had, nor did they want to. It was Wicked all the way.

That isolated desire for a singular sensation, not an expansive art form, could very easily happen with Hamilton, too, once tickets are somewhat easier to come by. But entrance to the smash hit will remain pricey, on Broadway and on tour, for some years to come.

Certainly cost is a factor in why some youths (and adults) save up for the big bang, and fail to buy tickets to other productions in New York or Seattle or Portland. Despite its offbeat subject matter and experimentation, Hamilton is considered a sure thing, and well worth the price of a big pop music concert. You won’t be bored, you won’t regret shelling out the money – again and again and again.

As to whether Hamilton will be a major artistic influence on future Broadway musicals? My sense is that while many will borrow from it, few will succeed unless they can forge an individual aesthetic that hooks into the Zeitgeist as sharply. What do previous music-theater phenoms, like Rent and A Chorus Line, have in common? Beside the superb craftsmanship they share, they were sui generis events. Merging history, rap, hip hop, Sondheimian introspection and Gilbert and Sullivan satire, Miranda and his colleagues came up with something it is probably impossible to reformulate.

One real legacy, then, becomes the daring of artists not only to defy the pressure to imitate or reproduce what caused a sensation before, but also to synthesize multiple influences and passions to produce something different and dazzling. And to include in their vision segments of the population who have felt excluded from Broadway. (Everywhere it goes, Hamilton offers teaching resources and cheap tickets to schools with a high percentage of kids from low-income families, a program funded by the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History.)

Kjerstine Rose Anderson and Arlando Smith in Seattle’s “The Maltese Falcon” through April 8. Photo: John Ulman

In the meantime, there is the national road tour of Hamilton promising to dominate every theater market it enters. I could tell you about other current shows here like the Seattle Repertory Theatre’s debut of Ibsen in Chicago, David Grimm’s comedy about the 1882 world premiere of Ghosts by an ardent bunch of Norwegian-American amateurs (which closes Sunday, March 4). Or the dinner-theater scamper through Dashiell Hammett’s classic detective tale, The Maltese Falcon, by Book-It Repertory Theatre and Café Nordo. Or a cluster of intriguing upcoming shows set to open here in March, including contemporary plays by Lauren Yee, Quira Alegría Hudes, Taylor Mac and others.

But better to wait, and catch one’s breath. By then Hamilton will have worked its magic spell, and moved on to Portland.

 

 

 

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