The audience erupted in cheers Wednesday evening as the lights went down in Keller Auditorium and we were instructed to turn off our cellphones. The anticipation was palpable in that moment. I realized, Oh my god. I’m about to see Hamilton.
If you’re not familiar with Hamilton – in which case, welcome to our arts blog, I’m not sure how you got here – it’s a musical by Lin-Manuel Miranda based on the life of Alexander Hamilton. If you’re struggling to remember who Alexander Hamilton was, he’s one of the founding fathers, most famous for promoting the U.S. Constitution and setting up our financial system.
Hamilton was incredibly well-received by critics and audiences when it opened in 2015, and has quickly become a cultural touchstone. How did Miranda make a musical about one of the lesser-known founding fathers such a success?
By putting it together in ways people wouldn’t expect.
Miranda makes it clear from the start of the show that this won’t be like any other musical you’d normally see. The opening number, Alexander Hamilton, builds slowly with the cast rapping the history of Hamilton’s youth while adding layers of more traditional musical harmonies before ending in an enormous crescendo.
Wednesday’s Portland audience really lost their minds after that.
Musically, this mélange gives Hamilton an enormous freedom and versatility. Hip-hop, R&B, soul, pop, and musical-theater styling blend seamlessly for many numbers, but Miranda pulls them apart when appropriate. Tense cabinet meetings between founding fathers are played as rhetorical rap battles, while quiet moments are given sweet and sad ballads. There’s even a series of ’60s Brit-pop musical interludes by King George (Jon Patrick Walker) that are delightful.
Writing a musical about a founding father, his rival, his wife, and the intricate political machinations that surround them is no easy task. Miranda packs the script with a lot of exposition but the modern dialogue makes it easy to follow: Hamilton is funny, but also smart. One of the perks of writing about history (Hamilton was inspired by historian Ron Chernow’s 2004 biography Alexander Hamilton) is that it’s easy to mine humor from the antics of our ancestors. The show runs on the long side, but the energy of the big musical numbers, the emotional impact of the quiet moments, and the humor of the show make it fly by.
This production, by the show’s second U.S. touring company, is also tightly packed considering how many actors are in the cast. Director Thomas Kail keeps the show apace, each scene transitioning seamlessly into the next, dozens of actors moving across stage at a time. The middle of the set is a pair of concentric turntables that spin the action in opposite directions simultaneously, creating some amazing visuals. Considering how many scene changes and dance numbers happen in this show, it’s an impressive feat to watch.
Andy Blankenbuehler’s choreography is exquisite, both for its intricacy and its attention to detail. Every movement by the background ensemble feels purposeful.
This is an impressive cast of quadruple threats. They act, dance, sing, and rap. You expect this from Broadway tours, but it’s incredible to see live.
Joseph Morales is a brash Hamilton. His confidence and enthusiasm can barely be contained by the conventions of society. He’s boyish, and naturally plays up the wit and charm in Miranda’s rhymes.
In contrast, Nik Walker brings an easy elegance to Hamilton’s rival Aaron Burr. Burr is a reserved character, but Walker’s commanding presence gets across the depths of what Burr’s not saying.
There is tenderness in Miranda’s writing of these characters, even when Miranda shows us their flaws. Hamilton certainly, but even Burr gets deference. We understand the ambition that drives these two men and why their lives are bound together, heading toward a fatal conflict.
What I love most about Hamilton is that Miranda casts the founding fathers as people of color. (Hamilton was born in the British West Indies, and his mother was possibly of mixed race.) In this way Miranda reframes Hamilton’s life as an immigrant story. This is the story of a “young scrappy and hungry” man dispossessed of power and influence who hustles his way into the highest reaches of government.
It resists whiteness’s claim on our country’s history.
It also draws direct parallels between the politics of Revolutionary America and the modern civil rights movements in America. When Hamilton and his cohorts discuss their desire to create lives for themselves not subject to English rule and repression, it’s easy to see parallels with the civil rights movement of the ’60s and even Black Lives Matter.
In a way, the show becomes only more relevant as the country wakes up to the realities of race in America.
I left the Keller understanding that I had watched the story of a historical figure in my country’s history. But also, I watched a group of brown people take agency in their lives and work to make something greater for themselves. Messy. But greater.
As a person of color, it’s also just amazing to me to see so many talented PoC on stage knocking it out of the park. This is the show I want young people of color to see. Both to see themselves onstage, to know that there is space for them there, and to feel celebrated.
- The Portland run of Hamilton opened Tuesday, March 20, and continues Tuesdays-Sundays in Keller Auditorium through April 8. The run is basically sold out. But you can enter a digital lottery for one of 40 tickets to every performance, each for $10. If you don’t make it, know that Hamilton will undoubtedly tour again.
- Read Letter from Seattle: Miranda’s rights, theater critic Misha Berson’s take for ArtsWatch on Hamilton and the company’s run in Seattle before it moved south to Portland.
- Read Portland ‘Hamilton’ actor got his start at Southern Oregon University, Amy Wang’s profile in The Oregonian of Joseph Morales, who stars as Hamilton in this production.