What is left to say? After Founding Father Alexander Hamilton’s prodigious quill scratched out 12 volumes of nation-building fiscal and military policy; after Lin-Manuel Miranda turned that titanic achievement (via Ron Chernow’s 2004 biography) into the greatest American musical in decades; after every critic in town praised the Public Theater world premiere to high heaven; and after seeing this language-drunk, rhyme-crazy dynamo a second time, I can only marvel: We’ve used up all the words.
Wait, here are three stragglers, straight from the heart: I love Hamilton. I love it like I love New York, or Broadway when it gets it right. And this is so right. A sublime conjunction of radio-ready hip-hop (as well as R&B, Britpop and traditional showstoppers), under-dramatized American history and Miranda’s uniquely personal focus as a son of immigrants and as an inexhaustible wordsmith, Hamilton hits multilevel culture buttons. No wonder the show was anointed a sensation before even opening.
Assuming you don’t know the basics, Hamilton is a (mostly) rapped-through bio-musical about an orphan immigrant from the Caribbean who came to New York, served as secretary to General Washington, fought against the redcoats, authored most of the Federalist Papers defending the Constitution, founded the Treasury and The New York Post and even made time for an extramarital affair that he damage-controlled in a scandal-staunching pamphlet. All that industry and drama unfolds in the shadow of a forgone conclusion: Hamilton will die in an 1804 duel with Vice President Aaron Burr (Leslie Odom Jr.), a longtime rival and, in this Shakespearean reading, his tragic opposite. Whereas Hamilton is about seizing the moment and taking a stand (“I am not throwing away my shot” is his mantra), Burr is a passive, taciturn opportunist whom life passes by.
Miranda may be composer-lyricist and star, but the world he creates is vibrantly democratic. Hamilton is the center, but Burr is his equally weighted Judas and Javert – and more complexly drawn than either. (Odom brings the house down with the ultimate outsider’s jazz romp, “The Room Where It Happens.”) Phillipa Soo, playing the betrayed but finally forgiving wife, Eliza, has some of the show’s most heartbreaking music and even (spoiler alert) emerges as protector and engine of her husband’s legacy, subtly taking the spotlight as the shadow author of the work before us. As French ally Lafayette in the first act and a foppish, trash-talking Thomas Jefferson in the second, Daveed Diggs blazes with raffish charisma. Jonathan Groff has inherited the role of King George from Brian d’Arcy James, and finds new levels of comic brilliance in his short but convulsively funny appearances, practically drooling with incipient looniness. And the lovely, pure-voiced Renée Elise Goldsberry’s Angelica Schuyler will make you demand a spinoff musical all her own. Part of the genius of Miranda’s writing is this polyphonic, block-party quality, where everyone gets their say.
Thomas Kail’s sexy past-is-present staging—a carnival of perpetual motion choreographed to pop-and-lock perfection by Andy Blankenbuehler—has comfortably expanded on Broadway while retaining its intimacy and scenic economy on David Korins' attractive wooden set. There have been judicious cuts in the first act and the second (covering the Whiskey Rebellion) that few will miss. The work’s human drama and novelistic density remain astonishing. Lyrical drama, never forget, is a brilliantly compact yet expansive form that can spring across years and lifetimes in the twist of a couplet.
But will it run long enough for you to actually get tickets? Pundits have thrown around terms such as "game-changer" or "breakthrough." While it’s true that Miranda has unlocked the dramatic power of hip-hop in a music-theater context – knitting references to the Notorious B.I.G. with equal ease to Oscar Hammerstein II – it will be years before we see how much influence the show exerts, if it becomes an institution on the level of Wicked or The Lion King. Let’s put it this way: In 2020, the likeness of Alexander Hamilton will come off the $10 bill, to be replaced by a female subject to be announced. For disgruntled admirers of this singular statesman, there may well be consolation: a living monument, playing eight times a week and minting green like the Treasury.