When Esi Sogah was a guest on an episode of the podcast, she talked a little about the musical Hamilton, and how much she loves it. I asked if she’d be willing to write a review, and not only did she respond immediately with a huge “YES” but then demanded I give her a word count because she could go on for days. Here is her review.
Who Lives, Who Dies, Who Tells Your Story
This is not a moment, it’s the movement
Y’all. I thought I knew what I was doing when I said yes to writing about Hamilton. But then I realized I wasn’t writing a book. Therefore, I can’t share all my thoughts about this show, because that would take a book. Maybe two. I could do Hamiltonian amounts of writing about Hamilton. (Also, in order to do this justice, I’m listening to the second half of the second act for the first time since…I saw the show. I am suffering for my art.)
First things first: what is it? Hamilton: An American Musical is…an American musical. Written by Tony (and Emmy, and Grammy, and MacArthur Genius) winner Lin-Manuel Miranda, Hamilton tells the story of founding father Alexander Hamilton. Revolutionary war hero, prolific writer (like, you don’t even know. You can’t imagine), 1st treasury secretary, and (250-year old spoiler) killed in a duel. It’s also about a thousand other things you probably never learned about in history class. It’s the story of the creation of America, and makes it clear how completely crazy this experiment of a country was, and still is*. It’s also a “hip-hop” musical, in that it is rapped and sung through, with influences and references from across the music spectrum. It’s also cast with almost entirely non-white actors, making it, as Miranda says, the story of America then told by America now.
It would take too long to track all my reactions to Hamilton (although, if I recall correctly, my first thought was “Where has Daveed Diggs (Marquis de Lafayette/Thomas Jefferson) been all my life?”). I’ve watched the video of Miranda’s performance of Hamilton’s opening song at the White House in 2009 more times than I can count (though YouTube probably knows.) Suffice it to say that my very high expectations were met. Exceeded. Blown out of the water. My life is forever changed.
is based on Ron Chernow’s Alexander Hamilton, an 800-page biography Lin-Manuel Miranda picked up on vacation and immediately realized should be a hip-hop musical–to the point that he Googled it assuming someone had done it already. No one had. Alexander Hamilton led a batshit crazy life, and the show covers all of it: from his birth on Nevis to his creation of our entire financial system to his death at the hands of VICE PRESIDENT Aaron Burr. To cover that amount of information, and to even scratch the surface of all Hamilton said and did, rap is really the only way to go. You can fit in twice as many words and frankly, it’s still not enough. As I write this, it’s the #1 rap album on Billboard. A Broadway cast recording. Remember what I said about life-changing?
Hamilton is also, surprisingly, very much about Aaron Burr. Burr plays the role of narrator in the show–as well as the villain. Or is it hero? One of the best things Hamilton does is complicate our view of history. Neither man is sinner or saint; both have flaws–Burr’s turn out to be fatal, for Hamilton and for his own dreams. Miranda and Leslie Odom Jr. play Hamilton and Burr respectively and their chemistry is undeniable. The two men circle each other their whole lives, constantly running up against each other at pivotal moments in history. And basically everything at the time was of the utmost importance.
But a perfect example is the song “The Room Where It Happened”, Aaron Burr’s lament about “how the sausage gets made.” Hamilton, Jefferson, and Madison brokered a deal that placed the banks in NYC and the nation’s capital in DC. It happened over dinner, not in a long legislative session in front of witnesses. Madison and Jefferson… “hated” is probably not too strong a word to describe how they felt about Hamilton. Ham did not have the votes in Congress for his (necessary) financial plan. After this dinner, he did. As Burr says, “We want our leaders to save the day/But we don’t get a say in what they trade away.” It’s a song that perfectly encapsulates the very messy business of government.
It’s also Burr’s ‘I Want’ song. He wants, more than anything, to be in that room. He works his entire life to get into that room. And just when it’s about to happen, Hamilton throws his weight behind Burr’s opponent. The rest, as they say, is history.
The thing is, they have two fundamentally different ideologies. Hamilton has absolutely no chill. He also has negative fucks to give. (See: duel. See also: having an affair and then WRITING ABOUT IT AND PUBLISHING THE ACCOUNT in order to clear himself of accusations of embezzling from the Treasury. This is an actual thing that actually happened).
Burr bides his time, watching. Waiting. Scheming. “I’ll keep all my plans close to my chest/I’ll wait here and see which way the wind will blow.” No, it’s not necessarily bold, but…which one was vice president (and nearly president)? Not Hamilton, that’s for sure.
Let’s talk about the women. I heard Miranda say that Chernow’s book is called Alexander Hamilton, while the musical is just Hamilton. And, as becomes clear, it’s as much Eliza(beth) Hamilton’s story as Alexander’s—perhaps more so. (This is not to say Eliza plays no role in the book; in fact, she begins and ends it.) In Act I, we meet the Schuyler Sisters, Angelica, Eliza, and Peggy. Singing some of the most beautiful songs (and spitting the hardest verses) Angelica and Eliza are both the heart and the backbone of the show. They both love Alexander, Eliza as his wife and Angelica as his sister-in-law and…well, it’s up for debate. Are they, at the end of the day, supporting characters in a male story? Sure, but that’s the fault of the times they lived in, not the women themselves. (As Burr sings “Ladies, tell your husbands vote for Burr!”) Their influence is felt in every one of the thousands of pages Alexander wrote—and the lines that Miranda puts in the actors’ mouths.
The performances are…flawless. Philippa Soo, Renée Elise Goldsberry, and Jasmine Cephas-Jones (who also plays Maria Reynolds, of the affair referenced above) are absolute forces of nature. I think it would be easy for many creators to have given the women all the soft moments; the slow points that allow the audience to take a breath. Instead, Goldsberry has some of the hardest bars in the show, while the sheer power of Soo’s stage presence blows us all away. And I actually can’t talk too much about Jasmine’s 2nd act performance because…y’all. Just see the show. (How? I don’t know how. But do? OK, great.)
Here’s a sample of some of the verses (NFSW due to language):
Those breaks to breathe, if we can call them that, belong to one King George III. Usually played by Jonathan Groff (and temporarily Andrew Rannells. And previously Brian d’Arcy James), the king is an extravagantly dressed Brit-pop sensation. He’s also the only white lead. And so his entrance in the show often gets the biggest laugh—both because he is abbbbbbsolutely hilarious, but also because many in the audience feel…reassured. This is something that they get.
(This is a really good segue into what I want to talk about next, but I would be remiss if I didn’t point out that rest of the cast is just as impressive. Every time Okieriete Onaodowan (Hercules Mulligan/James Madison) is on stage, I get chills. The ensemble is the hardest working group of people on Broadway. They are equal part Greek chorus and Arsenio Hall audience. Never still, lifting furniture over their heads while dancing (I see you, Betsy Struxness!), embodying both sides of the war and imbuing life into early America with everything they have.)
Where was I? Ah, yes. The show’s diversity has been discussed in nearly all its coverage, but it really can’t be talked about enough, especially given current conversations in the world (both the greater world and that of publishing). What works so well about the casting is that it is not a wink at the audience.** It’s neither a gimmick nor a hammer to the head. It simply is. It makes a powerful statement without having to say anything at all. To look at the stage and see a group of people who look like your typical passengers on a New York City subway car makes the story immediate in a way that all the lecturing in the world couldn’t.
In addition there are, by my rough count, ten actors making their Broadway debuts in Hamilton–leads Anthony Ramos (John Laurens/Phillip Hamilton) and Diggs included. It puts paid to the idea that “the talent isn’t out there” or “we can’t get such-and-such group to audition” or “we need to lower the bar.” This show is a huge big deal, and the people behind it filled it with talent, regardless of name recognition.
Which leads me to the last thing I want to say about Hamilton (for now. In this space. Save for the comments section).
Hamilton is great, full-stop. And its success is probably the greatest lesson for our industry. It was six years in the making, most of the people in it are not household names, and it is inspired by an 800-page biography about a man who wrote soooooooo many more pages than that. There are countless ways this could have been screwed up, not the least being if the producing team had pushed Miranda to get it done sooner. But in allowing it the room it needed to grow and coalesce, what we have is the best possible version of this show. And it works, not because it’s based on a well-known property, or stars a Hollywood A-lister, but because it’s good. Authors always get frustrated when editors respond to “what are you looking for” with “a good book”. But it’s the truth. Quality work will out. And I hope that I, and the rest of the publishing world, will always find a way to allow great work the room it needs to grow.
Things I didn’t get around to talking about: cabinet debates as rap battles, slavery and John Laurens, the song “Wait For It,” Ham4Ham, Christopher Jackson’s portrayal of George Washington, my favorite rap and musical references, the number of times I cried, the number of times I nearly leaped out of my seat, the way Miranda so perfectly captures how crazy it is to be a writer. And more things. SO many more. Oh! Also the real Hercules Mulligan and Cato. Like I said, I’ll be in the comments. And on the internet in general, talking about Hamilton. Forever.
*I can’t help but think that President Obama let out a big ol’ laugh at Hamilton’s line: “But they don’t have a plan, they just hate mine!”
**As I type this, “It’s Quiet Uptown” is playing and I actually might need to crawl under my desk.
Alas, tickets to the broadway production of Hamilton can be difficult to get. You can check the website for the production; currently they’re selling September and October 2016.
But! There are a ton of ways you can learn more and experience pieces of the show:
60 Minutes did a behind-the-scenes on the making of the cast album.
You can spend hours down the rabbit hole of The Federalist Freestyle.
Plus, Hamilton did a remake of the famous Aaron Burr Got Milk? campaign:
Have you seen Hamilton? Are you going soon? What did you think?