“Hamilton: An American Musical” celebrates genius on multiple levels. Alexander Hamilton was a genius. He literally wrote himself out of poverty and off the island of Nevis. He exemplifies what some of us believe are characteristics of genius. He was passionate, driven, and as gritty as they come, besides being a super problem solver and creative thinker.
The creator of this turning point in theater is also a genius. Following his first big production, “In the Heights,” (a Tony and Grammy winner), Lin-Manuel Miranda grabbed the attention of not only the theater world, but the world at large with “Hamilton: An American Musical” — a mind boggling integration of old school Broadway with Hip Hop sound and style. Just to confirm that this opinion is not overblown, Miranda was named a MacArthur Fellow in 2015 — aka “ the Genius Grant.”
No doubt “Hamilton” is a Miranda production. What Broadway musical has one person framing the idea, creating the book, music, and lyrics — and taking the lead role? Ah, but what a cabinet he had in putting this together. Tommy Kail was an early believer who could direct Miranda’s vision. Alex Lacamoire was equally significant as the pianist and musical director. Questlove — “If he isn’t the pope of Hip Hop, he’s at least a high ranking cardinal,” says Miranda. Andy Blankenbuehler, the storytelling choreographer — he has Burr move in straight lines “because he sees no options” and Hamilton moving in arcs “because he sees all the possibilities.”
Illustrative of how this team worked is Jay Duckworth, the prop manager of the Public Theater. During the “Yorktown” sequence, when Washington consults Comte de Rochambeau’s map, Chris Jackson (as GW), looks at a reproduction of Rochambeau’s actual map, printed on parchment paper with Mod Pudge so it resembles sheep skin. Duckworth cares about the tiniest, least visible prop — the seal on the letters from Washington and Hamilton are personalized, and sealed with real wax — as are the candles “as nothing else looks like wax.” Duckworth says he thinks it is unfair to ask actors to go on stage and expose themselves with anything less than what he calls “ultimate support.”
The show is grounded in genius scholarship: Ron Chernow’s 2004 bio on Hamilton inspired Miranda. Professor Joann Freeman’s knowledge of the Revolution and early Republic kept Miranda and his musical true to the historic roots. Miranda builds on musical genius: Tupac, Mobb Deep, and a range of rappers who influenced him, as did “Gilbert and Sullivan,” “South Pacific” and “Hair” that expanded his view of Broadway. This plethora of genius was amply rewarded. To note some highlights: : the 2016 Pulitzer Prize for Drama; a record setting 16 Tony nominations, with 11 wins including Best Musical; the 2016 Grammy for Best Musical Theater album; multiple Drama Desk awards.
PBS THIRTEEN just opened the Great Performances season with “Hamilton’s America,” a documentary film showcasing the creation and performance of the award winning “Hamilton: An American Musical.” It is an awesome production.
But fans will want to dive deeper into the mind of Lin-Manuel Miranda and the story of “Hamilton: An American Musical” with the must read Hamilton the Revolution (Grand Central Publishing, April 2016) by Lin-Manuel Miranda and Jeremy McCarter, who is the drama critic at the New York Magazine. McCarter has long argued that “Hip Hop can save the theater.” McCarter’s view of Hip Hop’s “lyrical density and storytelling ingenuity” is borne out in Miranda’s “Hamilton.”
Where I see genius at the core of Hamilton and the musical, Miranda saw revolution. His musical celebrates the origins of revolution as he revolutionizes the American musical. Much has been written about his casting of people of color to play iconic historical figures. In the list of genius talents associated with the production, the actors who bring old, white men and women from history fully alive are key. It is one more brilliant stroke, with powerful ramifications.
Daveed Diggs, when interviewed, said he thinks that seeing a black man play Jefferson or Madison or Washington when he was a child in Oakland might have changed his life. “A whole lot of things I just never thought were for me would have seemed possible. “
Okieriete Onaodowan (“’Oak’ to all”) on his role as James Madison says, “I’m a black man playing a wise, smart, distinguished future president.”
Early on, Miranda and crew recognized the power the musical had unleashed. They opened February 17, 2015 and within a few weeks, faced what they thought was their toughest audience —seats filled with high school students from New York public schools (through Public Theater’s partnership with the Theater Development Fund.) The kids got it — all of it. Within months, producer Jeffrey Seller announced a “radical expansion” of “Hamilton’s” outreach to students. With a 1.5 million dollar grant from the Rockefeller Foundation and educational support from the Gilda Lehrman Institute of American History, 20,000 New York public school students, most on reduced or free lunch, will see the show in 2016 — for $10.
Within a decade, licenses for school productions will be in play with possibly 600 or 700 school productions around the country annually.
It’s genius! It’s a revolution!
Hamilton the Revolution is presented in 18th century style —Miranda’s extended homage to the man and his times. The subtitle captures the tone and reveals the wonders of this book:
Being the Complete Libretto
With a true account of
and concise remarks on
Hip-Hop, the Power of Stories,
and the New America
Miranda presents wonderfully annotated lyrics — comments on how a phrase was turned, his jokes,his nods to B.I.G and other rappers, and Broadway. The photos reveal details in costuming and the movement on the stage that enhances the story. And the interviews! Each chapter highlights a moment, a person, the story within the story of how this show emerged from Miranda’s mind and came to life through the geniuses around him. From what Miranda initially thought of as “The Hamilton Mixtape,” with a very early reveal of the first song performed at the White House, to six years later a fully formed musical, Hamilton The Revolution shares the genius of an American musical revolution.
A remarkable book. One more revelation of the Miranda genius.
I wrote a column, Book Notes, for many years for local central NJ weeklies. Newspapers are a dying breed, but the desire to share thoughts on books lives on.