More than a year into its rise as a Cultural Phenomenon, I knew almost nothing about "Hamilton." I do not like musicals in general – there's nothing wrong with them, I'm simply not the intended audience for it given the things I like – so not only did I not make an effort to see it but I remained almost totally ignorant of it. I knew it involved rap and Aaron Burr and a guy named Lin-Manuel Miranda who received a Macarthur Grant despite the fact that he already earned like a billion dollars off the musical. Other than that, I was a blank slate when an old friend texted me that an extra ticket was available for a group outing among her friends. Though somewhat worried about the ticket cost (I'd heard rumors, dark rumors) I accepted. It didn't seem likely to hurt me to put on some decent looking clothes and hang out with other adults for a while on a Sunday.

I would not necessarily recommend that anyone run out and pay the borderline crazy prices being sought for second hand tickets, but I will say that I have a very, very hard time believing that anyone who saw this performance could fail to enjoy it. I looked hard for reasons not to like it, and I found none. There are some minor nits to pick with the production, like the fact that the cartoon Pepe le Pew French accent makes Lafayette totally unintelligible, and with the accuracy of the way that some people are portrayed. Thomas Jefferson's role, as many critics have noted, is particularly odd but I also understand that this is a musical, intended to entertain, and that some character would have to serve as the comic relief and secondary antagonist. The spirit of the events retold here is accurate, and obviously the writer was not trying to reproduce conversations verbatim (it turns out the people involved did very little rapping in 1800). Overall, I strongly suspect that a viewer who could not enjoy a live performance of this musical is not capable of enjoying much of anything.

This is so Ed, but I have to be honest about something: I liked it slightly less when, later that evening, I did a little reading about Mr. Miranda. There's nothing deficient about his character or his motives. He obviously created something that strikes a chord with audiences right now and deserves to be rewarded handsomely for it. What disappointed me slightly – remember, I consume no theater or musicals at all – was that he was already successful when he wrote this. As it had been told to me, I was under the impression that this was a crazy idea carried out by an eccentric genius, a man devoted entirely to an idea so insane that one can only admire the fact that he stuck it through to completion. "It's going to be about Alexander Hamilton, but lots of rapping" is not a description that would produce many encouraging responses.

However, Miranda had already starred in a play called In the Heights and had been nominated for a Tony Award for his performance. Even I know that means he was already well established in the world of Broadway, enough so that he could take a relatively crazy idea and receive full benefit of doubt. No matter how bad the idea looked on paper, you can imagine the money people saying "Well, what the hell. His last one was a hit" and putting it on anyway. I'm not sure why, but that diminished it for me just a bit. It didn't change the performance, obviously, but it took a little bit of the shine off the backstory. I guess I liked the idea of some guy living dollar to dollar sitting in his apartment scribbling out a script and telling himself, "You'll see! It will be a hit, I'm telling you! Just you watch and see!" Everyone likes a good Starving Artist Makes It story, I guess.

Lastly, I think one of the reasons many people do not like musicals is that it's hard to do a musical really well, and the difference between a musical done really well and one that is mediocre or worse is stark. There are only a small number of performers with enough talent to really pull something as conceptually weird as Hamilton off. I'm sure this will eventually spawn several touring versions, which may or may not be just as good, but I'm glad I saw it with the A+ cast while I had the chance. I think it would be hard to pull off with anything less than the best performers.

So for the first and last time that's my take on a musical. Ten stars, would see again, call the babysitter, fun for the whole family.

43 thoughts on “NPF: HAMILTON”

  • As someone who is a musical hater myself, i really appreciate the fact that you bravely went to experience Hamilton for yourself so i wouldn't have to. Some of my friends have been telling me how great it is, but they think musicals in general are great.

    OTOH, i still remember being forced to sit through Oklahoma!, supposedly one of the greatest musicals ever. I didn't see much to like.

    Now i guess i'm going to have to give this one a chance.

  • Anonymous Prof says:

    Personally, I'm happy to save time and money and just watch the Epic Rap Battle between Jefferson and Frederick Douglass on Youtube.

  • Arjun – I understand not liking musicals, I generally don't. They tend to be too long for my taste. Oddly, you mention one, Oklahoma, that do like very much because of the humor in it. It's dated and the music may not be your cup of tea but the humor rocks.

  • Wait… I thought, according to your bio, that you lived and worked in a small mid western town. So Hamilton is playing the corn dog circuit?

    Please enlighten or update your bio. One or the other.

  • I'm so jealous I can hardly stand it.

    But, let me just say, in reference to your point about not knowing Miranda had a successful previous production. The fact that he'd written and performed In The Heights is what makes Hamilton so good. It's rare that an artist hits it out of the ballpark on their first try. So try not to let that diminish your enjoyment of Hamilton. Miranda having done Heights is what made it possible for him to write and produce a musical as good as Hamilton.

  • Was this part of a trip to NYC?

    Going off JoyousMN, your "Starving Artist Makes It" story ends with In the Heights. Being a bit obsessed, I have watched some interviews and Miranda talks about being a substitute teacher to pay the bills, meeting his (now) wife, and basing songs for In the Heights on that.

    Also, I second the Hamilton wouldn't be so great without In the Heights coming first; just in terms of song-writing and structure.

  • Emerson Dameron says:

    Although I also prefer American underdog stories, I have a ton of respect for artists who build credit with hits and then gamble it on weird-sounding ideas like this. It's fun to watch. For every Hamilton, there is a David Lynch's Dune.

  • Leading Edge Boomer says:

    Instead of paying big bucks to see a musical that has little to do with any actual historical events, I recommend reading Ron Chernow's biography of Hamilton. It had such a long waiting list at the local public library that I bought the volume for myself.

    I had read Chernow's biography of Washington, along with biographies of Jefferson, Franklin, etc. etc. (Also most of Doris Kearns Goodwin.) Hamilton is easily the most interesting among the people forming the new nation. He wrote the majority of the Federalist papers explaining the draft Constitution to people before its ratification. He, along with Washington, understood that the might of the British Empire lay in its manufacturing, banking, international trade and military might. He single-handedly brought the nation fiscal stability.

    OTOH, Jefferson was an advocate of simple "yeoman farmers" who would take a little time to serve in some legislature before returning to their pigs and corn. Jefferson was just as deviously political as all the others, but used surrogates to express his views while piously remaining above the frays. He hated everything that Hamilton accomplished, but as president later he could not undo those things.

    Hamilton also provided the new nation with its first sex scandal. The wife of a pair of grifters seduced Hamilton and then hit him up for payments to stay quiet. One has to blame Hamilton, with a loving wife and growing family, for failing in that way.

    Reading a purchased (or borrowed) book is almost always superior to passively watching something, IMHO.

  • @Emerson Dameron: Agreed. Although in Lynch's case, Dune came immediately after The Elephant Man, which was easily the most mainstream film he's ever made. Everything since (Twin Peaks included) wasn't exactly trying for a mass audience. For about 30 years now Lynch has been carving out a niche as maker of weird cult films.

    So Lynch is unlikely ever to be trusted with a Dune-sized production again. This is too bad, as his Dune was fascinating, albeit completely incoherent in places.

    I write as someone basically agnostic about both David Lynch and musicals, although I have enjoyed particular examples of both. Sweeney Todd has some good songs about cannibalism, although the Tim Burton film was disappointing after seeing a good stage production.

    @Leading Edge Boomer: If you prefer reading, that's fine. But viewing a film or stage production is not a passive experience. You are actively interpreting what you see and hear. If it's a Two And A Half Men rerun, it doesn't require that much interpretation, but, say, Kurosawa's "Ran" is a different matter. The experience of seeing Ran (or indeed a decent stage production of King Lear) is very different from sitting down and reading Shakespeare's script.

  • It's amazing that you could stay so insulated from the hype for so long, especially since it's more or less directly up your alley in terms of material. It's kind of like a massive Arthur C. Clarke fan just randomly walking into a screening of Star Wars in 1977 because they thought the title sounded neat.

  • Ed: First, not only do Lin-Manuel Miranda star in "In the Heights," he wrote that musical as well. Second, you saw the first touring company which, according to my theater geek daughter, is cast with first rate performers. We saw it in NYC just prior to all of the original cast members leaving (they all started to leave shortly after the Tony's). Hamilton is a once in a generation production, weaving the somewhat tragic story of one of our founding fathers into a tale told in rap/hip-hop/rock by a cast made up of mostly Black and Hispanic actors. Having seen it once and listened to it many times, there are places in the lyrics where I would change a word or two but on the whole, it's an amazing play.

    That said, even though you are not necessarily a fan of musicals, the next time it plays in Chicago, go see Book of Mormon. If you don't laugh your ass off, I will be very surprised.

  • I haven't seen it, and I doubt I will – the original cast will disperse in the winds. And I suspect the ticket prices will remain too high for me to afford.

    I was an actor in mostly drama's and comedies – but some musicals – in Upstate NY.
    Not professional, mind you. But sometimes we got paid to cover at least SOME of the gas money and other expenses needed to get to rehearsals and shows).

    Like Ed, I also have a problem with musicals.
    Or, I should say, live musicals.
    But I LOVE movie musicals.


    I suppose it's the dimensions involved between movie and live musicals. Movie musicals are two-dimensional. So, I can accept people breaking into song – and dance. It's kind of like a dream, that way.

    But, live musicals are three-dimensional. And, normally, people don't just break into songs and dances in real life. So, for me, it's too real which means completely unreal.

    Yeah, I know, I'm weird.

  • I love musicals, so I'm sorry I don't know anyone who would make me a similar offer. I bought a ticket for my daughter before the hype started up, so she got to see the original cast in a nice orchestra seat that did not require me to take out a second mortgage.

    I actually grew up in a musical, more or less – my mother plays piano and we often burst into song in real life, (although not songs that we wrote!) so I'm comfortable with the genre.

    Lin Manuel-Miranda is a hard working dude, so I celebrate his success. I don't understand why the circumstances of the creator would matter to anyone.

  • Leading edge, aside from being smug and ridiculously self-righteous (you DID confess to boomerdom) your comment also manages to miss that Miranda was specifically inspired by reading the Chernow biography to write the show. Whether textually or not, Chernow's book and version of Hamilton are the source material for the show, and Amy departures are acknowledged as conscious ones.

  • As a NY-based musical nerd who idolized Miranda for about 4 years now and has done everything to consume Hamilton even though I've been shut out every time I tried to see it, I am jealous of you, Ed. Though, I'm relieved you liked it. I hate the sentiment that musicals cannot be taken seriously (namely, from the James Joyce-Ernest Hemingway-David Foster Wallace worshipers, not to mention the sexism and homophobia that entails), and if someone as broken and cynical as you can find the good in Hamilton, it makes me feel less naive.

    Also, y'all need to get into Sondheim post-1970. Some of the best shit ever. I agree that musicals are difficult to pull off without being indulgently goofy (though, I like those, too), which makes everything Sondheim did from Company through Assassins the most impressive feat any American artist has done. He's not done either, he's got a musical coming soon:

  • For anyone who is interested in Hamilton, but not too keen on musicals in general: if you have Amazon Prime, you can stream the Hamilton soundtrack for free. That way you can have an idea of what the play sounds like, which is (IMO) a good way of figuring out whether you'll enjoy it or not, without having to max out a credit card or two.

    Also, because Hamilton is a "sung-through" musical (i.e., there is no dialogue which is not sung), there are no weird gaps in the story when the soundtrack goes from one song to the next.

  • Robert Walker-Smith says:

    Watching live performance in any genre involves the mental exercise of forgetting that you are watching people pretend to be other people in front of you. When I saw "Oklahoma!", the artifice was continuous – if I could trick myself into seeing a community of Sooners interacting, the fact that they occasionally sang and danced wasn't much more of a reach.

    Then again, this is the sort of thing I like to think about.

  • Confession: I've always really liked musicals. (So much so that several gay friends of mine spent several years in college trying to convince me to come out of the closet. Which, no, guys, I'm missing that chromosome.)

    I'm also a big history fan–Revolutionary America in particular, and the personalities of the Founders even more particular. (-ly.) I'd read Chernow's book and Ellis's Founding Brothers and McCullough's John Adams and so on, and so on, you get the picture.

    So I've been thrilled by Hamilton's success (apart from the insanely prohibitive cost of a ticket, but that's due to the entire corporate culture of Broadway, I'm afraid–when production costs are that high, there's no way to make it a going concern unless you charge an arm and a leg.)

    Mostly I've been thrilled by the fact that it offers a popular reading of the Founders that focuses on their flaws as much as on their genius–on the fact that, as I tell my students, the Revolution wasn't dictated from a burning bush, but was more a seat-of-the-pants series of affairs run by a bunch of guys who frequently fucking HATED each other. Humanizing these gents–even when the humanization is, as in Miranda's portrait of Jefferson (as unlikely a figure as can be to break into freestyle, much less dance), historically fast-and-loose.

    But the triumph of Hamilton for me is the casting–the reminder that the Fathers were, in their own times, and from the perspective of the dominant culture/authority of their era (Europe), the stigmatized minorities. That the cast of (primarily) black and Hispanic actors reminds us (reinforced by the fact that the one white guy in the cast plays George III) that the Founders were the 'outsiders'–the ALTERNATIVE to the authority of their time, and not the authority itself. (Which, yeah, is obviously complicated horribly by the practice of slavery, which the show doesn't really skirt–Jefferson's hypocrisy is pretty much laid bare.)

    But to have a cast of color lay claim to the Founders–to say that these men and women are OURS–that they're US–that strikes me as a very, very healthy thing indeed. Hamilton's own story of a poor immigrant coming to a land of opportunity and becoming one of its Fathers is a good lesson to remember–and the fact that he's played by a man whose skin doesn't match the marble of the statues is a reminder that the narrative matters more than the casting.

  • @Emerson Dameron:
    I might buy a ticket for David Lynch's Dune – The Musical.

    So is Hamilton similar in tone to 1776?

  • I second gakster29's post about Sondheim. The music is a little more challenging, but at his best it is sublime (Sunday in the Park With George makes me cry and swoon). Assassins has helped me in more than one trivia contest, also.

  • U.S. in the EU says:

    Can I be so naive to ask what the prices are for these tickets? Commenters seem to suggest that they are in the 'if Hendrix descended for a concert ' stratosphere.

  • Congratulations. It sounds like fun. There is nothing like going into a theater and not expecting much but coming out pleasantly surprised.

    The musical is one of America's great art forms. The modern musical is a post-World War II phenomenon. It's interesting how musicals eclipsed opera. Opera was a popular form before the war, particularly in Germany and Italy. It's almost as if the rise of the musical and the fall of opera was a geopolitical rather than artistic matter.

    I've always been fond of musicals, live and recorded. I grew up in New York City, so we saw a few thanks to two-fers. These were coupons that let you buy two tickets for the price of one. A friend of mine actually had a high school job of passing them out in Queens. He'd leave them in laundromats, Chinese restaurants, hair salons and the like. They stopped this when they opened the TKTS booth which liquidated inventory on the day of the performance.

    That friend of mine got me a ticket to 1776. They were giving them out to high school debate teams, and he was on the Newtown debate team. It was a pretty good production with some nice humor in it. The 'Conservative Minuet', "always to the right …", was hilarious. It was in a more traditional musical style than Hamilton, but musicals have to move with the times. I'll probably see Hamilton when it comes to Seattle.

    Maybe I'll read a good Hamilton biography. He was a big believer in industrial policy. Reading never ceases to amaze me, I look at these symbols and I hear voices in my head. It's totally weird.

  • The "levels" of the touring company does not refer to the talent of the cast, although it can. It generally refers to the cities and the lengths of stay for said company. The first touring companies visit the larger cities and stay longer (although Book of Mormon didn't really follow this model), and therefore you are going to see a much closer version of the original. Once the tour has to go to smaller houses and can't stay as long, the show will get trimmed–and even sometimes numbers can get trimmed. So you might not see all the sets or the fantastic costumes of the original show. But the quality of the performers is not necessarily any poorer. There are tons and tons and tons and tons of good actors out there looking for jobs. Unless you have a director who cannot cast (and those exist), yes, you can see a fairly faithful reproduction of the original B'way show in, say, El Paso, if that show ever even gets to El Paso. Some shows really can't be trimmed down to nothing in order to get to nothing towns. Those folks have to wait for the rights to become available to community groups, which is where the fun REALLY starts.

  • @ Lawrence: 1776 is more unabashedly celebratory about its subject matter–Miranda is a fan of that musical, though, and has a shout-out reference to it in HAMILTON (Hamilton tells an unseen Adams to "Sit down, John"–before adding "You fat motherf–")

    Miranda's piece is more skeptical about its hero (and his peers.) Only Washington seems to get out without severe scrutiny (and that's likely because he's seen mostly through Hamilton's hero-worshiping eyes.) Jefferson is both a villain and a dandy, Madison his side-kick toady, and even Hamilton himself is characterized–albeit sympathetically–as dangerously impulsive and self-destructive. (The Maria Reynolds affair is surely the most spectacular and sustained act of self-sabotage in history of American politics. Anthony Wiener is an amateur in comparison.)

    Miranda clearly values what the Founders did–and there's both admiration and affection for them, and an almost corny insistence on their greatness despite their flaws–the fact that they created ideals that they themselves failed to live up to is represented not as hypocrisy, but a byproduct of their humanity.

    1776 and Hamilton DO share a common central theme–presenting the essential greatness of a neglected Founder (Adams and Hamilton, respectively)–a reminder that history isn't exclusively what winds up on the monuments. But 1776 is definitely the product of a more naive approach to the era–Jefferson is largely let off the hook for his ownership of slaves, for example–it's not completely idealized (the song "Molasses to Rum to Slaves" remains for me the essential explanation for the Triangle Trade and how ALL the Colonies were implicated in the horrors of slavery)–but it's not the determined grounding located in Hamilton.

    Ultimately, I'd say that the similarities between them are located in the fact that neither work is cynical about its source–and I think that's why they both work as musicals. (Hamilton's music and lyrics are way, WAY better, though.)

  • "Overall, I strongly suspect that a viewer who could not enjoy a live performance of this musical is not capable of enjoying much of anything."

    I wonder if you would use this ad hominem argument in any other context.

  • I think Hamilton is a singular, and once-in-a-generation event. And people should go see it. (If you can afford it).

    I do however, fear that its success will bring a wash of far less interesting and less accomplished "rap musicals" to Broadway, overriding the more traditional musical theater style (which admittedly, has evolved over the years). Musical theater was kind of the last bastion of great vocal melodic writing in the English-speaking world, and it would be a shame to lose that like we did in pop music over a desire to be the next Hamilton (especially since that lightning will almost certainly never be bottled again).

  • I've seen maybe 4 musicals in my life, none of which i felt inclined to see again. The first was Guys and Dolls in high school. I couldn't believe that some people consider that entertainment. The second was Hair in the early 70s, but all i remember was the cast running naked through the audience. Whoopeee! That was fun. Then i saw Oklahoma, recommended as one of the greats. All i remember was how corny and stupid it seemed. Then a few years ago i so a Sondheim musical, something about a day in the park or something. I wasn't impressed.

    But now other non musical lovers are recommending it, so i guess i'll have to make it number 5. I do enjoy some rap and i like history, so who knows?

  • I've watched the PBS special over several different airings and seen almost all of it. It is fascinating.

    One word about tourING companies; you might have some trouble finding a majority non-white cast OR a majority white audience in most of Trumpsylvania.

  • I have a question for musical lovers out there. I thought Sound of Music suked a big purple doughnut, but there was something i really liked about the Wizard of Oz. Would the latter be considered a musical? If so, i have to stop telling people i hate all musicals! I also admist that i like some of the Gilbert and Sullivan songs, which i learned to appreciate from the Simpsons, though i've never seen HMS Pinafore any of the other musicals themselves. Would it be weird if it turned out i like G&S but hate Sondheim?

  • Sound of Music is definitely a "Musical." – Written first for the Stage, then adapted for film. One of many by the amazing team of Rogers & Hammerstein. Sorry you didn't like it, but maybe give it another chance some day. Do Re Mi is, for me, one of the most joyous moments in theater ever.

    The Wizard Of Oz is also a musical, but it's a movie musical (although there have been a few staged productions of the songs from the movie since). There's a whole tradition of movie musicals that kind of branched away from the stage stuff, but then they kind of influenced each other back and forth.

    Gilbert & Sullivan is what people call "Operetta" and it was absolutely a forerunner to and influence on what people today call "musicals." Sitting through an entire G&S show might be tough for modern audiences sometimes. They can be VERY wordy and the subject matters may seem outdated. Although, the rhyming is just as great as anything happening in Hamilton.

    It's funny you mention Sondheim, his musical Sweeney Todd has often been considered Operetta in the vein of G&S, but much, much, much darker.

  • It just seems strange that i loved all the songs in WoO and none of the shmaltzy marshmallowy stuff in SoM. It might be because i like music with more rhythmic feel, which G&S songs i've heard seem to have plenty of. Might also be the reason i like Beethoven as well. And might be the reason i'll like Hamilton, especially if it's more like G&S than Oklahoma! or SoM..

  • Hamilton is actually Miranda's third Broadway show (fourth if you count the Spanish-language translations he did for the Puerto Rican characters for the revival of West Side Story a few years back). In the heights was first, and won him a Tony for Best Score, and before Hamilton came, believe it or not, a musocal version of Bring It On. The cheerleading movie. Not a completely terrible subject for a musical, but a little odd for him. I assume he was not the spearheading factor behind that one, and that he wrote it on assignment instead of as a labor of love like Heights and Hamilton.

    And to be nit-picky but correct, the Chicago production isn't a tour. This is what they call a sit-down production. The first (and second, probably third as well) touring productions will go out in a year or so (prolly to SF and Houston, Denver, DC first) but the Chicago version is expected to "sit down" here for two or three years at least. It won't tour after it closes.

  • So glad to find your site in this tumultuous political season! I love a good laugh at how willfully ignorant this country is becoming. I really appreciate this like-minded 'Hamilton' review as I, too, am not normally a musical lover, yet have been intrigued by all the positive press.

  • I have to say this view surprises me, Ed. The huge majority of your posts have a reasoned, whip-smart understanding of all the racial and socioeconomic bullshit occurring right now, as well as a love of the political process and all things history, so I would think that Hamilton would be the one musical you'd be excited to at least see from a critical perspective, even if you hate the genre. The fact that it's succeeding with its deliberately diverse ensemble cast is a light in the Trumpian darkness. I'm surprised you didn't know much about it and I'm surprised your enjoyment was slightly lessened once you discovered that Lin-Manuel Miranda had already had success on Broadway. He seems like the type of dude you'd be championing, regardless of this being his first or second production.

    The book by Ron Chernow was used so meticulously and skillfully as the source material, so I would also think you'd be into that. I can't recommend the book enough. It's fantastic. Pretty long but such an engaging and fascinating read. The soundtrack for the musical is incredibly amazing, too, but you might not be into that if you hate musicals.

    This seems like the rare miss from you. I totally hear you on sometimes just not liking things, but it seems that this is a thing you'd appreciate greatly for all the intelligence and ability its creator wove in.

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