Hamilton the Musical
Kennedy Center, Washington DC
July 2018

I have mixed feelings about this one. It is certainly a high-energy romp similar to other all-music productions like Evita and Jesus Christ Superstar, but in a way inferior to them. Primarily because those others had hummable tunes that stick in your ear – “Don’t cry for me…,” “A new Argentina,” “Another suitcase in another town,” “I don’t know how to love Him” or the title tune from that last one – I still hum these from time to time, years after first hearing them. Rapid-fire hip-hop is all about rhythm and rhyme, with virtually no melody you can remember. Think Gilbert & Sullivan patter songs on steroids (there is even an echo of “the model of a modern major general” from Pirates of Penzance!)

As with most Broadway-bred musicals, the sound is overmiked and overamped, which is fine for the rousing ensembles and solos against an ensemble background, but which overpowers the few quiet duets and solo arias. There is no way to judge the quality of the voices. Some of the actors wore ear-mounted head mikes – they were of clear plastic and not too obtrusive (I probably wouldn’t have seen them seated a few rows further back), but I thought that body mikes hidden in the frilly shirts would detract less from the costumes. On the other hand, the whole staging is a bizarre paradox – people in satin knee britches trash-talking rap. But I guess paradox is the whole point of this production.

The characters were depicted somewhat strangely: Washington, Jefferson and Madison were played by black actors. I have nothing against suspending disbelief in skin color, but this portrayal blunts one of the major dramatic points. A character who is in fact black organizes a troop of slaves to fight in the revolution; he is killed, the troop is disbanded and the men are returned to their masters. The point is not driven home as powerfully as it could have been because he’s but one of several black faces on stage – the fact that he represents a black character is brought out not by his appearance but only in the rapid-fire lyrics, which makes it easy to miss (more on lyrics later).

And the silhouettes of the characters are counter to their historical images. True, this is not a documentary, but the portrayal of tall, fair-skinned, red-headed Jefferson by a short black man built like a fireplug; short, clean-shaven Hamilton of the ten-spot (yes, the ten-dollar bill is mentioned) by a strapping tall man with close-trimmed black facial hair; and petite Madison by a rotund gentleman – these run counter to our expectations formed by exposure to televised docudramas which strive for some semblance verisimilitude. Hamilton’s portrayer is similar in appearance to the original portrayer on Broadway, composer and lyricist Lin-Manuel Miranda, but a far cry from the historical image we have in mind. On the other hand, Washington’s appearance was portrayed as expected, and the skin color did not detract from the impression.

But not all was negative. That Jefferson guy could dance up a storm! The dance numbers are truly great, if not on the spectacular scale of Chicago or A Chorus Line. There was a turntable on stage (flush with the stationary floor) which produced interesting effects when dancers whirl in one direction while the floor turns in another. I saw a similar effect at the Met Opera in the production of War and Peace. The dancers’ passages from the rotating floor to the stationary were handled flawlessly, with nary a stumble or hesitation. I’m sure that took a lot of practice in the rehearsals.

What little dialog there was was performed in sing-song rhyming recitative, sometimes a capella, and there were no lines spoken in a natural tone between musical numbers, as there are in earlier musicals by Rodgers & Hammerstein or Lerner & Loewe. So I guess on this basis this qualifies as opera. Mozart used recitative in his operas, and many classics, e.g. Carmen, originally had snatches of spoken dialog, so the dividing line is not clear-cut.

The story is quite true to history, with aspects of Hamilton’s personal life and nuances of post-revolutionary politicking accurately represented. The Hamilton-Burr falling out is deftly depicted as a result of Jefferson’s election 1800, but the immediate cause of the climactic duel (Hamilton’s slander of Burr who, while still Vice President, was campaigning for governor of New York) could have been portrayed more specifically. Hamilton’s interactions with his wife, her sister, and a paramour are touchingly portrayed, but such moments of tenderness are overwhelmed by the unrelentingly pounding audio.

The set was both static and too fussy. Static in that it was (mostly) immobile and unchanged through two acts; fussy because it consisted of a wooden scaffold-like construction with multiple levels, ramps, stairways, ropes and pulleys. It didn’t seem to have much connection with the action, which took place in battlefields, town streets, taverns, offices and halls of government. But that center-stage turntable, as mentioned above, made for some very interesting visual effects, both in dance numbers and dramatic confrontations.

So bottom line: A most intriguing story, but ill-served by a quirky musical and visual setting.

The auditorium (Kennedy Center’s Opera House) was filled to capacity, with many young people and children in attendance, from early teens and younger. And quite a few young ones in the $600+ seats!

About the onslaught of lyrics: there is no way to pick up everything on first hearing – the words just fly too fast. Supertitles wouldn’t do the trick either, because they would have to flash by at a fast crawl – with few exception, the numbers are not your set-piece operatic arias. My recommendation is not to listen to the cast recording, because there the words come at you just as fast, and you have no way of knowing who sings what, but to listen online on a site that displays the character’s name and the words as they’re sung. See here: https://vimeo.com/246373811

I listened to it shortly after seeing the show, and that seems to be preferable to hearing it beforehand. I could relate words to what I saw on stage, and pick up pieces of dialog in particular scenes that were lost on first hearing – that’s how I learned that one of black actors was indeed playing a black character, which, as mentioned above, was not evident from the visual portrayal.

This site has all 2+ hours worth. But you don’t have to listen to all of it at once. To stop, display the progress bar at the bottom of the window and note the elapsed time. When you restart, move the slider to the time where you last stopped.


Here are some links to articles in WashPost:
Review: ‘Hamilton’ at the Kennedy Center Lives Up to the Hype
Art by heart: ‘Hamilton’ is opera for our time