[Boca magazine had the opportunity to send two of its editors, John Thomason and Marie Speed, to the biggest cultural event of 2018: The South Florida debut of “Hamilton,” on tour from Broadway across America. Here are both of our reactions, starting with John’s.]
For the past three years, since its box office-busting debut on Broadway, its subsequent monsoon of critical accolades, its 11 Tony Awards, its Grammy and its Pulitzer, “Hamilton” has been a distant dream for South Floridians. Sure, we could watch videos of a performance or listen to its music: Fans who never been near a stage, any stage, have committed the 46 tracks on its cast album to memory. But from its steel-trapped entrenchment on Broadway, the show itself, in the flesh, has acquired the mystique of a priceless object requiring money and travel to experience firsthand, like the Mona Lisa or the Hope Diamond.
That mystique evaporated a bit this week when the national tour of “Hamilton” finally made its South Florida debut, in a sold-out run that was at least two years in the making, and Boca mag was there for the press opening. Though I have deep admiration for “In the Heights,” Lin-Manuel Miranda’s previous rap-flavored Broadway confection, I did not listen to the music of “Hamilton” in advance, nor did I read up on the Founding Father: For all intents and purposes, my mental chalkboard was wiped clean and ready to be filled.
The experience is as close to overwhelming as Broadway can be. Director Thomas Kail skillfully handles the yeoman’s duty of translating Miranda’s vision, but between the laudable hip-hop choreography; the groove-laden, club-ready score; and the lyrics, which require active and breathless engagement to follow the story’s many machinations; “Hamilton” probably needs to be seen two or three times to catch all of its nuances, its literary and theatrical allusions, its plot points and its witty anachronisms.
I can’t review the acting, per se—my media seats were too far from the stage to gauge subtleties in movement and facial expressions—but everyone onstage exhibited a mastery of Miranda’s serpentine raps, contemporary pop songs and Broadway ballads alike. Miranda’s brilliant coup of color-blind casting, which includes African-American, Hispanic and Asian-American performers portraying the white European Founding Fathers, is an impactful statement in itself, an acknowledgement that America is a nation of immigrants.
But what I found most impressive about the show is its musicality, from its full-blown, hook-laden, show-stopping songs to the interstitial material—and the way Miranda’s melodies are revisited and stitched into a sonic tapestry with a symphonic sweep. The show teaches civics and history through the 21st century vernacular of rap and hip-hop—in my favorite scenes, politicos debate policy in the form of rap battles, complete with mic drops—but Miranda’s approach to composition is rooted in classical form.
That sense of classicism extends to the show’s general structure as well, which was less radical than I’d expected. To some extent, Miranda falls back on familiar habits: Comic interludes with an initially confident, then defeated King George function as transparent breathers for the hustling ensemble, like the “Piragua” numbers in “In the Heights,” and they run a little thin after a while. And, at least in Kail’s staging, Miranda’s revolutionary approach to musical-theatre form is balanced by more conservative blocking and choreography.
I was moved, though never to the point of tears, by Miranda’s interweaving of the personal and the political, and by the mortal follies and poetic tragedies Hamilton and has family endured while constructing a democracy from thin air. The second act, in particular, is rich with both inside-baseball political brinksmanship and the kind of relatable human drama that is not always present in Act One.
As good as the Broward Center’s sound system is, I’d be lying if I said I made out every lyric—an occupational hazard, perhaps, of a rapid-fire, rapped-through musical. Also, I left the show knowing only the broadest strokes of Hamilton’s accomplishments as a Founding Father and statesman. As a story of a striving immigrant accomplishing, if not inventing, the American dream is powerfully conveyed; his specific contributions to our economic system less so.
The more important point is that “Hamilton” has instilled the importance of good governance and civic responsibility to an otherwise cynical generation. That, perhaps, will be its lasting legacy.
[Here is Marie’s reaction.]
I actually agree with much of what John said. But I have to say the overall approach of this production had an immediate impact on me. John refers to Miranda’s retreating to theatrical conventions, which I never really noticed. What I noticed was a whole upending of them: fire-cracking hip hop instead of dialogue, a cast that throws casting out the window in favor of smackdown diversity—Washington is Asian, Thomas Jefferson is this side of a black drag queen, and women pop in as revolutionary soldiers from time to time.
It was fast, it was dazzling, it required careful concentration and it could be funny at times. I, like John, loved the music—the sweet soprano of Shoba Narayan as Eliza Hamilton was plaintive, and a welcome relief from rapid-fire rap. The simple set with its revolving stage was the perfect backdrop for a complex story that showed how America unfolded—with a few juicy asides I had never heard of. (Those founding fathers were a randy bunch!)
Unlike John, I was moved to tears in Act II as the play zeroed into the more human cost of the culture and the times—and I found that’s when the play came together for me as a whole. The star? There are lots of them but I kept returning to the notion that one man—Lin-Manuel Miranda—was the genius behind this (sorry) revolutionary production. I couldn’t get over the dazzle and the vision; He deserves every bit of adulation he has received.
Finally, I think John and I might agree that the story of America may have stolen the show. It’s been so long since I have felt that kind of pride and familiar affection well up in me; this story of the early days of the Republic cannot be told too often. We need this now, and it resonated.