Let’s face it: At this stage, “Hamilton” is critic-proof.
It’s not merely a fresh and invigorating American musical that carted off a ton of Tonys, but a cultural phenomenon. Every performance of its almost month-long run at Pittsburgh’s Benedum Center has been, and almost certainly will be, sold out. Its soundtrack is a mega-seller at a moment when not many albums move units. Heck, it’s already been honored at the Kennedy Center, something that doesn’t usually come to pass until performers settle into their twilight.
Not much unifies us anymore in our fragmented culture, but “Hamilton” is one of those rare things that comes awfully close.
Nevertheless, if you have never seen “Hamilton,” it’s perhaps inevitable to wonder if it lives up to all the hosannas. Is it all tricorn hat and no cattle?
If you’ve never seen a performance of “Hamilton” unfold, or if you’ve taken in “Hamilton” five times, you’ll still be dazzled – “awed” probably would not be too strong a word – by the touring production that is currently playing at the Benedum. “Hamilton” is so good that it makes you want to immediately crack open a half-dozen books on our colonial past.
Perhaps more importantly, it’s a faith-restoring glimpse at what musicals can be. Just when you thought we were condemned to one hackneyed, oldie-infested jukebox musical after another, or risk-free adaptations of beloved Hollywood movies, “Hamilton” shows that a daring concept, inventive songs and innovative stagecraft can yield spectacular results.
As pretty much everyone knows by now, “Hamilton” recounts the abbreviated, shooting-star life of Alexander Hamilton, the Founding Father who died young, as the song “Who Lives, Who Dies, Who Tells Your Story” tells us. Born in the Caribbean, “a bastard, orphan, son of a whore and a Scotsman,” Hamilton became an indispensable figure in the creation of the United States. Hamilton became the right-hand man of George Washington in the midst of the Revolutionary War, and was appointed the first Treasury secretary.
Though its grown immeasurably more complex over the last two centuries, the financial system we have in place today is there thanks to Hamilton’s spadework. Part of the genius of “Hamilton” is that it presents Hamilton as a flesh-and-blood human being possessed of both greatness and foibles. Along with his ambition and vision, there are sharp elbows and an absence of diplomacy. He loves his wife and child, yet has a wandering eye and gives in to baser instincts.
His life is brought to an ignominious end when then-Vice President Aaron Burr guns him down in a duel.
“Hamilton” is told in a continual flow of music, swinging from hip-hop to R&B, soul, pop piano ballads and back again. It covers a lot of territory, and all seamlessly blends together. “Hamilton” is based on the acclaimed 2004 biography by Ron Chernow, and creator Lin-Manuel Miranda has been able to cram a formidable amount of information into the 150 minutes in which the show unfolds. Rarely have debates about monetary policy been set to such toe-tapping rhythms.
The composition of “Hamilton” has also generated much ink, its cast representing the diversity of America in the 2010s. Hamilton, his nemesis Aaron Burr, George Washington and Thomas Jefferson are all portrayed by African Americans. Asian Americans and Latinos turn up in other roles. Miranda sidestepping strict historical fidelity was a canny move – along with offering a comment on the United States today, it positions the founders as the rebels and outsiders of their time. A creative decision like that, frankly, shows a touch of genius.
Austin Scott, who was set to play Hamilton through last Sunday (he was due to be replaced this week by Edred Utomi) was commanding and vulnerable as Hamilton. Josh Tower as Burr has perhaps the meatiest role, as he wrestles with ambition and is consumed by jealousy in Iago-like fashion. Paul Oakley Stovall as Washington makes the father of our country both majestic and imperious. Sewickley native Peter Matthew Smith injects humor into the proceedings as a goofball King George, whose songs recall both 1970s pop and British music hall from days of old.
“Hamilton” will be at the Benedum Center through Jan. 27. Getting a ticket could well be costly, but don’t worry – you won’t regret it.