Never mind the award hardware (the unprecedented ten Lortels, the seven Drama Desk and three OCC awards, the Obie, the New York Drama Critics Circle nod, the Off-Broadway Alliance prize — virtually every possible award it was eligible for), Hamilton is the first show to reach Broadway with a Presidential Seal of Approval.
On July 18, President Obama took his daughters to the seventh preview of Lin-Manuel Miranda's rap-epic rendition of Alexander Hamilton's life at the Richard Rodgers Theatre. The musical had had something of a little White House tryout six years earlier under the title of The Hamilton Mixtapes, and the President must have been interested in how it turned out — or so lead producer Jeffrey Seller speculated.
Hamilton's Opening Night on Broadway
"I just loved what Obama said on Jon Stewart's show," Seller relayed cheerfully. "He said, 'I feel like I should get one of those Tonys because the show started at the White House.' I'm, like, 'You come to the Tonys, and, if we win, you can accept it.'"
At show's end, when the lights returned to the 21-member cast on stage, Obama was, like everybody else in the room, on his feet and at attention, applauding. Lest this seem too partisan an endorsement, let it be noted that instantaneous standing ovations have been regular occurrences with this crowd-pleasing juggernaut.
Broadway hasn't seen a show that screamed "Tony!" and "Pulitzer!" (the only two baubles Hamilton hasn't taken) this loudly in 40 years — not since Michael Bennett brought A Chorus Line uptown for what became (then) Broadway's longest run.
Notably, they both hail from the same Off-Broadway hit factory: The Public Theater. What Marvin Hamlisch and Edward Kleban's paean to gypsy dancers did to Joe Papp's time in office, Miranda's adrenaline-boost to a nearly forgotten Founding Father should do for Oskar Eustis' time-in-office — create funds to produce shows for days.
Papp went for years and years on A Chorus Line, making plays at The Public, and Eustis looked as if he were anticipating a similar fate, beaming proudly on the sidelines of the after-party commotion at the sprawling, elegant Chelsea Piers.
A Hamilton hit, he said grinning from ear to ear, "is going to help us pursue our mission. That's what we're here to do. This is a magnificent show. It's a perfect production. The whole experience has been kinda blessed, I have to say."
The Richard Rodgers seems to be Miranda's home-away-from-home. It served as his own backyard (the Dominican-American neighborhood of Washington Heights) when he first broke ground there with In the Heights, a freestyle rap/bodegas/salsa musical that won him Tonys and ran for 1,184 performances. Now, he's back ground-breaking on a national, seismic level, focusing on a colonial firebrand who was a deputy to General George Washington during the Revolutionary War, the first Secretary of the Treasury, architect of our banking system, designer of our Constitution and founder of the Federalist Party (as well as the New York Post). If the space seems particularly conducive to the material, that may be because (according to the At This Theatre feature in the Playbill) when it was known as the 46th Street Theatre it was where all American Revolutionary musicals go — both of them: the Tony-winning 1776 and 1950's Arms and the Girl, which eclectically starred Nanette Fabray, Pearl Bailey and Georges Guetary, the Frenchman who sang "I'll Build a Stairway to Paradise" in the movie version of "An American in Paris."
On opening night, Miranda shared the wealth of the audience's love by inviting all hands to join him and the cast on stage — crew, band, production designers, the works—starting with Ron Chernow, whose bestselling biography of Hamilton sparked the show, and ending with conductor Alex Lacamoire, choreographer Andy Blankenbuehler and director Thomas Kail, whose creative fusion fueled the show.
Lacamoire, who won a Tony for orchestrating In the Heights and will likely strike again, was described by Miranda as his "secret weapon," but he was quick to set the record straight with the press. "Lin is a genius," he began. "He's a genius with words, he's a genius with music. What I love about him is what he draws from and what is in his DNA is such a cool mixture of stuff. There's musical theatre, there's hip-hop, there's pop, there's rap, there's everything, so he's able to draw from this wonderful well and create this music that's a fusion of all these things. I don't know anybody else who is writing for musical theatre who is doing what he does. He's one of a kind."
The intensely and elaborately embroidered lyric — coming at you in rapid rap-a-tap-tap fashion — make it difficult for the untrained ear to catch at first hearing, and Miranda is okay with that. "That's the secret sauce that hip-hop provides," he said.
"I wanted to build the score like my favorite hip-hop albums, which I'm still listening to 10, 15 years later, getting new double meanings and illusions and alliterations. I tried to build the score like that so that, when you come back, you may hear a character's story in a new way. It's too much for one sitting — and very deliberately so."
This second time around, he readily conceded he has been more surefooted. "I didn't know if I was going to have a career as a writer with the first one. I was living or dying by The Times review — like every writer (who's being honest) will tell you — and I didn't have any fear today. It has just been a celebration of the work we have done together for the past seven years, and I'm just thrilled that we're here."
For his second Broadway outing, Miranda added bookwriting to the already awesome tasks of starring and songwriting — and thrived on the mountainous information Chernow provided. "I gave him a lot of ammo," the biographer allowed, "but he brilliantly fired it. I can't tell you how gratifying it is for me to see what he has done with the book because he has remained deeply faithful to the historical facts. Instead of feeling constrained by the historical facts, I think that he has felt liberated by them. He has taken the book, and he has brought it to it to this three-dimensional life. I really think the show is revolutionizing musical theatre."
Chernow's own motive in writing the biography strikes him as comical in light of the success of both the book and the musical. "When I started writing the book in 1998, I felt Alexander Hamilton was the overlooked and misunderstood Founding Father. I laugh about that now because after the book—and even more after this show — you can't complain that Hamilton is neglected anymore. Every time I turn onto West 46th Street and see Hamilton's name and picture up on the marquee there, he's gone from being the neglected Founding Father to being the glamour boy." He hopes that their twin successes will keep Hamilton's puddum on the ten dollar bill. The Obama administration has been toying with the idea — this before the President saw Hamilton — of replacing it with a woman's face. Eleanor Roosevelt currently has the lead. "I hope we have managed to win a place for Hamilton not only in the hearts of America but also in the wallets of America as well. He would appreciate that. Hamilton was not bashful. People ask me how Hamilton would have reacted to the show. I think he would have been deliriously happy. Hamilton enjoyed the limelight. I think that he would have enjoyed this rediscovery of him."
No actor has actually approximated that face on the ten dollar bill, and those who have tried impersonations range from George Arliss to Michael Cera. Miranda's effort fits in with the show's overall casting concept, which uses blacks, whites, Latinos and Asians to depict this immigrant's experience in the new country.
This also goes for Miranda's long-standing stand-by, Javier Munoz, who resembles a Latino-ed Michael Stuhlbarg and gives the title role a solid accounting on Miranda's day off. The day the President came to call on Hamilton was the first opportunity Miranda had to actually see the show, and, repressing his inner Margo Channing, he generously tapped Munoz to do the honors. "I still don't quite have the words except to say I've never experienced anything like that," Munoz confessed. "It was the most exciting, thrilling performance, just to have him there. It was electric the entire time.
"Lin and I have traveled through the highs and lows and all the adventures of In the Heights, in the same dynamic with the same working relationship, so this is pretty familiar territory for us, and I love it. I'm honored that he would let me do the role." There's a different acting award for each of the show's four leading players. Miranda has a Lortel (his first prize for acting). Daveed Diggs copped a Theatre World Award for his dual roles of Marquis de Lafayette and Thomas Jefferson. Actors' Equity gave its Clarence Derwent Award to Phillipa Soo for her portrayal of Hamilton's wife, Eliza Schuyler, and the role of her sister, Angelica, earned a Drama Desk Award for Renee Elise Goldsberry. Which still leaves work worthy of the Tony onceover.
Leslie Odom, Jr. marked his 34th birthday on opening night with an unexpectedly moving depiction of Aaron Burr, forever damned as the man who killed Hamilton in a duel. The actor credits Miranda with finding a sympathetic path into the character, making his job a lot easier. "Lin got in his head and his heart and his motives in such a compassionate and loving way that it was easy for me to find my way in. He found Burr's motivations. Hamilton was a big idea man and had ideas for the nation. Burr is more concerned about himself. That really hurt him in the end.
"I've never had the experience to create something that'll have a long life. I want to come back and see this show in 12 years when it's at the TKTS booth. I want to see the ninth Aaron Burr down the line — what that guy does with it. I'm so excited for them, to see what other actors bring to it. That's always been a dream of mine."
The evening's pre-show announcements were delivered by Jonathan Groff as King George, welcoming the audience to "my show." It's a role Brian d'Arcy James originated downtown, and Groff minces out the mad monarch in a funny fashion, executing what for Miranda qualifies as a vaudeville turn — "You'll Be Back," he croons to the wayward colonists. "I love singing that song every night. I think Lin has written a beautiful song. I've certainly been in relationships that have ended, and I've thought, 'Oh, they'll be back,' or 'I'm the one that got away,' and then you're not. I relate to that. I love the costume. I love talking to the audience. It's so fun."
Diggs spends the first act as a Frenchman fighting the American Revolution (Lafayette) and the second act as the American Ambassador to France who comes home to govern the remains (Jefferson). He opens Act II with the same preening, rock-star entrance as Jefferson that Christian Borle makes in Something Rotten as Shakespeare. "What'd I Miss?" is the name of the number. "It's a really well-constructed number," Diggs had to admit, "and it's such a smart idea — to have this guy who's just a rock star and he's an aristocrat. He's always had money and had what he needed. But he comes back, and they say, 'You're Secretary of State.'" Christopher Jackson, an alum from In the Heights, brings stature, dignity and charisma to the role of George Washington. "Lin set the character up pretty good for me," he said. "I get to breathe a little bit of life in him, and Lin gives me a whole lot of room with the beautiful material that I have to work with. We meet Washington at the crux of very difficult times in his life. As an actor, you can't really ask for much more than that — to be able to start with that and springboard into telling the story."
On opening night, a member of the audience sitting in the first row got a mild rebuff from The Father of Our Country. In a subtle, graceful, gliding gesture that would have made Patti LuPone smile, Washington reached down and picked up a Playbill resting on the lip of the stage, continued acting his scene with the magazine behind him and finally made his exit. "I didn't want to embarrass anybody," he explained.
At least two very hard-working Tony winners took the night off to catch the opening of Hamilton: James Monroe Iglehart, Aladdin's genie, and Alex Sharp of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time. The latter has his hand bandaged, but vowed to go on until at least Sept. 13.
Also in attendance were "The Lombardis" (Dan Lauria and Judith Light), no doubt in support of their former director Kail and spewing superlatives. Said she: "This is a paradigm shift internationally, not just in American theatre. It's like when we talk about Oklahoma! or Rent." And Lauria even managed to up that ante: "I think that it's even more important than that. It's going to affect education. You can't keep feeding kids what's already on their phones. This shows you how to approach education."
Fittingly, the evening ended with a first—the first fireworks display at an opening, exploding across the night's sky. Talk about rocket's red glare! Hip-hop hurrah!