Photo from GoldDerby.com
By McKenzi Thi Murphy
In August 2015, a new musical took the Richard Rodgers Theater stage. Coming from Off-Broadway, Lin-Manuel Miranda opened “Hamilton: An American Musical.” Now, a hip-hop/rap musical about a very dead, and pretty white, founding father seemed ridiculous. But, with sixteen Tony nominations – a record – and eleven take-homes, Hamilton is second only to
“The Producers” in terms of Tony Award wins. A sung-through musical, “Hamilton” takes us through the life of Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton. We laugh as he raises a glass with newfound friends, cheer as the war is won, shake our heads in dismay as he throws it all away for another woman and sob our way through most of the second half of act two.
Now, two years after its inception, the original main cast and most of the original ensemble have all moved on to other projects. The current Broadway cast boasts talent such as West End star, Joanna A. Jones, Tony Award winner James Monroe Iglehart and “In the Heights” alumni Mandy Gonzalez and Javier Muñoz. Inspiring several parodies, a book detailing the journey from page to stage, and “The Hamilton Mixtape, Hamilton: An American Musical” makes us all look around at how lucky we are to be alive right now.
What it is Like to Be in the Room Where it Happens
On Saturday, October 14, I was lucky enough to find out. If ever there was a soul-ascending moment, it was that night. The lights dimmed, and after King George gave the standard ‘no cellphones’ warning, the show began. Unlike many traditional Broadway shows, Hamilton has no set nor backdrop. Instead, wooden staircases, tables and balconies line the perimeter, and to top it off, the stage floor spins. This minimalist set may seem simple, but it is all an illusion.
The music begins, and Aaron Burr starts the titular number. This is the song. The song everyone knows and loves. Performed at the White House poetry jam of 2009, this song brings us through Hamilton’s childhood. From the death of his mother to the suicide of his cousin, nothing is sugar-coated.
Spoiler Alert: The Missing Song
The Original Broadway Cast Recording of this sung-through show encompasses nearly all of the scenes in the actual show. But there are a few noticeable differences. Transitions are quicker and smoother at times, or slower with just the barest hint of transitional dialogue in others. But the biggest difference between the OBCR and the live performance comes just after “Dear Theodosia” and before “Non-Stop”. A song entitled “Tomorrow They’ll Be More of Us” takes us through Hamilton’s emotional journey as he goes from complete unadulterated joy at the birth of his son, to utter heartbreak as Eliza reads him a letter from John Laurens’ father. And, despite the war already being over, we learn that Laurens was killed in a gunfight against the British, and his dream of leading an all-black battalion died with him. As if this musical was not sad enough already.
Comparing Apples to Oranges: Love for New Cast Members and Standbys
As with every show, new actors bring fresh deliveries and perspectives to beloved characters. The OBCR is ingrained in most “Hamilton” fans. It does not change no matter how many times we listen to it. But with this completely different cast, some things are bound to have changed along with the actors. And that is fantastic. Typically bringing in new cast members gives the audience an incentive to see the show again. Though with a musical so impossible to snag tickets to, that is a moot point.
One of the most beloved dual roles belongs to Marquis de Lafayette/Thomas Jefferson. Originated by Tony winner Daveed Diggs, another Tony winner has stepped up to fill his shoes. James Monroe Iglehart, the original Genie of Broadway’s “Aladdin,” gives a new dimension to Jefferson. Diggs’s southern drawl and casual arrogance truly captures Jefferson’s Disney-villainesque demeanor. However, Iglehart’s voice is deeper, his physical presence more rotund. His portrayal of Jefferson leads audience members to believe he truly does care about the state of the nation, and not simply a man out to get Hamilton. He is a little suaver, and a little less over-the-top while still retaining Jefferson’s outlandish attitude. And as for his interactions with Hamilton, well, they are just a tad more ominous than before.
No stranger to Miranda’s work, Mandy Gonzalez originated the role of Nina Rosario in “In the Heights,” another Tony winning musical. Gonzalez gives Angelica Schuyler yet another layer from Renée Elise Goldsberry’s nearly-untouchable portrayal. Best seen in Angelica’s big number, “Satisfied,” Gonzalez changes the tone to give Angelica a giddier and awed reaction to meeting Alexander Hamilton. She is truly impressed and excited by the prospects of finally finding her match, which makes her actions to push Hamilton and Eliza together that much more bittersweet. Her shout of “To the groom, to the bride!” while clinging to Peggy and barely holding back tears leaves the audience heartbroken.
At the 8 pm. show, the usual actor for Aaron Burr was replaced by standby, Andrew Chappelle. Standbys are actors hired specifically to go on for principal roles in the event that the regular actor cannot go on. Chappelle’s version of Burr is not always easy to describe. He is simultaneously more and less sympathetic than Leslie Odom Jr. While Odom’s voice, in the OBCR at least, is smoother and more polished, Chappelle gives Burr a more nasally quality. He seemed more exasperated by Hamilton, and while Odom recounts the fifty-one Federalist Papers with reverence, Chappelle’s narration is unconcealed vexation. Yet, do not think Chappelle’s Burr does not consider Hamilton a friend. When Burr says is chasing what he wants, Chappelle delivers the line with a grateful and almost warm tone. And of course, “Your Obedient Servant.” Chappelle does not even attempt to hide his rage at this apparent betrayal.
Love for the Ensemble
In a show like “Hamilton,” with such intricate choreography, the ensembles’ parts are often more strenuous than the main roles. They, while providing a robust chorus, must also leap, twirl and contort their bodies in astonishing ways. Knowing the music so intimately, it left plenty of leeway to focus on the poised dancers. With the fluid way the ensemble members move across the stage, one would suppose there were dozens of people on the stage.
So, Does it Live Up to Expectations?
Of, course. Is this even a valid question? “Hamilton” is a story about an immigrant who transcended expectations and became a founding father of this country. Told by a diverse cast, we cannot help but remember the most well-loved lyric in the show. “Immigrants: we get the job done.”