Let’s get one thing straight — Hamilton is a great musical. It’s a heady production, full of insight and ideas. It’s challenging and deep despite being remarkably entertaining. The songs are fantastic. It’s like they were written for the pop charts and not a Broadway production. But there they were in all their “Helpless” glory. The plot is thick. The emotions run high. We laugh. We cry. And the performance of the King, well, was off the charts.
Did it live up to the hype? Not quite. But given it’s billed as the greatest musical in the history of humankind, that’s not really surprising. In the immortal words of Chuck D, “Don’t Believe The Hype.”
Hamilton is, of course, a huge hit: multiple Tony awards, triple-platinum cast album, sold-out show after sold-out show on Broadway, in Chicago, in London, England and now, finally, it is here in Toronto where it runs at the Ed Mirvish Theatre until May 17.
Here is the story of the founding of the United States of America but with a diverse cast of founding fathers including black, LatinX and Asian actors. This is not colour-blind casting. This is casting with the express purpose of making a powerful political statement. And, wow, does it work well.
It all starts quickly.
The moment of lead character Alexander Hamilton’s introduction on the first song, aptly dubbed “Alexander Hamilton,” the crowd is buzzing with anticipation. It is happening. We are watching the musical everyone is talking about and here is our main man. It’s sassy, hip, creative, fun. And without skipping one funky beat, we are right into “My Shot.” One of Hamilton’s big numbers. We are amused.
From there, we get history and a lot of it, told in a unique way that reflects an activist-oriented view of the founding of America. Who knew the most talked-about and successful musical in recent memory had so much, you know, facts and stuff? Sure, there are dramatizations, racial revisions and it is maybe more a work of historical fiction than textbook, but the important events, moments, declarations and deeds are there.
It’s not a class lecture. It’s a loud and proud musical that forces audiences to talk about the founding of America and to see it in an entirely new light. To consider it a country that has fiercely independent and intelligent immigrant-powered rebellion at its core, no matter what the weirdo in charge or his legion of goofball fans think at this moment.
In addition, there are many underlying themes that weave their way through the work including questions of legacy, forgiveness, the fleeting nature of time, even the power of the simple act of writing.
Legacy is an interesting part of the musical. Hamilton’s main motivation that pushes him to achieve the great things he did end up achieving was the desire to make his mark. He was an orphan, he didn’t know his parents, he was the start of his own family tree. That’s enough to motivate anyone to succeed, to get noticed. Just like, you know, America after it broke free from those Brits across the pond. It was time for them to make their mark.
Of course, this same relentless pursuit without introspection and reflection and no matter the cost is what eventually kills Hamilton.
Did his life and times mirror the founding of America? Is our southern neighbour just a sharp-tongued orphan kid with ego issues, a relentless lust for power and no good sense to take a look at itself every once in a while? Maybe.
If that’s true, the other side of the coin can be seen in the character of Aaron Burr, who the audience meets early on who has a recurring role as Hamilton’s foil. Burr is one who is calm and in control, plotting, scheming, keeping his cards close to his vest, as they say. It is fitting that Burr is the one who eventually shoots and kills Hamilton because he was jealous of what he achieves. And, no, this is not giving away the plot, as we find this out in the first number.
Many of the show’s best highlights come courtesy of a stellar supporting cast including Jared Dixon as the aforementioned Burr, Warren Egypt Franklin as Marquis de Lafayette and Thomas Jefferson, Stephanie Jae Park as Eliza Hamilton (Alexander’s wife) and Neil Haskell as King George.
There are a few brief interludes featuring the cocky King and they are wonderful. The performance is so precise and perfect as Haskell taunts the Americans for thinking they can free themselves from his grip when he can just kill them if he wants to. And then when they actually are successful in their rebellion, good King George doesn’t give an inch. It’s a fun, flawless bit of musical theatre that offers some much-needed comic relief for a show that has such depth.
But the ingenuity doesn’t end there. When the new American government is being established, debates over policy and procedure take the form of rap battles between Hamilton and Jefferson.
In instances such as these, the show reaches another dizzying level of artistry. I just wish there were more of them.
The first act of the show is a bit higher on the fun side, the pace is quick, and the energy is high. During the second half, the show goes deep, the action gets intense and bristly, it packs an emotional wallop, tears flow, but it fails to bookend the production with one last big statement that looks to the future of the great nation.
Still, it is impossible to argue the impact of this powerful show, the value and quality of the performances, and what it has done and continues to do for musical theatre. It is a work that doesn’t just entertain. It provokes. And that is far more valuable.