‘Hamilton’: It’s even better than it’s cracked up to be

Photo by Joan Marcus
Elijah Malcomb as John Laurens/Phillip Schuyler, Joseph Morales as Alexander Hamilton, Kyle Scatliffe as Aaron Burr, and Fergie L. Philippe as Hercules Mulligan/James Madison in the national touring production of "Hamilton."

Can a musical – even a smash hit Broadway musical that won 11 Tony awards and the Pulitzer Prize for Drama – be as good as “Hamilton” is cracked up to be?

It’s better. Nearly every moment of the 2½-hour show is absolutely riveting. The hype was not an overstatement. We first heard that “Hamilton” was coming to Minneapolis in Dec. 2016. It was worth the almost two-year wait.

Based on a 900-page, heavily footnoted biography of the face on our $10 bill – a Founding Father, first U.S. secretary of the treasury and interpreter of the Constitution, shot to death more than 200 years ago – “Hamilton” is fascinating, foot-tapping and rapturous. And consistently excellent. Don’t worry that this is a touring cast. They own this show, and they’re here for five weeks.

There were many moments at the Orpheum last Friday when we wished we could hit pause, rewind, and hear that line or song again, or see that gesture or dance move, or freeze everything and savor the gorgeous tableau on stage. That set! Those costumes!

Two-and-a-half hours might seem like a long time. It’s not. Thirty-four songs might seem like a lot. It’s not, even when some are titled “The Adams Administration,” “The Reynolds Pamphlet” and “The Election of 1800.”

Lin-Manuel Miranda’s musical – he had the idea after buying a copy of Ron Chernow’s erudite “Alexander Hamilton” at an airport book shop, then wrote the book, music and lyrics – is almost entirely sung. (Miranda is a 2015 MacArthur “genius” grant winner, btw.) Making use of rapid-fire rap, he crammed more than 20,000 words into the telling.

Someone did the math with the soundtrack recording and came up with 144 words per minute, more than twice as many as “Spring Awakening,” the runner-up, which has 77 wpm. And if you think “Pirates of Penzance” is a fast-paced show with a lot of words, sorry. It’s just under 6,000 at a comparatively snoozy 58 wpm.

Miranda nods to “Pirates” when he has George Washington sing, “Now I’m the model of a modern major general.” That’s one of many delightful moments that zoom by. If you check your phone or make a quick comment to your companion, you’ll miss something.

“Hamilton” comes at you with thousands of words, beat-heavy music (that 10-person orchestra in the pit!), a large cast always in motion (that cast!) and loads of content. It’s dense with names, dates, events and ideas, and while the language is contemporary and vernacular, there’s no dumbing down.

But instead of pushing you away with its broad scope and gale force, “Hamilton” pulls you in. Especially now, in our wounded times, you want to be part of the promise of the new country taking shape, based on revolutionary ideals and filled with hope.

It’s exhilarating and bittersweet at the same time to hear Hamilton and Lafayette sing, “Immigrants: We get the job done.” And Angelica Schuyler’s “We hold these truths to be self-evident/That all men are created equal/And when I meet Thomas Jefferson/I’m ’a compel him to include women in the sequel!” And Hamilton’s “America, you great unfinished symphony, you sent for me/You let me make a difference/A place where even orphan immigrants/can leave their fingerprints and rise up.”

Shoba Narayan, Ta'Rea Campbell and Nyla Sostre as the Schuyler Sisters.
Photo by Joan Marcus

Shoba Narayan, Ta'Rea Campbell and Nyla Sostre as the Schuyler Sisters.
“Hamilton” opened off-Broadway at the Public Theater in February 2015. This was before the 2016 presidential election, before the current administration began spreading anti-immigrant rhetoric and separating children from their parents, but the word “immigrant” is woven throughout. It’s sung nearly a dozen times, which seems like nothing among 20,000-plus words, but each utterance rings like a bell.

A brief exchange between two voters in “The Election of 1800” is wince-worthy. Discussing the year’s presidential tickets – Thomas Jefferson vs. John Adams, with Aaron Burr as Jefferson’s running mate – one man says of Burr, “He seems approachable …?” Another answers, “Like you could grab a beer with him!”

Other writers have noted that “Hamilton” shows America at its best, an America whose spirit we wish we could recapture, an America that might be sliding from our grasp. One mentioned “the intense pride you feel on an evening such as this, when America’s story is retold with such style, verve and imagination.”

It’s easy to feel pride in “Hamilton’s” vision of America, along with sadness at the divided state we’re in today. And joy in the whole colorful, crazy ambitious, breathtaking brilliance of the thing.

And the glorious diversity. That’s something you notice immediately. All of the main characters in “Hamilton” were white in real life: Alexander Hamilton himself; his wife, Eliza, and son, Philip; Aaron Burr; George Washington; the Marquis de Lafayette; King George. Like the original Broadway cast, the touring cast is deeply, matter-of-factly mixed.

It’s instantly no big deal that Hamilton is Hispanic (Joseph Morales), Aaron Burr is African-American (Nik Walker), George Washington is Asian-American (Marcus Choi) and Eliza Schuyler Hamilton is Southeast-Asian-American (Shoba Narayan). It just feels right. Like every musical, every play, every everything should be diverse because why not?

This casting decision also makes the story of “Hamilton” feel like it’s happening today. The men are in breeches and waistcoats; the women wear gowns. The look of the production is 18th century. But the cast is 2018.

In the end, that might have been our favorite part of the evening: being there and seeing that. It’s going to be tough for any new performance of any kind to ignore the example set by “Hamilton.” There’s simply no excuse anymore.

You may recall that the “Hamilton” cast had a few words for then Vice President-elect Mike Pence when he attended a performance in November 2016. “Hamilton” is a show, an entertainment, a night out, but it can also be seen as a political statement.

The Des Moines Register (the “Hamilton” tour stopped in Iowa earlier this summer) saw an opportunity and ran with it. “Rise up, Iowa!” an editorial exclaims. “We’re not King George’s ‘sweet, submissive subject(s).’ We can stand up for civil rights, equal opportunity, government by and for the people and freedom of speech and the press. We can stand up for the environment, affordable health care and education for everyone, fair treatment of immigrants, principled relations with other countries and ethical and open government.”

“Hamilton” continues at the Orpheum through Oct. 7, with eight performances each week. There are still tickets available – not many, and not cheap, but available. Try the digital lottery. It’s free to enter and you might get lucky. FMI.

If you go, catch your breath during intermission, but rethink stepping outdoors or lingering in the lobby. The second act will start promptly on time, and you don’t want to be rushing down the aisle to your seat when Thomas Jefferson makes his entrance, asking, “So what’d I miss?”

“Hamilton” is jam-packed with facts and information and sung in many words, some of which get lost in the music, the space and the speed of delivery. Although we caught most of the lyrics, we missed a few, which is bound to happen in any live performance. This is not a mush-mouthed cast. Their words are crisp and articulated, vowels clear and consonants hard. Still, you might find it helpful (we did) to read a synopsis ahead of time, and maybe look at the lyrics (Act 1, Act 2). The cast album is available on Spotify.

Whether you go or not, there’s a video you might want to watch, if you haven’t already.

In May 2009, Lin-Manuel Miranda premiered the title song, “Alexander Hamilton,” at the White House before an audience that included the Obamas. The event was the White House’s first-ever Evening of Poetry, Music, and the Spoken Word. Miranda began by saying that he was working on a hip-hop “concept album” and inviting the audience to “snap along, if you like.” Then he let fly with what would stay the opening lines:

How does a bastard, orphan, son of a whore and a Scotsman, dropped in the middle of a forgotten spot in the Caribbean by providence, impoverished, in squalor, grow up to be a hero and a scholar?

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