A Music Critic Goes to 'Hamilton'

Greg Kot
Photo: Chris Sweda (Chicago Tribune / TNS)
Chicago Tribune (TNS)

Hamilton is notable in that its diverse cast tacitly gives voice to outsiders who never got a chance to earn their shot in colonial days.

CHICAGO — At times, “Hamilton” is one of those rare plays that makes you think that Broadway may yet use the language of contemporary music as something more than just an add-on or a flavor. At other moments, it slips backward, as if hip-hop never happened.

“Hamilton” is being called a “hip-hop musical.” Even though it’s not the first Broadway play to incorporate hip-hop, it certainly is by far the most popular. Greeted with record-busting ticket sales and lavished with awards — including a Pulitzer Prize — “Hamilton” has been praised as a groundbreaking work of art. It certainly has its moments, but ultimately doesn’t go far enough in embracing what hip-hop represents. In a musical that portrays hip-hop as the language of a new country, a new way of thinking — the future, in other words — “Hamilton” consigns its female leads to the past.

The show currently playing at Chicago’s PrivateBank Theatre is a relatively brisk, densely detailed musical that toggles between historical bullet points and outspoken metaphor. Most of the white males who ran the country in the late 1700s are portrayed by people of color, a not-so-subtle reminder that America was always a multicultural land — a haven and a hell.

In this context, the hip-hop vernacular has wicked immediacy, putting a fresh spin on what could be a potentially creaky history lesson. This is less a textbook dramatization than an ode to immigrant pluck, impudence and ambition (and the sometimes fatal risks required of revolutionaries who won’t keep their mouths shut). The relevance of that message in today’s fractious world of “extreme vetting” and Islamophobia makes “Hamilton” an unusually potent piece of theater.

It follows in the tradition of Broadway plays that have tried and often faltered in bringing the old-fashioned musical into the now. Two decades ago, “Rent” was hailed as Broadway’s great leap into contemporary pop culture, a portrait of New York City’s Lower East Side bohemia as it struggled with AIDS, drugs and poverty. But it proved to be just a bunch of show tunes that had little to do with the cutting-edge rock, rap and electronic music that most of the people on whom the actors were modeled would have actually been listening to or playing.

Graying rock royalty such as Paul Simon (“The Capeman”), Pete Townshend (The Who’s “Tommy”), Randy Newman (“Faust”) and U2 (“Spider-Man: Turn off the Dark”) took turns trying to bring rock ‘n’ roll boldness to the Broadway stage, but fell short. Green Day’s “American Idiot” was the rare exception that brought a contemporary rock opera to the theater only a few years after it topped album charts. Hip-hop has surfaced in productions such as “Runaways” and “Holler If Ya Hear Me,” which never enjoyed widespread acclaim, and “Bring in ‘da Noise, Bring in ‘da Funk,” where hip-hop was a flavor in an extended ode to tap dancing.

The music in “Hamilton” aims to go deeper and sometimes hits the mark. Composer Lin-Manuel Miranda came of age in the hip-hop mecca that was New York City in the ‘80s and ‘90s, and for him, the hip-hop of those eras had a profound influence not only on “Hamilton” but on his 2005 musical about his old neighborhood, “In the Heights.”

“Hamilton” works best when it is as irreverent and raw as hip-hop itself. Miranda keeps the score relatively sparse, and many of the songs feel blessedly bare-bones when compared with traditional Broadway’s lush orchestrations. Some of the songs are reduced to little more than bass lines and electronic handclaps. There’s even some turntable scratching and human beat-boxing.

It’s a kind of anti-style that suits the “bastard orphan” Hamilton (as played in Chicago by Miguel Cervantes), who brings cockiness tempered by a fatalistic dread that he is running out of time. Mortality haunted the lyrics of the Notorious B.I.G., who, like Hamilton, was felled by a gunshot and whose work profoundly influenced the young Miranda.

The young Hamilton declares for all the world to hear that he’s not “throwing away my shot,” while quoting Mobb Deep rapper Prodigy: “I’m only 19, but my mind is old.” Aaron Burr (the more constrained Wayne Brady) tries to undercut this crowing rooster of a revolutionary by advising Hamilton to “talk less, smile more.”

Burr is like the major-label executive who showed Ice-T the door in the early ‘90s because his music was too abrasive, too real. But Hamilton is undeterred as he demands that corrupt petty-minded government officials pick up their game or get out of his way: “I’ll be Socrates throwing verbal rocks at these mediocrities.” Cervantes, by way of Miranda, is one of hell of an MC at moments like these.

When Burr finally speaks his mind, it suggests what the usually self-contained colonist might have been. He’s always on the outside looking in, and on “The Room Where It Happens,” he’s finally had enough. The escalating gospel-like call-and-response vocals plant the seed for Burr’s final act of misguided vengeance.

Even more entrancing are the verbal duels between Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson (played with dandyish glee by Chris De’Sean Lee). Over a banging kick drum and turntable scratching, Hamilton zings the slave-owning, big-talking Virginian upon his return from Paris: “A civics lesson from a slaver, hey, neighbor, your debts are paid cuz you don’t pay for labor.” Jefferson mocks him right back by paraphrasing Grandmaster Flash’s rap classic “The Message.” They go at it again a few minutes later in “Cabinet Battle #2” while onlookers hoot, holler and laugh like they’re standing on a street corner in the Bronx circa 1979, not in government chambers circa 1789.

Beside the Hamilton-Jefferson battle raps, the show’s most entertaining musical moments belong to King George III, played with condescending flamboyance by Alexander Gemignani and his perpetually raised pinkie finger. The king’s a punch line, the sound of the Old World being subsumed by the faster, quicker, brighter hip-hop future of America. Yet he commands the stage like no other cast member by channeling Queen’s Freddie Mercury. The clueless King loves to knock his rivals and perceived inferiors (which includes pretty much everybody) down to size with foppish putdowns. He makes even his wordless vocal melodies sound like he’s heckling.

Given the wealth of alpha males on stage, it’s too bad that the female leads are made to sound like afterthoughts, consigned to more traditional Broadway roles and bland blends of R&B and show-tune balladry. As Hamilton negotiates a tricky triangle of three lovers or would-be-lovers — his wife, his wife’s sister and a mistress — the show and the music lose momentum: a schmaltzy duet between Hamilton and wife Eliza (played by Ari Afsar), the betrayed Eliza’s “Burn,” the broken couple’s lament “It’s Quiet Uptown.”

It all gets a much-needed verbal reset from Jefferson: “Can we get back to politics?” In this case, it’s a necessary antidote to the play’s snooziest stretch in Act 2, a throwback to Broadway romantic melodramas of old. The leading women in Hamilton are long-suffering actors who melt into the background while the strutting male leads get all the best lines and songs.

Where’s the “Hamilton” equivalent of rap-era heroes Missy Elliott or Nicki Minaj? Eliza could’ve easily been cast as a neo-soul earth mother along the lines of Erykah Badu rather than just another Broadway ballad singer with a pleasant voice.

Even though Eliza gets the play’s last word and final song, she testifies about how she spent the last half-century of her life keeping her husband’s legacy alive.

“Hamilton” is notable in that its diverse cast tacitly gives voice to outsiders who never got a chance to earn their shot in colonial days. Too bad it doesn’t do the same for women, who are left very much in the margins of this male-dominated musical.

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