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[Gig Review] Hamilton @ The Richard Rodgers Theatre, New York - February 2016

The Bard Babe

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First things first, familiarise yourself with the basics:
Hamilton is a show about the life of founding father Alexander Hamilton. All the leads are POC. There are brilliant, strong women with kick-ass voices.The show is sung-through. It is a hip-hop musical. Curious yet? So you should be! Read on. 
What a show. Reviewing Hamilton is an excellent way to start off this marathon of musical reviews I'm about to do-if I manage it, there will be seven to match the seven shows I saw whilst in New York.
Hamilton is a massive hit, and it's really not hard to see why when you're in the theatre, but my story with Hamilton started while I was back in Australia. Being into musical theatre as I am, it can be pretty hard to avoid mention of all the new shows appearing on Broadway, despite living a 24 hour flight away. Most of the time, that means poor theatre fans like me are resigned to simply listening to (and obsessing over) cast recordings, and relying on clips that come out on youtube to feed our addiction.


With Hamilton this was a whole new experience. For one thing, it's a show about founding father Alexander Hamilton, and it's done almost entirely in rap. If you aren't at least a little curious, I'm impressed. That was my very reaction when I first heard of it. I eventually decided to just find the cast recording on spotify and have a listen, and see what the fuss was all about.
Now, I've done this before. But never before have I had to sit down and put on some headphones, because I can't focus on anything but this fluid flow of words streaming from my laptop. Every line, every word, every theme, was perfectly placed, and deeply thought through, and you can feel every rhyme. The orchestration is perfect, with a hip hop band and a string quartet. They use samples, and they use strings, and it’s a gorgeous blend just like the rest of the show. Different instruments are used to highlight different people, and different events, my personal favourite obviously being the ‘Burr cello lick’, as the orchestrator describes it. Simple, but so effective. And these layers are buried so deep you find new elements to the recording every single time you listen through, notice another theme reprising just a hint of an earlier song in track 37, or a reference to the Beatles in the King’s song not so subtly implying British invasion music. But this is a gig review, not an album review, so I’ll let you discover the rest of those delicious layers for yourselves.


Spoilered for size








So in short, because of its genius, Hamilton has become a worldwide phenomenon-people who don't usually listen to rap love it, people who don't usually watch musicals love it. For me, it was the perfect mix of clever lyrics, truly great orchestration, and musical showmanship. I was hooked.
Now Hamilton is simultaneously one of the best and the worst shows to be addicted to from afar. Show clips are held onto with a tight fist and eked out only very occasionally. Interviews are slightly more common, so I got to know the cast very quickly, particularly the genius who wrote and starred in the show, Lin Manuel-Miranda (he also wrote In the Heights if anyone's seen that).
But the best thing they do, is the ham4ham show. This is just a five minute show at the stage door while people wait for lottery tickets to be drawn. Hosted by the show's creator, these shows use Hamilton's cast, celebrities, other broadway stars, whoever they can get their hands on to entertain the masses for five minutes. And there are dozens of them. These have just moved online for the winter, and because the crowds were getting a little hectic, but if you have even a little interest in anything musical theatre-do yourself a favour and youtube a ham4ham show. There has probably been one with someone you know and love belting out a tune on the side of a road outside the theatre.


This has established a community for Hamilton fans that I slipped right into when I arrived in New York. I saw two ham4ham shows (and by saw, I mean I jumped and pretended I was tall enough to see over the people in front of me) and just missed a third. And eventually, I got to see the actual show.
This was my first broadway show, which means it would have already had a massive value for me, even if it wasn't my current theatre obsession. Coming from a city with one theatre for professional shows that only changes once a year, and never gets anything new, I was reduced to squeaks and frantically babbling theatre facts as I walked through Times Square for the first time. You can imagine how I was going to see my favourite show. A friend bought ridiculously expensive tickets with me while we were back home-some of the last tickets left in January-and we met up at the stage door, both ridiculously excited and slightly unable to believe that we were really there.
The Richard Rodgers theatre was lovely inside, but to be honest, I barely notice the interior-I was immediately distracted by the set, beautifully constructed to look nearly like a shipyard. The set doesn't change through the whole show, only subtle lighting and sound cues changing the scene with some gorgeous props. Candles. A piano. And the turntable. I'd heard about these turntables, reminiscent of a DJ’s turntables and a clever use of the set. The set design really is ingenious. Those turntables were really put to fantastic use, particularly during the track ‘Hurricane’, where the main character stands in the eye, unmoving, while chorus and set pieces rotate around him on the rotating sections of stage.
We didn't have fantastic seats. In fact, our seats were the worst in the theatre-obstructed view underneath the mezzanine overhang-but you know what? It didn't matter at all. Our view was only slightly obstructed. All we couldn't see was the top level when people went upstairs onto a higher balcony on the stage, which happened relatively often, but rarely with leads, and with only a slight lean forward, you could see the whole stage. So if you're short and tend to lean on your knees the whole show like me, then you'll barely even notice. So, if you can only get obstructed view seats in the Richard Rodgers, don't worry about it-you can see just fine. Obviously not as well as non-obstructed seats, but for obstructed view, you could see everything that mattered.


We had the understudy for the female lead-she covers all three female leads-and she did a wonderful job. Everyone else in the cast was as the recording. Once I got over the excitement of having a real playbill in my hand, the show pretty much started straight away. There was no pre-amble, after Jonathan Groff telling everyone to turn their phones off over the speakers (in character as King George III, of course). And I was glued to the stage for the entire show. Every voice was just like the cast recording or better. The couple of big belted notes I was waiting for (Maria's 'If you pay, you can stay' in Say No To This, the big chorus 'time' in Alexander Hamilton at the beginning) were perfect. Chris Jackson, who plays George Washington, improvised his way through the end of his song 'One Last Time', which was amazing. He does it every show. Gorgeous.
It was funnier than I was expecting from listening to the recording. Being able to see the facial expressions of the actors, to see their full on commitment to every lyric, not once did I even suspect that these actors weren't just their characters. The extra element of humour, really surprised me. I knew the jokes were there, but repeated listening let me forget a little, and actually being able to see the characters interact made them hilarious, the humour very dry, with one character (Thomas Jefferson) responsible for most of the laughs. The relationships between characters were impressively portrayed in a show with no dialogue. I didn't even notice that no-one ever spoke, because they did, it was just done to a beat. The most surprising relationship to me was that between Alexander Hamilton and George Washington. This was done purely through body language and clever lyrics, and the song 'Meet Me Inside' gives me chills just listening to it now.
Having said this about the acting, three actors manage the feat, while changing roles between acts, playing lead parts in both. Watching them transform was astonishing. The fantastic costuming really helped-modern hairstyles with period style clothing in themed colours (there is a pink velvet suit in there for Thomas Jefferson), allowing the actors to swap between very different characters, but it was still amazing to watch. There’s Hercules Mulligan to James Madison-a loud, cursing, hulk of a man turning to a quiet, very reasonable, man with a handkerchief and a cough. There’s Lafayette to Thomas Jefferson-the fastest raps in the show, sung in a French accent with an impetuous attitude and astonishing athleticism (honestly, I don’t know how that man speaks so quickly, in an accent, while leaping off tables and jumping around the stage) to southern twang and pure comic arrogance. And finally there’s John Laurens (Hamilton’s maybe boyfriend, according to their wonderfully flirtatious letters) who becomes Hamilton’s son in the second act. Through a handy time lapse, you get to see him play his son at 9, and at 19. Spoiler alert!


That poor actor has to die in both acts. Both times, you will cry. A lot. He is wonderful at dying, which is probably for the best, seeing as sometimes he has to do it four times a day.




The chorus were ridiculously good. There are always those moments that you hear on the cast recording where you know that the chorus are just going to stand centre-stage and belt out a harmony at you. This show did not disappoint. The audience were hit with this wall of sound that only a bunch of excellent voices singing perfectly in tune can create. There are neutral beige costumes for narrating and chorus members, so when someone's wearing a colour, you know that they're a character, and that they're about to do something relevant. There were heaps of little chorus roles that they pulled off fantastically well, but mainly, that choreography was fantastic. It was hip hop, to match with all the rapping going on, but there were bits thrown in there, just like in the music, in the lyrics, and the orchestration, referring to other famous moves, other choreographers, other styles. I think the most noticeable times are in Thomas Jefferson's entrance in 'What'd I Miss', which is the opening of the second act, and in Room Where It Happens, which is fantastically good, and is the most obvious time, at least to me, that the lead singer-in this case, Burr-dances with their chorus. There are a lot of shows where the singers are there to sing, and the dancers there to dance, but that was not so in this show. Lead singers, particularly Leslie Odom Jr, danced like beasts, and it really enhanced the show. The choreography for that number, and 'Hurricane' were exactly what I wanted out of the show, and the high energy moves to match the high energy rhythms throughout were gorgeous.




Oh, and of course, King George III. Played by Jonathan Groff, he only sings three songs. All three times, it's just him on stage, occasionally with minions, and he actually only sings the one song, just with different lyrics, but his decorum upon entrances and exits gradually decreases as America starts winning wars and so on. This is a fantastic piece of comedy, and also a bit of a political commentary, and his songs are the only ones that don't have any rap in them at all. It's a proper show number like you'd expect from any other show, and it's hilarious. I believe the character only has about nine minutes of stage time, but they are definitely worth it. Everyone was wetting themselves laughing every time Jonathan Groff made it on stage.




The different character’s raps have different rhythms marking the different characters, different feels to them, as well as their costumes, and their respective songs, I they’re given them. A special shout out here has to go to narrator and antagonist Aaron Burr, played by Leslie Odom Jr. Apart from the fact that that man’s voice is possibly one of the most beautiful things I have ever heard (do yourself a favour and look him up-he has a jazz album on Spotify if you don’t feel like listening to this cast album, and he was also on Smash), his acting really truly made the show for me. For the show’s ‘bad guy’, he’s terribly difficult to dislike. His songs ‘Wait For It’ and ‘The Room Where It Happens’ are instantly relatable, beautifully sung, and real milestones in character development. If you listen to nothing else on this album, listen to those two songs. For me. Please.


You will cry. The famous duel between Hamilton and Burr is the second to last song of the show, and it is beautiful. Another fantastic use of the turntable, plus a delicate and heart-rending soliloquy, with second long reprises from earlier songs and characters, just enough to keep tearing your heart to shreds. You’ll bawl, and you’ll love it. Burr’s final verse in the song ‘The World Was Wide Enough’ was something that didn’t really hit me just listening to the recording. I was still reeling from the action of the song, and I never really heard it. During the show, it was beautifully devastating in the most joyously painful of ways to watch his face during that final verse. That’s the definition of brilliant acting right there-to make something so painful so perversely enjoyable to the audience. There’s a reason we go and see these shows, go see any art. We want to feel something, and by god, this show will make you feel something.
I could go on for longer, and I may update this as I think of other things, but I’ve already written far too much, so I’ll leave it here. The tag line for the show America then told by America now, and even if the show wasn’t as well-constructed and performed as it is, you can see the difference it is going to be making to school children (who are being let in in school groups for very cheap-I think it’s for $10), who are never going to know theatre that isn’t led by POC, has gorgeous, strong, female leads, and have a very handy study tool for their American history classes. Half of the world’s population can rap you Alexander Hamilton’s origin story. I’m Australian, and I can rap you two cabinet battles, both sides, if you ask me really nicely. This show really makes you care-in the first act, you want them to win the war, to get the girl, to survive, but by the second act, you really are desperate to know how Hamilton is going to get his financial plan through congress. It’s a little ridiculous, I love it, and if you give it a chance, you will too.

Edited by The Bard Babe
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