SALT LAKE CITY — “Hamilton” has oft been described as a rap musical, but the show is a far cry from being a one-trick pony.
With book, lyrics and music by Lin-Manuel Miranda, the 2016 Tony Award-winner for best musical — and, you know, 10 other Tonys, a Grammy and the Pulitzer Prize in drama — has become an international phenomenon. Tickets are in high demand in New York City and every city it has visited since, including here in Salt Lake City, where it will perform asold-out runthrough May 6.
But while “Hamilton” does portray a certain “cool” factor that, at least in part, explains the mania, what really makes the show a success is that it is both revolutionary and familiar: revolutionary in its use of popular music styles and its ability to bring history to life, but familiar as it flawlessly blends drama, humor and, most importantly, heart.
The basic plot is simple. Alexander Hamilton — “the 10-dollar Founding Father without a father,” is often remembered for his death in a duel against then-Vice President Aaron Burr. But the musical paints a more complete picture, from Hamilton's early life on Nevis in the Caribbean to his time in the army during the Revolutionary War to his work as the first treasury secretary, all juxtaposed with the details of his personal life.
“Hamilton” comes out of the gate at a clipping pace, which it maintains throughout. There’s no overture to introduce the tunes. Instead, Aaron Burr, played with swagger by Nik Walker, poses a question that turns into a recurring one: “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?”
That opening stanza sets the pace for the next almost three hours of song after song, with lyrics that can only be described as dense and incredibly clever, albeit laced with quite a bit of objectionable language — some crass, some your basic swear words, some sexually-explicit. Regardless of whether rap, hip-hop or R&B are generally your cup of tea, every moment from then on out proves why Miranda deserved the 2015 MacArthur Foundation Award — forever branding him as a genius.
Musical theater traditionalists — I’m looking at all of you whose cast recordings of “Fiddler on the Roof,” “The Music Man” or (insert your favorite musical here) have been on repeat for decades and who think rap has no business on Broadway — prepare yourselves to be pleasantly surprised. “Hamilton” doesn’t completely abandon showtunes. Numbers such as “The Story of Tonight” and “It’s Quiet Uptown” exhibit a familiar musical theater tone. Other styles, including boogie-woogie, swing, a bit of reggae and more, find their way into the tunes.
Joining Miranda’s unquestionably smart music and lyrics is Andy Blankenbuehler’s sleek choreography, David Korins’ succinct and simple scenic design, Howell Binkley’s seamless lighting design and, of course, Thomas Kail’s superb direction bringing it all together. All the elements are purposeful and add to the whole, which allows the story and its morals to reign supreme.
Joseph Morales leads the cast as Alexander Hamilton and shows a believable sense of eagerness and sincerity, both in his more naive confidence as a youngster and, later, his arrogant confidence at the height of his career. Morales’ Hamilton finds a perfect foil in Walker’s Burr — Walker more elegant and Morales more scrappy. Walker shows a commanding presence at times and vulnerability at others, bringing depth to the character.
But by far the best vocal performance of the night was Shoba Narayan as Eliza Hamilton. The quality of her voice has a depth to it, beyond her impressive range, that is simply captivating.
The leads are supported by outstanding ensemble members that maintain stamina throughout the challenging harmonies and Blankenbuehler’s physically taxing choreography.
While “Hamilton” is undeniably entertaining, it also contains a great deal of humanity and thought-provoking themes. In Alexander Hamilton’s story, Miranda has identified a story particularly suited for musical theater: romance, tension and flawed, multifaceted characters. Through its expert use of language and an incredibly touching finale, “Hamilton” shows the power of the word — both for good and for bad — and causes audiences to consider what legacy they will leave for those “who (tell) your story.”
“Legacy. What is a legacy? / It's planting seeds in a garden you never get to see. … 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. … ”
Content advisory: “Hamilton” contains objectionable language, including basic swear words and crude language. It also includes a scene depicting Alexander Hamilton’s infidelity that includes sexually explicit lyrics and sensual choreography.