Too often, musical theater leans on nostalgia.
From revivals of golden-era classics, to jukebox musicals chockfull of radio hits, to stage adaptations of popular films, Broadway relies on giving audiences something familiar.
There are exceptions, of course — ”Dear Evan Hansen” and “The Band’s Visit” spring to mind — but no 21st-century musical feels as contemporary as “Hamilton,” the smash hit playing at the Saenger Theatre through March 31.
Written by Lin-Manuel Miranda, “Hamilton” tells the life story of founding father Alexander Hamilton (inspired by Ron Chernow’s biography “Alexander Hamilton”). In it, Miranda harnesses conventional Broadway storytelling, then adds a frenetic dose of hip hop and R&B. The result might not appeal to audiences who prefer show tunes to summer jams, but “Hamilton” has clearly hit a nerve with theater-goers — especially those raised on Beyoncé and Jay-Z, for whom “Hamilton” represents something completely new and completely now.
To call “Hamilton” a “rap musical” is an oversimplification. Miranda isn’t forcing generic rap music into a Broadway-shaped hole. Instead, he’s paying homage to a very specific brand of ‘90s New York hip hop. Miranda captures the essence of artists like Biggie Smalls, Busta Rhymes and Mobb Deep in both sound and spirit, imbuing “Hamilton” with hip hop swagger. Tonally, the show mirrors the best records of that era: brash and braggadocious, sometimes menacing and, occasionally, heartbreakingly vulnerable. And the theme of “Hamilton” echoes the music that inspired it, exploring the burden of being “young, scrappy and hungry” in the streets of New York.
Why is “Hamilton” so hot?
Directed by Thomas Kail, the touring production of “Hamilton” rides high on the same burst of energy generated by the original off-Broadway production. From the opening number, the performers attack the material with enthusiasm. The voices are strong, the choreography by Andy Blankenbuehler is crisp, and the music is clear (credit due to the show’s technical team and the staff at the Saenger, where musicals sometimes sound muddy and uneven).
In the lead role, Joseph Morales capably commands center stage, depicting Hamilton’s evolution from a young revolutionary upstart (“My Shot”) to an older, wiser, grieving father (“It’s Quiet Uptown”). He’s supported by a strong cast, including Nik Walker, who plays Aaron Burr as a noble adversary, and Marcus Choi, who delivers a strong and steady George Washington.
Every MC needs a good hype man, and Hamilton has three of them in the first act: Kyle Scatliff as Lafayette, Fergie L. Phillippe as Hercules Mulligan, and Elijah Malcomb as John Laurens. The three players add bombast to the first act, then reappear in the second act as, respectively, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison and Hamilton’s son Philip, with Scatliffe’s Jefferson emerging as one of the standout performances of the show’s second half.
While the first act revels in the patriotic chaos and bloodshed of the Revolutionary War, the second act pivots to politics and the fight over the new constitution. Here, the show takes a turn towards “Schoolhouse Rock” and loses some of its immediacy (though the debate-as-rap-battle is a fun touch).
By the end of the show, the political turns personal when Hamilton gets caught up in an affair, loses his son, and struggles to find his place in the changing American landscape. As Hamilton’s wife Eliza, Erin Clemons radiates strength and resolve in the midst of turmoil, supported by her sister Angelica (Ta’rea Campbell). The narrative dives deeper than most musical theater, revealing complex characters caught in a layered crisis of conscience.
Despite its sweeping popularity, it’s tough to know how “Hamilton” will hold up. The easy comparison is “Rent,” the last big pop-culture musical phenomenon. In 20 years, will “Hamilton” get a lackluster television special causing today’s fanatics to doubt their younger selves and vindicating the curmudgeons who’ll say “I told you so”? Or will the show’s biggest hits crossover into mainstream and inspire more musicals to take on America’s new music? Time will tell, but in the meantime, “Hamilton” will continue making history.
WHEN: March 12-31
WHERE: Saenger Theatre, 1111 Canal St.
TICKETS: Saenger Box Office or Ticketmaster.com
INFO: BroadwayInNewOrleans.com or (800) 982-2787