Stage Door Review
Thursday, March 2, 2023
by Lin-Manuel Miranda, directed by Thomas Kail
Mirvish / Jeffrey Seller / Sander Jacobs / Jill Furman / The Public Theatre, Princess of Wales Theatre, Toronto
February 23-August 20, 2023
Washington: “History has its eyes on you”
Hamilton has returned to Toronto and the audience is ready. Toronto had a tantalizing glimpse of the musical phenomenon starting February 11, 2020, but the run meant to continue to May 17, 2021, was cut short on March 14, 2020, when Mirvish closed all its theatres due to Covid. The second run of Hamilton with the cast of the so-called “And Peggy” tour has had its opening night and has already been extended to August 20, 2023.
I first saw Hamilton in London (UK) in 2019. At the time I knew that Miranda’s libretto had historical inventions and inaccuracies even though the show’s programme stated “based on the book Alexander Hamilton by Ron Chernow”. A viewing in 2023 is more complicated than a viewing in 2019. Ever since Miranda shone such a bright light on this lesser-known father of the country, historians have demonstrated that Miranda’s book is much more fiction than it is history.
There are two prime reasons for looking at the musical’s deviations from history. One is that many people likely suppose that the musical whose libretto is filled with historical references must also be true. It is much better for people not to persist in their ignorance. The other is that the musical itself has the telling of history as its subject. The refrain of the final number is “Who lives, who dies, who tells your story?” In Hamilton who tells the story profoundly affects how Alexander Hamilton’s biography is altered and distorted to fit a particular mold.
There are errors in even the most fundamental aspects of the story as Miranda tells it. Let’s look at just three. First of all, Hamilton was not an immigrant. Moving from Nevis, the British colony where he was born, to New York, another British colony at the time was not considered immigration before the Revolution since Hamilton was a subject of British Crown in both places. He could have seen himself as an outsider to the rich and powerful of New York because he was poor and illegitimate. After the Revolution when the States united and were a new country, Hamilton was no friend to immigrants himself. Historian Joanne B. Freeman says Hamilton said that too many immigrants would lead to the “corruption of national character”.
Second, and very disappointingly, Hamilton was not an abolitionist. In the musical Miranda has Hamilton berate Thomas Jefferson and James Madison for owning slaves. Hamilton is always praised as Washington’s “right-hand man”, but Miranda never has Hamilton complain that Washington also personally owned slaves (more than one hundred of them). We see that poverty-stricken Hamilton marries into the wealthy Schuyler family, but Miranda neglects to mention that the Schuylers were one of the main slave-owning families in New York. It’s known that Hamilton even helped Angelica Schuyler purchase slaves. On top of this, Hamilton accepted protecting slavery in the Constitution in order to strengthen the bonds between the North and the South.
Third, the musical does not give the correct cause for the duel between Hamilton and Burr. Miranda shows there is a difference between the two from when they first meet. Hamilton believes in telling the truth. Burr believes hiding his thoughts is more politic. This difference is the wedge that supposedly drives the two apart until Hamilton supports Jefferson over Burr for president. In fact, Hamilton did not set himself against Burr until Burr defeated Hamilton’s father-in-law in a senate race in 1790. When Burr ran for governor of New York, Hamilton’s rhetoric against Burr had become so extreme that Burr demanded an apology. Not receiving one, Burr challenged Hamilton to a duel. Miranda does not choose the truth here obviously because it does not reflect well on Hamilton.
Miranda likewise omits innumerable details that would make Hamilton look less than heroic. One was Hamilton’s antipathy towards the First Nations. As historian Mark Meuwese points out, “Hamilton advocated for a military force that would be able to confront ’the savage tribes on our Western frontier [who] ought to be regarded as our natural enemies’”.
Another was that he was not a man of the people but an elitist. He thought that senatorships should be a lifetime appointments and that the president should be an “elective monarch”. Miranda gives Hamilton only one failing, his one affair with Maria Reynolds, but even here Miranda shows Hamilton not fully at fault since Hamilton was seduced by Reynolds in a plot by her husband.
What Miranda has actually done is to force Hamilton’s story into a mold that it does not neatly fit. No matter how revolutionary people think Hamilton is, the story is very old-fashioned. In fact, it is built on one of America’s favourite myths about itself as a “land of opportunity” where a penniless immigrant can rise from rags to riches. This idea is known as the “bootstrap theory”. As John Laurens raps in the musical, Hamilton “Got a lot farther by working a lot harder / By being a lot smarter / By being a self-starter”. Conservatives like the “bootstrap theory” because its corollory is that if you can’t succeed in a “land of opportunity” on your own it is your own fault for not working hard enough and you therefore forfeit the need for any kind of assistance.
Thus, people should recognize the aged clichés about America that Miranda is promoting and realize that he has altered or invented events to suit his story of the rise of a hero and has omitted everything that tarnishes this story. That does not mean that Hamilton is a bad musical. No one goes to musicals for history or even a faithful telling of fiction. From at least My Fair Lady (1956) to Wicked (2003) book writers of musicals have felt free to change the even the endings of their sources. This is probably why programmes for Hamilton no longer say that the musical is “based on” Chernow’s biography, but rather “inspired by” it.
In any case, it is not the (highly fictionalized) retelling of the life of a Founding Father that draws people to Hamilton as much as Miranda’s music, clever lyrics and the fantastically imaginative production. Here the cast of “And Peggy” Hamilton tour now playing Toronto leaves much to be desired.
People will know that one of composer and librettist Lin-Manuel Miranda’s prime innovations in Hamilton was the introduction of a heavy use of rap in the musical. His amazing score also comprises R&B, swing, reference to the Beatles and classical music and many other styles besides. But rap is the defining feature of the musical and replaces everything from recitatives to conversation to narration. The rap lyrics carry so much vital information that they must be clear for an audience to understand the story.
MC Bohlool, who teaches rap, lists enunciation as one the essential rap vocal techniques. As he notes, “MCs are often praised for how sharply and clearly they say every syllable in a rhyme – so that the listener can make out every word”. Unfortunately, most of the “And Peggy” cast are not up to the task.
One of the main offenders is DeAundre’ Woods as the title character. He de-emphasizes the unaccented syllables in his rap lyrics so much you can’t even hear them. This is a serious liability in the show’s main character and Woods, unfortunately, does not generate any charisma to compensate for it. He even blows the show’s signature applause line, “Immigrants, we get the job done”, which on opening night received no applause. Compared to Jamael Westman in London, Woods has so little presence it’s hard to see why everyone his Hamilton meets is so entranced by him.
As the Schuyler sisters, Morgan Anita Wood as Eliza and Marja Harmon as Angelica both suffer from rapping in a near sub-conversational tone so that we have no clue what they’re saying. Only when they sing out at full voice do we understand their words. Harmon has one of the shows best songs, “Satisfied”, but she so underplays it that it has virtually no impact. This is a pity since Miranda invented Angelica’s love for Hamilton just to give her this song. As for Wood, she seems unable to seethe with rage in the song “Burn” as did Rachelle Ann Go in the London production.
Other key characters also disappoint. Darnell Abraham shows that he has a fine baritone when his character, George Washington, is allowed to sing. But rapping is what Washington does for most of the action and Abraham simply can’t make himself understood, a fact that rather undercuts his character’s status as leader.
Paris Nix plays both the Marquis de Lafayette and Thomas Jefferson. Waylon Jacobs in the London production at least tried to distinguish the two, but Nix plays both as over-the-top dandies. For Lafayette, Nix adopts an unintelligible accent with no relation to French and communicates nothing. As Jefferson, we can at least catch a word or two but his failure to enunciate blots out all meaning.
As King George III, Manuel Stark Santos has the very funny Beatlesesque song “You’ll Be Back” where every word is clear despite Santos’s adoption of extraordinarily contorted vowels in a failed effort to manufacture a posh British accent. While Santos is enjoyable, Gavin Spokes in the London production was also able, unlike Santos, to suggest the King’s impending madness, especially during the song’s nonsense refrain “Da-da-da, dat-da, dat, da-da-da, da-ya-da”.
Luckily, there are at least two cast members who do know how to rap and be understood. One is Andy Tofa, who plays both Hamilton’s friend John Laurens and later Hamilton’s son Philip. His rapping is clarity itself, no swallowing words, no slurring, no mumbling, no whispering unaccented syllables. Tofa also successfully differentiates the older, experienced Laurens from the young, inexperienced Philip. Indeed, his innocent, headstrong Philip becomes the only character we really care for and his loss, more than Hamilton’s, is the one that saddens us.
The greatest performance of the show is that of Donald Webber, Jr., as Aaron Burr. By making the murderer Burr the narrator who with increasing rage watches on as his rival climbs the heights of power, Miranda seems unabashedly inspired by Peter Shaffer’s Amadeus (1979), framing Burr as Salieri to Hamilton’s Mozart. Webber makes Burr’s rage all the stronger by playing it in such a subdued manner, as if Burr expends all his effort to keep his hatred under control. Webber raps in a soft, silken voice where every syllable is clear which only makes Burr appear more insidious and more dangerous. If only the majority of the cast were performing at the level of Tofa or Webber, this could have been a sensational production.
Although deficits in singing and acting negatively affect one’s enjoyment of a musical, Hamilton does have strengths. Principal among these is the terrific choreography of Andy Blankenbuehler that combines ballet and modern dance seamlessly with street dance. Blankenbuehler does not discriminate between men and women in the chorus. They are dressed alike and everyone does everything making the dance the greatest symbol of equality in the show.
At the same time Thomas Kail’s direction is fully integrated with the choreography so that dance and what it represents infuses the whole show and balances the word-heavy nature of rap songs with the lightness of physical movement. Paul Tazewell’s lighting enhances every changing mood in the show.
On seeing Hamilton a second time I marvelled at the extraordinary cleverness of Miranda’s lyrics and their use of internal rhymes and allusions to fables and mythology. It’s really one of the most intellectual librettos for a musical ever written. And while I enjoyed once again Miranda’s unceasingly inventive flow of music, I was even more impressed this time with Alex Lacamoire’s equally inventive orchestrations that give a different atmosphere to each scene.
What initially made Hamilton stand out besides its use of rap was its stipulation that People of Colour (BIPOC) be cast in roles of historical characters who were White. What seemed revolutionary in 2015 does not seem so now partially because of the influence Hamilton has had on casting. A Hamilton with an all-White cast would now seem an abomination. The fact that the colonists and Founding Fathers played by BIPOC are fighting against a White George III’s rule turns the War of Independence into a metaphor for the struggle for independence of contemporary BIPOC from White dominance and White prejudice.
The musical Hamilton may be almost wholly fictitious, heroize a man with deeply problematic views and support one of the United States’s most ancient myths about itself, a myth used to praise success and condemn failure. Nevertheless, it is still perhaps the most important musical written so far this century. The cast I saw in London in 2019 has now been entirely replaced, and who knows whether the new cast is better or worse. The cast of Hamilton now playing in Toronto is far from ideal, but if you want to get to know this important work, seeing it here is the easiest way to do it, and you will not be sorry to see the superb work of the dancers and the fantastic Aaron Burr of Donald Webber, Jr.
Photo: Ensemble of Hamilton, Julius Thomas III (centre) as Hamilton; Donald Webber, Jr., as Aaron Burr; cast of Hamilton; Rick Negron as King George III. © 2022 Joan Marcus.
For tickets visit www.mirvish.com.