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Mark Shenton: Is Hamilton the next The Book of Mormon?

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“History is happening in Manhattan,” says a character in Hamilton, the new musical about a particular chapter in American constitutional history that has been astonishingly re-framed in a score primarily based on hip hop, and has become completely hip in the process. Once again, the Public Theater, which is presenting the premiere, is making history as well as telling it.

It was at the Public that exactly 40 years ago now A Chorus Line was birthed, too, in April 1975 before moving that summer to Broadway where it became the longest running musical in Broadway history, running to 1990, before its record was eclipsed by Cats. So that show made history, too, but Hamilton remakes history itself.

The Public has been stretching the musical form in this direction for a while now, bringing historical stories to musical life with contemporary edge, like Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson (which moved, unsuccessfully, to Broadway a few years ago), or the more recent Here Lies Love (which reframed the Imelda Marcos story as a disco club night, and transferred to the National’s Dorfman Theatre).

Hamilton brings both style and content to a musically thrilling musical

But Hamilton is of an altogether different order: whereas Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson and Here Lies Love – both not coincidentally directed by Alex Timbers – were ultimately exercises in style over content, Hamilton’s composer, author and star Lin-Manuel Miranda brings both style and content to this musically thrilling musical.

The triumph is to make this history lesson sing richly for today. As Ben Brantley noted in his review for the New York Times, the show…

… persuasively transfers a thoroughly archived past into an unconditional present tense. This work may reap the pattern-bestowing benefits of two centuries of hindsight. Yet it exudes the dizzying urgency of being caught up in momentous events as they occur.

And to sit in the Public’s Newman Theatre is to be caught up in another momentous event: a musical that has itself already become a momentous event. The moment the lights go down, a cheer erupts from the audience. They need to show how pleased they are simply to be here. (It’s the hottest ticket in town, bar none.) I’ve not experienced this since I saw The Book of Mormon a few weeks after it had first opened on Broadway.

After years (and years) it seems, of jukebox shows and bland film-to-stage adaptations, there’s clearly a deep hunger for something fresh and genuinely original. This show is in a direct line of shows from A Chorus Line and Rent to The Producers and The Book of Mormon that are game-changers for the musical genre.

The freshest, most tuneful and inventive new score

It has the freshest, most tuneful and inventive new score I’ve heard in a musical since Jerry Springer the Opera, and is the best American show I’ve seen since Next to Normal. But on the other hand, I have to admit that it provides a very American history lesson whose cast of characters I barely knew. I felt I needed to do more homework.

I’m already booked to see Hamilton again at the Public in mid-April, so I will make sure I read up some more about the history before then. But now the show has also been announced to re-open after its Public Theatre run at Broadway’s Richard Rodgers Theatre from July 13.

Can it remain as hot a ticket there as it is currently at the Public? As the New York Times noted in a feature on the transfer:

They will have more than 11,000 seats to sell each week at the Richard Rodgers Theater, compared with the 2,400 a week now at the Public. Selling out the Rodgers depends far more on attracting tourists than die-hard theatergoers from the Upper West Side.

Yet the show has already established its own marker as the most talked-about new show of the year, far beyond Broadway, with cultural commentary beyond the arts pages in both the New York Times and New Yorker magazine.

As Patrick Healy noted in the New York Times:

American theatre rarely gives birth anymore to musicals that are both formally groundbreaking and widely popular, like Oklahoma!, A Chorus Line and Rent, but admirers of Hamilton believe it has a shot at joining the pantheon.

Broadway producer Hal Luftig – unconnected to this show – thinks so. In the same piece, he says:

Every so often a show comes along that reflects the American zeitgeist – in this case about race, immigration – and that is so cool, so fresh, so relevant that everyone in town has to see it. We haven’t had a show like that, like Hamilton, in a while.

As no less than nine big budget musicals open on Broadway next month alone, I fear that Hamilton has stolen pretty much all of their thunder. But I’m still looking forward to revisiting another Public Theatre originated musical, Fun Home, on its transfer to the Circle in the Square, and the long-awaited Broadway bow of Kander and Ebb’s The Visit that I’ve seen in a previous try-out in Washington DC a few years ago.

Two more original musicals that dare to be serious. I’ll be reporting on these, and all the other new shows, from New York in due course.

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