“Hamilton” may have taken three years to reach the Kennedy Center Opera House from its birthplace off-Broadway, but it feels as if Lin-Manuel Miranda’s masterwork had an appointment on the Potomac from the start.
When Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson start rapping about the national debt and states’ rights, you know this hip-hop musical is so made for Washington that it could occupy its own monument on the Mall.
And it’s not just any musical, but a work that’s both cool and wonky and without a doubt one of the great musicals of all time.
The show is at the Kennedy Center for a three-month residency, and all of you who’ve parted with a bushel of your hard-earned wages to partake of it can relax: Even in the imposing and acoustically tricky Opera House, it looks and sounds glorious, clear as a Liberty Bell. Miranda’s lyrics — twice as many, reportedly, as a more conventional musical — adorn an overflowing folder of sublime songs, notable not only for distinctive melodies and catchy syncopations but also for their tight and witty polysyllabic rhymes. (Still, for the optimal experience, I recommended listening to the cast album first, so your ear is primed for some of the show’s 100-mph riffs.)
Most important, “Hamilton,” which had its official Washington opening Thursday night, arrives in the vast Opera House in terrific shape and in key roles just as well sung as in the original Broadway production, winner of 11 Tony awards. The title character is portrayed by the dashing Austin Scott, in a touring version that started in San Francisco and is now one of five simultaneously running “Hamilton” productions staking a claim to American and British theatergoing hearts. A sixth will launch in January in Puerto Rico, where the composer’s family has roots.
I believe that even Miranda, who on Broadway played the musical’s obstinate, ingenious, foolish Revolutionary War hero and inventor of government, based on historian Ron Chernow’s celebrated biography, would acknowledge that Scott has much more in the pipes department than he. This vocal upgrade affords a new appreciation of the 34 songs and musical sequences in the nearly three-hour show, among them Scott’s “My Shot,” “Say No to This” and “Hurricane,” all orchestrated with grand artistry by Alex Lacamoire. Other players in an exemplary cast electrify their solos, in particular Nicholas Christopher as Aaron Burr, delivering “The Room Where It Happens” with a fire that ignites an understanding of how passionate and misguided is his belief that he’s a man of Hamilton’s stature.
Julia K. Harriman and Sabrina Sloan, playing Schuyler sisters Eliza and Angelica in lovely pastel silk dresses by costume designer Paul Tazewell, bring measurable vocal luster to the dreamy “Helpless,” a song about their mutual desire for Hamilton that could have originated in the Beyoncé music factory. And Peter Matthew Smith is hilariously dazzling in King George III’s full regalia for the full-out cheek of “You’ll Be Back,” which surely would have been covered by a band of the ’60s British Invasion if Miranda had been more than a twinkle in anyone’s eye at the time.
You’ll greatly appreciate, too, the brilliant motion with which choreographer Andy Blankenbuehler propels this story of democratic commotion, directed with a moving emotional restraint by Thomas Kail on David Korins’s spare, industrial set, intended to evoke a nation under construction. The “Hamilton” dancers don’t merely embroider; they’re a driving narrative force unto themselves, a phenomenon that transforms soldiers into elegant fly boys and girls and even makes a ballet of the trajectory of bullets. And one crucial bullet in particular — the projectile Burr fired in the Weehawken, N.J., duel that ended Hamilton’s life.
Hamilton’s complex and unruly personal and public lives, as military strategist, philandering husband, crusading publisher, master of rhetoric and architect of our monetary system, make him a challenging subject for a musical’s storytelling compressions. Leave it to Miranda, who also wrote and starred in “In the Heights,” to find in the stampeding meter of hip-hop the capability to pack all those lives into one evening, and to leave room for sharp portraits of such men as Marquis de Lafayette and Jefferson, both played to sparkling effect by Bryson Bruce. But you won’t hear just hip-hop in “Hamilton”; there’s also pure Broadway and even some sly nods to musicals past. Listen closely for the hints and influences of “South Pacific,” “Rent,” “West Side Story,” “Camelot” and, of course, “1776.”
It has taken so long for “Hamilton” to reach Washington — it debuted at off-Broadway’s Public Theater in late winter 2015 and moved to Broadway a few months later — that one of its headline-grabbing conceits, casting all of these white men and women of American history with actors of color, is by now old news. Still, you have only to gaze upon the cast on the Opera House stage and marvel again in 2018 at the urgent connection that Miranda, Kail and company are striving to make, between the abstract ideals championed by the Founding Fathers and the way they’re put into practice in our time. An audience in the nation’s capital has only to look at all the proud heritages intermingled on the stage to appreciate the musical’s moral strength. “Who lives, who dies, who tells our stories,” the musical affectingly declares, reflecting on its awareness that stories are written — and rewritten.
It’s granted here to George Washington, embodied with a majestic poise by Carvens Lissaint, the responsibility of passing on to us our marching orders for taking care of the nascent democracy to which he devoted his life. “Hamilton” notes that slaveholding by some of the forefathers is a blot on their legacy. But there are other threads in this eloquent pageant reminding us that the power to undo inequity has been bequeathed to us, too, and what a just stewardship entails.
“History has its eyes on you,” Lissaint sings late in the evening, into a darkness pierced by designer Howell Binkley’s shafts of radiant light.
It’s a lyric one hopes that everyone can really hear.
Hamilton, book, music and lyrics by Lin-Manuel Miranda. Directed by Thomas Kail. Choreography, Andy Blankenbuehler; music supervision and orchestrations, Alex Lacamoire; set, David Korins; costumes, Paul Tazewell; lighting, Howell Binkley; sound, Nevin Steinberg; music direction, Julian Reeve. With Rubén J. Carbajal, Isa Briones, Chaundre Hall-Broomfield. About 2 hours 50 minutes. $99-$625. (A smattering of seats available at many performances.) Through Sept. 16 at the Kennedy Center. 202-467-4600 or kennedy-center.org.