Whether one is a fan of the theater or not, it was virtually impossible to miss the promotional onslaught and news coverage surrounding “Hamilton: An American Musical” upon its arrival in Louisville for a June 4-23 engagement at the Kentucky Center for the Performing Arts.
This Tony-Award winning musical came from the genius of Lin-Manuel Miranda, who starred in the original, and incorporates rap, hip-hop, R&B, pop and soul to tell the story of American founding father Alexander Hamilton. The subject may sound dry on the surface, but Miranda has taken the story, inspired by Ron Chernow’s 2004 biography, “Alexander Hamilton,” and turned it into an edgy re-telling of Hamilton’s importance in the country’s formation.
The musical debuted Off-Broadway in February 2015, and was sold-0ut through its run. In August 2015, “Hamilton” made the transition to Broadway and received unprecedented advance box office sales. It was nominated for a record 16 Tony Awards, winning 11 in 2016, including Best Musical. “Hamilton” went on to receive a 2016 Grammy Award for Best Musical Theater Album and the Pulitzer Prize for Drama.
The crazy thing is with all the hype behind this production, and the expectations that come with it for attendees at each performance, it meets and exceeds whatever bar one might apply to a theater experience. It’s one of those performances that transcends the normal boundaries of popularity. It has become a happening, a groundbreaking occurrence, that continues to draw sold out audiences some four years later.
Upon arriving at the show in Louisville, there was an impressive number of groups, families and couples that clearly had made a pilgrimage to see this performance. Pictures were being snapped with attendees together before billboards and banners to memorialize the moment. Many near our balcony seats discussed how this was not their first time seeing “Hamilton.” That is rarefied air, and in a place like Louisville, which is not the most affluent of major cities, to have a three week run where most seats are going for $200 each – it’s quite something to fill the house each night and twice on Saturday and Sunday.
Conveyed primarily through rap lyrics, the show details the baggage that comes with Hamilton being an orphan, and an immigrant who arrives in New York from the West Indies, with a confident strategy to join other young rebels in the fight for American independence.
One of the early highlights is Hamilton expressing his vision to friend Aaron Burr, among other young influencers, portrayed in the song, “My Shot.”
It was brilliant to witness this use of hip-hop as the soundtrack to the American Revolution. From the moment the house lights fell at 8:03 until three hours later, minus a 20 minute intermission, it was non-stop action. There is this initial buy in that must be made by everyone who attended in Louisville – that when the actors bum rushed the stage it quickly became clear that Hamilton, George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Aaron Burr, etc., were all portrayed by men of color. To Manuel’s credit, and the audience’s, all bought into this vision within the flash of an eye.
The use of African Americans in these roles was not by accident mind you. The entire cast featured a majority of men and women of color and differing races, many laced with tattoos and eye catching hair styles not usually displayed in a Broadway setting. It was a statement that further became clear during the performance of the unavoidable contribution people of color and those coming from different cultural backgrounds contributed during this crucial time of America’s formation.
Comic relief came in the form of King George III. He only made a few spot entrances with song, which intensified his humorous portrayal. Dressed in full royal red and gold garb, King George was the splitting image of a spoiled, arrogant, and detached autocrat, grown lethargic from generations of being a member of the ruling class.
As the performance evolved, we see Hamilton become Gen. Washington’s right-hand man through the Revolutionary War. Meanwhile a quiet rivalry simmers to a boil with Aaron Burr. The show bristles with a raw intensity, athletic and sensual dance moves, frequent cursing and sexual escapades. The story continues to build, including some epic rap battles between Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson.
And just as furious as “Hamilton” rushed to life when the curtain rose, Hamilton died in a duel with his now nemesis Aaron Burr and the stage fell silent. It left a sold out crowd speechless momentarily, until waves of standing ovations erupted through the theater.
If a chance presents itself to see “Hamilton” make that opportunity happen. It’s a performance that is in a class by itself.