It’s great fun to be a contrarian. While I hope that every show I get to see ends up being a masterpiece, there’s a sense of satisfaction that I love to have when I see a show that everyone else praises to high heaven and I get to set the record straight on how good the show actually is. Such is the case with Hamilton, in which my much more reserved thoughts will doubtless be ignored by the thousands of people willing to drop thousands of dollars on the show, but I will still enjoy telling people who haven’t seen it yet that “it’s fine, but really, not worth the hype”.
And Hamilton really isn’t worth the hype. What’s great? Well, the staging, for starters. Thomas Kail’s flashy direction and Andy Blankenbuehler’s flashier choreography work hand-in-hand to create a seamless production with constant motion, cinematic flow, and (gasp!) actually stylish dances—a rarity in the increasingly sterile choreography of the modern musical theatre. David Korins’s set design is fabulously creative, Howell Binkley’s lights are absolutely beautiful, Paul Tazewell’s costumes perfectly walk the line between period detail and modern stylings, and Charles G. Lapointe’s hair and wig design is probably the best I’ve ever seen. The cast, too, is full of good actors and great singers who are even better at rapping. Joshua Henry as Aaron Burr is excellent, as is Jordan Donica as the Marquis de Lafayette and Thomas Jefferson and Amber Iman as Peggy Schuyler and Maria Reynolds. Emmy Raver-Lampman has the best singing voice I’ve heard since Ben Platt in Dear Evan Hansen, and the whole cast can dance their socks off.
So, what’s the problem? Well, the material that all this production value is servicing. Telling the story of Alexander Hamilton’s life from 1776 to his death in 1804, as well as covering much of early American history, creator Lin-Manuel Miranda does a lot of telling and not nearly enough showing. Most of the show consists of plot that is rapped at the audience very quickly. This can create a sort-of excitement, but it also prevents any character from becoming anything more than a one-note caricature and generally eradicates any possibility of subtlety within the proceedings. Every emotion that you’re supposed to feel is told to you as directly as much of the show’s plot.
Hamilton is also unabashedly pro-American, which is undoubtably why it has connected so strongly with rich audiences (prime orchestra seats run for $900—somebody’s buying them or else they’d be cheaper) while Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, a show with a similar style (substituting hip-hip for grunge rock) about the seventh President that was basically a middle finger to America and Jackson himself (and was also much, much better than Hamilton), failed to find an audience. That message of optimism turns the show into a large-scale apologia for America and Alexander Hamilton that both robs the show of political subtlety and feels inappropriate for the current era, where myself as well as many others feel that America doesn’t particularly deserve to be celebrated. Being that the show is far more interested in plot than character—closer a pageant than a real piece of drama—, the female roles are also often quite reductive, usually defined for their desire for the men who are important to the plot. Finally, Miranda’s score, though it features much very clever rapping, is melodically uninteresting, choosing to favor repeating single verses instead of building any sort of melodic structure.
It’s not too difficult to see why Hamilton has become so popular. The show requires very little effort to enjoy while still making the audience feel somewhat smart. The score is genuinely modern, more in line with current billboard 200 hits than any score since Hair, the staging is magnificent, and it feels current enough to make older, richer audiences feel that they are part of the know yet safe enough for them to feel comfortable after spending a thousand dollars, never challenging their beliefs but reaffirming them with youthful flair. It’s impossible to hate Hamilton, but perhaps its excessive safety is what prevents it from ever becoming truly great art—for now, the show and the audiences seem satisfied with it being great commerce.
Hamilton plays at the Orpheum Theatre in San Francisco through August 5th. Tickets and information available here.