Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Thursday, March 03, 2016

Hamilton: A Theater Review for Fans of the Album

Last night, MrsDarwin and I were at the Richard Rogers Theater in New York to see Hamilton.

Since the Original Cast Recording was released back in September last year, Hamilton has been constant listening in the Darwin household. Lines have made their way into standard family conversation. Ask someone what time it is and you're likely to be told: "Showtime!" People often express surprise or disapproval with Daveed Diggs' characteristic "Whaaaaat". The three oldest girls can be easily coaxed into belting out "Schuyler Sisters" or "My Shot". The baby answers to Hercules Mulligan as well as to his own name. We've seen every video clip that's made its way into availability. So we were going to see the show in person while already knowing all the songs almost well enough to sing them -- in terms of memorization if not ability. This review is written for fellow Hamilton fans who have not yet been able to see the show in person. As such, I'm assuming that you know the story so well that no spoilers in terms of story are possible. If story spoilers are a problem, read no further. I'm also assuming that you do actually want to hear about how the music you know so well is staged. If you don't want to hear such details until you see it yourself, click away now.

Richard Rogers Theater, view from Balcony Row F, seat 20

We saw the show on March 1st. Of the original cast, we had two substitutions that night. Andrew Chappelle was standing in for Anthony Ramos, who normally plays John Laurens and Philip Hamilton, and Alysha Desloriuex was standing in for Jasmine Cephas Jones who normally plays Peggy Schuyler and Maria Reynolds. Both were good, though Chappelle is taller and broader than Lin-Manuel Miranda (as unlike the very slight and young Ramos) which adds a little unintentional amusement to the scenes in which he's playing a nine year old Philip. However, although I wish we could have caught it on a night when all the original cast were there, I was incredibly glad that all the key actors up the list from them were there on our night. Although all their swing actors are very good, I would have been really sorry to have missed Soo, Goldsberry, Diggs or Chris Jackson, much less Miranda himself or Leslie Odom, Jr.

The theater is tight, certainly up on the balcony where we were. I'm six feet tall and my knees were at most a couple inches from the seat in front of me. However, the balcony is heavily raked (at a steep angle) so there's not much trouble seeing over the people in front of you even if they're tall. This means that you're high up. I think we must have been a good six to eight feet above the front row of the balcony, and it means you have a bit of a bird's eye view of the stage, which actually makes some scenes more cohesive and effective than the video clips I've seen. More on the at in a bit.

As the lights go down, an announcement is made by King George III thanking everyone for attending his show and telling them to turn off any electronics, no photos or videos allowed, etc. Then it goes right into the first number, pretty much as you saw it if you watched the video from the Grammy's live stream:

A #tbt to Monday night's performance. #Gram4Ham #RiseUp
Posted by Hamilton the Musical on Thursday, February 18, 2016

However, this is a good place to note: the energy is really unique being in the theater. Watching this Grammy's video, I thought, "Boy, it's slower live than it is on the album." It does not feel slow in person. Not just because the cheering when Hamilton first comes on stage and says his name was even louder. There's something about the live delivery and movement, especially when you're seeing it from the audience rather than a closeup camera, so you can see the constant movement on the stage, which makes the live production just as relentless as the album but even higher energy. What you don't catch quite as much from back in the audience is some of the expressions. In the above video, you can really see Hamilton's scared, young expression as he steps off the ship in New York. From up in the balcony, I could see that in his movement, in part because I knew to look for it, but I'm still looking forward to seeing a Great Performances type filmed stage version some day in order to see all the actors up close. Other things, however, are absolutely clear from way back. For instance, at the end of Act 1, as Washington (standing up on the house right balcony) asks Hamilton to serve in his administration, you can see from way up in the balcony the goofy, excited, proud expression on Hamilton's face as he says, "Let's go."

In some cases the live song effects come off as slightly less polished but more energetic. For instance, at the end of "Aaron Burr, Sir" as Laurens, Mulligan and Lafayette appear on stage at their tavern table, they're pounding on the table to provide the rhythm backup to "I'm John Laurens and the place to be..." Instead of the polished percussion of the album you've got this rough table pounding, but you also have a very immediate feel. This is also one of the first sections where the theater blocking does a lot of story telling as that song flows into My Shot and then The Story of Tonight and later Farmer Refuted.

The way Burr takes a seat with some chorus members and Hamilton's three new friends gather around him, you see conveyed in a shorthand fashion the growing friendship between the four and the progress of Hamilton from new kid in town to leading speaker and pamphleteer.

"Right Hand Man" and later "Stay Alive" and "Yorktown" do some really interesting things with conveying in an abstract way, through the dance and staging, a sense of battles taking place. This was actually a part where I was glad to be high up. The video clips that I'd seen -- at one point there was a video of most of Yorktown up, but it's been pulled -- had slightly disappointed me in that it struck me that the dance being done to the music was abstract and had little to do with any kind of battle. However, when you're up high rather than seeing a close up camera view, you realize that the chorus are arranged in formations. In the canons booms during "Right Hand Man" and "Yorktown", the sound effect in the theater is so loud and deep you feel the theater shake, and you see some of the chorus suddenly drop to the ground while the lights flash. During "Stay Alive", as they talk about being outnumbered and surrounded, Washington and Hamilton are being gradually surrounded by redcoats. This is not a realistic play in any sense, but through the medium of dance and abstract blocking, they do a lot, and you get a lot more of it in person than I had seen in video clips.

Daveed Diggs's Lafayette is also an incredibly energetic character (outshone only by his Jefferson in Act 2). At the beginning of "Guns and Ships", he bursts into motion with a high jump off a table.

Yes, it's that impressive.

In the center of Act 1 is the pair of songs sung by Eliza and Angelica: "Helpless" and "Satisfied". One of the things that really struck me seeing this live is that Eliza becomes a more major character, and more an emotional center of the musical, while Angelica actually seems less central than she does in the album. Helpless is staged in a way that makes the scene very much from Eliza's point of view. Even when it's her watching and narrating as Angelica and Hamilton talk at the ball, it's Eliza who holds the scene, and you feel her tension as she waits to see if she will get Hamilton. She remains the emotional heart of the musical for the rest of the show. Phillipa Soo is amazing.

The staging of "Satisfied" is really fascinating, as it really does rewind the action and then shows the same scenes at the ball again, but this time with Angelica central rather than Eliza. When Angelic says, "I'll leave you to it," you hear the desperation in her voice. She already knows what she's giving away.

Act 2 opens incredibly strong with Jefferson singing "What'd I Miss?". There's really no overstating how powerful Diggs's presence is in person. He drew huge cheers as he entered, and where at other entrances and applause lines you saw actors who were holding just long enough to allow the cheer and then moving on with their song, Diggs takes the cheering as the cheering of the citizens as Jefferson returns to America and he works them up, drawing a bigger reaction from the crowd. Everything about that opening number is amazing, and any scene with Jefferson in it is a riot.

The cabinet battles are, as you can probably imagine from the album, amazing. The added things you get from watching it? Jefferson's satisfied mike drop (caught by Madison) and also the sense of how Hamilton really does get so swept up in his fight that he's on the edge of losing control. Jefferson is smug, smooth, and effective. Hamilton is a brilliant, fast-talking hand grenade.

Chris Jackson's Washington is the elder statesman that Washington himself was, though at a few moments you can see him struggling to maintain the calm which Washington himself struggled for so hard that he often seemed cold and distant through his efforts never to show his temper. We quickly see the way in which Washington serves as a brake on Hamilton, and once Washington retires we see how Hamilton's drive, ambition, and recklessness cause him to spiral out of control to his own destruction.

Speaking of destruction, I was surprised how g-rated the staging of "Say No To This" was. I don't know quite what I expected, but when the lyrics go "Then I said, “well, I should head back home,” / She turned red, she led me to her bed / Let her legs spread and said: / Stay?" I'd imagined something, though perhaps because I wasn't thinking about the practicalities of staging. The hottest thing you'll see on stage is the bright red dress that Maria Reynolds wears. I'd have no hesitation about letting the kids watch the scene.

One of the songs I had never been crazy about is, "Hurricane", during which Hamilton comes to the conclusion that he should write a pamphlet clearing himself of accusations of speculation by admitting to the affair with Maria Reynolds (and paying hush many to her husband). It's not just that this is a terrible idea, but that I never found the song one of the most compelling. However, it has some of the most interesting staging of the play. Hamilton is center stage at his desk, writing, while lighting forms a swirling storm around him. As he talks about the hurricane he wrote about during his youth, members of the chorus are moving through this swirl of light, carrying furniture, papers, etc., forming a vortex of wreckage around Hamilton as he is thinking back on the hurricane which recked him home and preparing to wreck his own home through his writing.

During "Burn", "Stay Alive (reprise)", and "Quiet Uptown", the way in which Eliza forms the emotional center of the show hits home with sledgehammer force. "Burn" is an utterly searing song all on its own, but staged in near darkness, with almost no movement, as Eliza sits a bit off the center of the stage, burning Hamilton's letters as she sings the song, it is more so. That hurt says with her. As Philip is dying, Hamilton puts his hand on hers and she pulls hers away. During "Quiet Uptown", she is utterly freezing Hamilton out refusing even to look at him as he begs her to let him back. The moment when she takes his hand is powerful.

And so the end.

From a directing and staging point of view, the duel makes a brilliant climax to the musical. It comes in two parts. The first half of the scene, as the Burr makes his excuses, up until the first firing of the shot, we see for Burr's point of view. As Burr fires, both men have their pistols leveled at one another. Then, as you know, the music cuts. It's the most silence we've had since entering the theater. A chorus member is slowly moving the bullet towards Hamilton, as without a beat he faces mortality.
There is no beat, no melody
Burr, my first friend, my enemy
Maybe the last face I ever see
If I throw away my shot, is this how you’ll remember me?
What if this bullet is my legacy?

Legacy. What is a legacy?
Over the following lines, as Hamilton looks back on his life, the whole play plays back in miniature. Then, as the sound comes back and we hear the lead up to the shot for the second time, we're now seeing it objectively rather than in Burr's head. Burr levels his pistol, Hamilton points his towards the sky, and the Chorus cries in warning, "He aims his pistol at the sky!" and Burr shoots even as he also shouts "Wait!"

As you would guess from the song, "Who Lives, Who Dies, Who Tells Your Story" is an abstractly staged song, with the characters coming back on stage, now all dressed in white except Eliza and Angelica who are, in a sense, the only people "really" on stage, while others are now part of the chorus or speaking from the afterlife.

The last sound in the musical (a second after the point where the album stops) is a cry from Eliza, like we heard from her when she saw Philip dying after his own duel. She's looking up and to the back of the theater. Is this her reaction to Hamilton's death? Is it her own death? Perhaps it is the moment when she sees Hamilton again, "on the other side".


Julia said...

Lin Manuel lives in my neighborhood, and we are rabid Hamilton fans, too. Glad you got to see the show!

Mary said...

Love hearing your perspective!

Melissa said...

I can't remember where I read this, but the gasp at the end is supposedly Eliza seeing the audience and realizing that Hamilton's story will continue to be told.

Rachel said...

This was amazing, thank you!