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Hamilton: An American Musical
Richard Rodgers Theatre, New York

WHO WAS ALEXANDER HAMILTON, the man on the 10-dollar bill, anyway? The 20-year-old whiz kid who helped George Washington run the American Revolution? The man who cheated on his wife and then wrote all about it in the newspapers? The brilliant first secretary of the treasury? Thomas Jefferson’s longtime enemy? The lobbyist who helped to get the U.S. Constitution ratified? The bloody victim of Aaron Burr’s hatred?

The answer to all of those questions is yes, plus, in the Broadway smash Hamilton, he’s the best hip-hop singer and dancer that ever sashayed his way through a war and created a nation.

Hamilton, a tremendous musical with book, lyrics and music by the gifted Lin-Manuel Miranda, who also stars in the title role, opened off-Broadway at the Public Theater last April. In August it moved uptown to the Richard Rodgers Theatre, where it has been packing in cheering audiences ever since.

Based on Ron Chernow’s Pulitzer Prize–winning biography, Hamilton is rock solid in its history: a gripping story of the founding of a country by such titanic figures as George Washington and James Madison. It is a rip-roaring, modern-day hip-hop musical. But why do people who wouldn’t know Alex Hamilton from Alex Rodriguez love it?

The real achievement of Hamilton is its deep, multi-level portrayal of the flamboyant secretary of the treasury, whose genius created the financial system that has been the foundation of this country for 226 years. That portrayal is enhanced by the casting of African-American and Latino actors in the roles of the white founders, an acknowledgement that the revolutionary world was more diverse than we think. It works, and it works well. It is this rich look at a historic figure, those who loved him, those who hated him, and the context of the times that makes Hamilton such a wild success.

Hamilton is superb on all levels. First and foremost, the play has marvelous acting. Miranda’s sleek performance is masterful, and Leslie Odom Jr. wows as the feisty and thoroughly repulsive Aaron Burr. Christopher Jackson is a surprisingly good George Washington, a tough guy to portray anywhere, even on the dollar bill. Daveed Diggs is absolutely stupendous as a funkadelic Thomas Jefferson (he also cavorts across the stage as the Marquis de Lafayette), and Phillipa Soo and Renée Elise Goldsberry as the Schuyler sisters (Eliza married Hamilton and Angelica loved him).

Miranda’s Hamilton emerges as an annoying, self-centered and yet brilliant man who had difficulty getting along with people and, in the end, made a series of bad decisions that helped to bring about his sad demise at the age of 44, shot dead by Burr in a famous duel in 1804. Director Thomas Kail has delivered 
a smooth and enjoyable show, with lots of help from musical director Alex Lacamoire and choreographer Andy Blankenbuehler. These revolutionaries can dance!

If you can catch Hamilton on Broadway, do so, but if you can’t, there will be many national tours of the show, and, for sure, a movie is on the horizon.

—Bruce Chadwick

Originally published in the December 2015 issue of American History magazine. Subscribe here.