Monday, May 20, 2024

Broadway (Almost): New Brilliant “Revolutionary” Musical with Rap, R&B, and Black Actors Playing American Heroes


Lin-Manuel Miranda? You may know his name from “In the Heights.” But starting this morning you will know him as the genius behind a brilliant epic musical (dare I say an opera) that opened last night at the Public Theater. “Hamilton” is the story of Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr set against the Revolutionary War.

Most of the actors playing your favorite historical figures are black (Washington, Jefferson, and so on, as well as Hamilton and Burr). The show is an epic, an opera, a soaring musical, a deeply researched history lesson that is going to blow audiences away when it hits Broadway.

And that, according to my sources, will be this spring to make the Tony Awards cut off. At the opening last night producers circled like sharks. But the Nederlanders will bring it in, I’m told, to either the Nederlander (where “Rent” once ruled the roost) or the Richard Rodgers. There will be lines around the block.

First of all, Oskar Eustis must know that Joe Papp, the legendary founder of the Public, be smiling in heaven. Eustis — with shows like this and “Here Lies Love” and the introduction of Sting’s “Last Ship” and many others– continues to be the leader in theater. He’s batting a thousand, as they say.

But back to Miranda, and his amazing “Hamilton.” They say it took him five years to write and mount this show. Watching it, you can’t imagine how he wove in so many story lines of characters both great small, famous and minor. Working off the little known point that Hamilton, a founding father and the creator of the New York Post, was of unspecified African and Caribbean background, Miranda turns history on its head. And that doesn’t mean that he’s inaccurate. (He’s not, and there will no “Selma” type whisper campaign here.) Indeed, Miranda’s decision to have a multi cultural story erases almost all idea of race. So Miranda himself plays Hamilton, Leslie Odom Jr is Burr, Daveed Diggs is Thomas Jefferson, Okieriete Onaodowan (James Madison) and so on. After this show, they will always be remembered this way.

I haven’t cited the women, who are on a par with the men. Renee Elise Goldsberry and Phillippa Soo play the Schuyler sisters. Hamilton married one and pined for the other. The segment and song about the wedding of Hamilton to Soo’s Eliza is breathtaking. Kudos all the way through to director Thomas Kail. Each of these women are stars, and convincing sisters. (Soo played Natasha in the theater “experience” piece “Natasha and the Comet.” Goldsberry is a Broadway phenom from “The Color Purple” and “Good People” who has a loyal following from “One Life to Live.”)

Some reviewers will say the songs are rap. Some are; most aren’t. They’re R&B, pop, hip hop, a little Beatle-y, hugely melodic and hummable. It’s a gorgeous, continuous score that never stops surprising us. Last night Atlantic Records’ Craig Kallman was in the audience. It’s my guess he’ll snap up (or has snapped up) this soundtrack.

Also in the audience last night: Audra McDonald, Ethan Hawke, Stephen Pasquale, among others, all entranced.

But get to the Public because for the next two weeks, the real show stopper is Brian D’Arcy James as King George III. He leaves soon to go star on Broadway in “Something Rotten.” I’m sure his successor will be just fine. But James, already a bona fide star, is having too much fun. (No one asked me, but I’d get Fred Applegate to try the part next. In fact, it’s possible King George will become a “Stunt cast” once the show opens. I overheard one of the producers say he’d like Paul McCartney or Sting to give it a shot. I could see Elton John doing it, frankly.)

“Hamilton” is one of those memorable moments in New York theater. You’re going to be hearing about it a lot.

Roger Friedman
Roger Friedman
Roger Friedman began his Showbiz411 column in April 2009 after 10 years with Fox News, where he created the Fox411 column. His movie reviews are carried by Rotten Tomatoes, and he is a member of both the movie and TV branches of the Critics Choice Awards. His articles have appeared in dozens of publications over the years including New York Magazine, where he wrote the Intelligencer column in the mid 90s and covered the OJ Simpson trial, and Fox News (when it wasn't so crazy) where he covered Michael Jackson. He is also the writer and co-producer of "Only the Strong Survive," a selection of the Cannes, Sundance, and Telluride Film festivals, directed by DA Pennebaker and Chris Hegedus.

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