So, OK, it’s fine if you’re one of those do-bee kids sitting up front, primed and panting, ready to answer the next review question — oh! oh! OH! — about last night’s homework on the origins and causes of the Revolutionary War.
But it’s going to take some doing to get the rest of us snickering, snorting slackers sitting in the back to warm to the notion that our Founding Fathers did not land fully formed on the pages of our history books as paper-cutout heroes but actually shaped our nation by dint of twitchy, rough-hewn lives carved out of shame, anger and despair.
Give thanks, then, to Lin-Manuel Miranda, who by popular and unanimous vote turns out to be the coolest teacher in school as he resoundingly “brings history to life” with Broadway in Richmond’s production of his masterwork musical “Hamilton,” the story of Alexander Hamilton, best remembered as chief author of The Federalist Papers as well as the chiseled face staring into the middle distance on the front of the $10 bill.
But Miranda takes his lesson plan one step further. By reimagining the origin story of one colonial-era figure through the prism of rap and hip-hop rhythms, bold multi-racial casting, and brash, expressionistic dance that brings to mind Bob Fosse at his best, Miranda splinters Hamilton’s life story into a rainbow of arresting colors and thematic hues that illuminate and challenge long-held historical assumptions.
It’s a huge showbiz and storytelling gamble — a complete reinvention of the actor-audience compact that pushes more than a century of musical theater tradition to its most baroque limits.
And does Miranda succeed?
Now more phenomenon than spectacle and also perhaps more spectacle than mere stage show, “Hamilton” possesses all the wacky flair and boundless energy of a production that might have sprung from the minds of carousing theater kids who got the idea of mashing up stentorian legacies with no-nonsense bulletins from the front lines of modern music (“Hey everybody! Let’s rap about the Revolution!”).
But what many might see in “Hamilton” simply as delicious scraps from Miranda’s innate, goofy genius actually turns out to be the product of immense and serious hard work.
“Hamilton” binds together the entire life story of the man (played here by Edred Utomi) and sets it against the backdrop of his times through a music-and-movement construct that would quickly exhaust the melodic imagination and lyrical resources of any normal human being.
And with “Hamilton,” Miranda has created a theatrical work as original, unfettered and improbable as the fortunes and fate of Hamilton himself.
That said, for those not keenly tuned to the rap and hip-hop canon, “Hamilton’s” pace and shifting focus can be disarming and even a bit off-putting.
Told by way of an unrelenting sung-through narrative that rarely pauses long enough to allow us to reflect on Hamilton’s changing circumstances — from humble origins in the Caribbean to war service to the company of George Washington and eventually to intellectual prominence — the show is more musical juggernaut than stage story, and the weight and heft of winsome truths and turnabouts in Hamilton’s life are too often lost in the clattering, monochromatic rhythms and rapid-fire verbiage.
Although much of “Hamilton” comes off more as dutiful Wikipedia entry than carefully measured dramatic insight filled with depth and irony, the through line concerning Aaron Burr, the longtime friend and ally on a collision course with Hamilton, does keep us alert and attentive to how the “Hamilton” story will eventually play out.
Still, “Hamilton” moves so quickly from one set piece to another that it barely has time to breathe, and Miranda, working doggedly to satisfy the heartless and unforgiving rhyming demands of the rap format, loads up his songs far too often with the kinds of claptrap clichés and bland pronouncements usually found in aging Top 40 tunes.
Lucky for us, though, the show’s final half hour saves “Hamilton” from itself as Miranda finally slows himself down, the rap rhythms have the chance to settle into our bones, and all the masterful theatrical elements at work here — lighting, movement, set design and blunt American lexicon — cohere into a glowing, sublime and mesmerizing whole.
Here, the show’s underlying theme of upward-and-onward aspiration balanced against human flaws, foibles and lonesome life choices speak to us most acutely as we learn of the fallout from Hamilton’s infidelity, the tragic fate of his son, and the small yet riveting details of how his well-known duel with Burr eventually went down.
And suddenly we realize that the white-clad ensemble characters who have attended Hamilton throughout the show are not idle citizens at all but ghosts — spirit harbingers of the small, scared voices whispering in our ear that either crush our dreams or jolt us into making the bold, heroic moves that turn history on its ear.
That’s the grand, complicated drama — warts and all — of the American miracle, and “Hamilton” delivers it to us in all its painful, humble and human glory.