Review: ‘Hamilton’ ~ Chicago, IL

It’s difficult to be good when you’re human, but impossible to be great if you’re not. When we think back on the origin of this country, we tend to idolize our Founding Fathers as demi-gods. They came up with one of the most perfect systems of a democratic government, one that will hopefully withstand the current attack from He-Who-Shall-Not-Be-Named, and the sheer genius of it instills all involved with a certain magical power. We forget that they were human. ‘Hamilton’ reminds us that being human means wanting freedom. It also means wanting a certain glory – whether that’s as a politician, a President, a father, a sister, a son or a mother.

To be honest, I had little to no interest in seeing this one. History and hip-hop never held much of an allure, and when a musical is hyped-up as much as ‘Hamilton’ has been there is little chance it will live up to expectations. Happily, I was mistaken in my reluctance. ‘Hamilton’ soars, and sings, and moves the audience so profoundly that you feel the world, and your experience in it, shift slightly after you’ve seen it.

The great historical panoply of the founding of our nation plays out amid the personal trials and tribulations of Alexander Hamilton, and it’s interesting to note that with all of the great, and oft forgotten, acts that he accomplished, his personal story here is what may be the most moving. The complexity of his relationships with women (the Schuyler sisters, both of whom he seemed to love, and only one of whom became his wife) and his tender yet tricky relationship with his son form the emotional heft even as the drama of the birth of America takes center stage. Aaron Burr’s ambivalent and ultimately ruinous relationship with Hamilton illustrates what can happen when two soon-to-be-legendary characters clash, and the delicate balance between competitive friends is a golden thread that runs throughout the show – shining, tarnishing, and tempting as the glory each of them seeks.

For anyone expecting a dry and dull re-telling of the American revolution, you will be pleasantly surprised. From the revolutionary colorblind casting to the infusion of rap and hip-hop into a traditional musical, the storied phenomenon is rightly justified. Its timeless message of inclusion and acceptance is more profound than ever. Opening with a quick dramatic vamp that recalls ‘Sweet Charity’ or ‘Gypsy’, this is the sort of game-changing musical that relies on the tried and true construct of the art form, while giving it glorious new life. You’ll learn something in the quick cadence of words, but it will entertain at every turn, and when combined and intertwined with the song-writing brilliance of Lin-Manuel Miranda, this musical hybrid becomes something wonderful.

The Chicago cast does justice to the powerful material, and there’s not a weak link in the bunch. The hilarious turns from the King of England are the stuff of musical comedy magic. “You’ll Be Back” begins his trio of crowd-pleasing numbers, and the dead-pan upper-crust delivery belies the deadly aim of his intentions. The moving turn of Hamilton’s wife Eliza brings a graceful purity and steely conviction to a situation that requests of her the most difficult task of all: forgiveness. Her fiery rendition of ‘Burn’ is stunningly-spine-tingling in its damnation, but it is her grace at the very end that completes the story. No one here is one-dimensional, with the possible exception of the King of England – but he’s so funny and tuneful it doesn’t matter.

Hamilton’s search for greatness, and his unyielding belief in his country, is at once heroic and damning, and his journey – fraught with heartache, pain, loss, love, weakness and redemption – transcends the story of America into one of universal truth. Near the end of the production, Hamilton poses a question and the proposal of an answer: “What is a legacy? It’s planting seeds in a garden you never get to see.”

This may be Miranda’s greatest legacy as well – a piece that has electrified Broadway, and now the rest of the world. The cost of being a good father and husband is weighed against the cost of being a great leader, and everyone pays dearly for both, in the best and worst ways. Yet that is the human experience: brilliant and brutal and beautiful even in its failings. It’s a profoundly American experience too, and the theatrical world can add this to its own history.

At the end, the question of what remains when the tree of history is shaken gets poignant examination as the cast ponders, “Who lives, who dies, who tells your story?” The quiet ones may not get the glory, but they often get the final word. They are the ones writing it. Eliza tells the last part of this tale, proof that history does not end with the death of those who changed it, but lives on in the rest of us. ‘Hamilton’ is a work of art that will do the same.

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