“Hamilton” has won almost too many awards, too much acclaim, too many rapturous public testaments to its life-changing power, not to entice pushback.
So, of course, it has: Historians have substantively criticized various aspects of the musical, inspired by Ron Chernow’s biography of Alexander Hamilton. One article argued that the show doesn’t even pass the Bechdel test, a conclusion which requires a highly unforgiving interpretation of the “The Schuyler Sisters,” in which Angelica and Eliza Schuyler first appear and take in the revolutionary atmosphere in the streets of New York.
Then there are the more personal reactions, all the more insistent because everyone else loves the show. Musician Laurie Anderson told The Atlantic that she had to leave after Act I: “It’s history lite, and musical lite, and it’s just … It’s horrible.” If you don’t like musicals, she tells the interviewer, you won’t like “Hamilton.” “It’s not that different.”
A July 2016 episode of the Bravo comedy about Upper East Side parents, “Odd Mom Out,” guest-starred a number of the musical’s actors in an entire episode on the Hamil-steria and the low-key backlash to the hype. Jill, the too-cool-for-school mom at the heart of the show, scoffs with her snarky BFF, Vanessa, that a Broadway show can’t be as life-changing as all the wealthy, smug moms at her children’s school insist. (Except deep down, of course, they really, really, REALLY want to see “Hamilton.”)
I’m not proud to admit that I was a too-cool-for-"Hamilton” gal myself. The world seemed obsessed with something that, from my samplings of it, struck me as a well-executed but equally dorky spin on “Schoolhouse Rock.” Musicals aren’t my jam, so would “Hamilton” really be different? I’d overheard my fiancé and friends listening to it, caught video clips of performances at the Tonys ― nothing that made me excited for more.
Then something happened that I fully admit I did not deserve: I got a ticket to “Hamilton.” (Apparently the key was buying them nearly a year in advance ― thanks, future in-laws!)
By the time our big night rolled around, though, the show had changed. Original cast members Lin-Manuel Miranda, Daveed Diggs, Phillipa Soo, and Leslie Odom, Jr. had made their final bows. I was wondering why I needed to venture to the suburbs of Hades Times Square on a Friday night for what Barack Obama himself rousingly called “a civics lesson,” and meanwhile everyone else seemed to be debating whether “Hamilton” could even be a thing without Miranda and, to a lesser extent, the other departing original stars. My coworkers swooningly asked if Diggs would still be performing the night of my show. (Nope.)
On “Odd Mom Out,” as Jill and Vanessa resolve to finally get tickets to the show, a waiter (played by Javier Muñoz, the new Alexander Hamilton), remarks that the friends will miss Miranda’s last performance, that very night, and Vanessa throws her phone down in irritation. “Well, there goes that. We snoozed, we losed,” she groans serio-comically. (His actual last performance was July 9, two days before the episode aired.)
In Rolling Stone, Richard Morgan compared Miranda’s performance to his replacement, Muñoz, who was previously his regular Sunday stand-in, allowing for the widely acknowledged superiority of the latter’s singing voice but nonetheless painting a bleak image of a Miranda-less show: “Muñoz delivers smoothness, ironed out by the weight of fitting in. With Muñoz, you can foresee the day years from now when the role of Hamilton will be played by a Mario Lopez, Oscar Isaac or Pitbull to help flagging sales.”
Sydney James Harcourt, who now plays Aaron Burr, told Rolling Stone: “[Miranda] can break your heart eight shows a week, 52 weeks a year, with a poignant sob in his voice during ‘Hurricane.’ I’ll take that over a high C.”
Fair. But if you’re worried that the emotions were packed up when the departing stars cleared out their dressing rooms, this is a false dichotomy.
When Muñoz and Lexi Lawson, who replaced Soo as Eliza Hamilton, stormed through “Hurricane” and “Burn,” my heart was so firmly lodged behind my epiglottis I couldn’t swallow. When the replacement leads sing “It’s Quiet Uptown,” and Muñoz’ voice breaks at the mention of giving up his life for that of his dead son, the emotion in the room is almost unbearable. Really, I wept until my shoulders shook and eyeliner streamed down my neck. The night I attended, the challenging part of Angelica Schuyler was played not by Renée Elise Goldsberry, the original and current star, but by a guest actress: Elizabeth Judd. I would never have guessed that she wasn’t a regular based on her knockout performance, from Angelica’s mercilessly quicktime rap verses to her powerful singing ― and an emotional delivery that packed every note with luminous mischief, conflicted regret or wounded rage.
Despite my initial doubts ― I am not a musical theater fan, I don’t understand when it became cool to bury civics lessons in Broadway shows like spinach in your kids’ brownies ― “Hamilton” is undeniably a work of bonafide genius. The music and lyrics are genius; the easy swing between hip-hop and other musical genres throughout the narrative is genius; the staging and choreography are stunning enough to watch as a show in their own right. Miranda, not to mention the other original cast, don’t need to perform in the show to elevate it to an emotional chest-punch and an intellectual confection; Miranda already made it that by just writing “Hamilton.”
What he wrote is a work of musical theater that would present huge challenges to a celebrity performer without a wide range of skills, for one thing. Maybe Pitbull could perform a “Cabinet Battle,” but it’s hard to wrap one’s mind around him convincingly getting through “Hurricane.” Not just any theater kid could pull off the ridiculously rapid pace of the Lafayette/Jefferson part. Maybe we’ve never seen Mozart conduct his own symphonies, but he did a pretty damn good job of writing down his works of genius ― difficult to perform but timeless when achieved.
Casting performers who can offer off-the-charts talent along with charisma, a bit of personality (see: Andrew Chappelle, who was performing Daveed Diggs’ role as Lafayette/Jefferson last week and stole the damn show) and a finely tuned emotional register is the next step, and one Miranda and “Hamilton” have excelled at. Javier Muñoz may not be the quirky composer of the show, but he’s no Mario Lopez: He’s a cancer survivor, openly gay and HIV-positive, born to Puerto Rican parents in Brooklyn, who has, like Miranda himself, fostered his specific artistic talents and emerged, despite plenty of obstacles, on top of his field.
There’s nothing more idealistically American and inspiring than taking something great and opening it up to more people who just want their own shot. By, as has been well-advertised, casting actors of color in lead roles and casting a wide net outside of traditional Broadway pipelines, the show has clearly done itself plenty of favors. With the show’s casting for its Chicago run, which opens this fall, it’s providing more opportunities for immensely talented and diverse performers to wow crowds in starring roles.
This serves a broader audience, too. The sooner we all learn to say goodbye to Miranda and the original cast, the sooner we can appreciate the expanding opportunities for us all to actually see “Hamilton.” Lin-Manuel is only human; he can’t perform seven days a week in multiple theaters in cities across the country. Bringing the show to Chicago, and extending the show’s run for years longer, will mean, increasingly, it won’t just be wealthy white New Yorkers, and wealthy white tourists, who get to experience the electricity of being in the room where “Hamilton” happens. That electricity doesn’t depend on any specific cast ― it depends on the strength of Miranda’s show, and the many surpassingly talented people the show taps to perform it.
The world already fell in love with Miranda, Diggs, Soo and the rest of the original cast, but chances are the new cast will be no less brilliant, charming and ready to sweep us off our feet. Hamil-steria Phase 2? Just wait for it.
Follow Claire Fallon on Twitter: @ClaireEFallon