The Man on the $10 Bill
I saw Hamilton yesterday at the Pantages Theatre in Los Angeles. I enjoyed it, it’s very well-done, and I’m glad I went. But I didn’t love it at the level the squeals of delight made clear the audience did. (That's one of the tangential things I do love about the show -- that it's brought a young audience to the theater.)
I'm glad that people do love the show. It's a very good musical and deserving of its praise. And any reasons my appreciation doesn't hit the same level has little to nothing to do with how others react. It's certainly a phenomenon, and I understand most of the reasons: it's vibrant and invigorating, and Lin-Manuel Miranda's work writing the book, music and lyrics is impressive -- and the show about something that resonates with people today, in large part an immigrant who defies all convention, overcomes hurdles, and becomes important in the politics of the nation.
And I did like and appreciate all that. And liked much of the songs, and thought the performances were solid, all done with very good staging over what is mostly a bare stage, with props brought in and out, and a great deal of movement.
To explain the "however..." is not to suggest I didn't like the show. As I said, I did like it, quite it bit. And even loved some of it. It is to be as clear as possible why, while liking it, I didn't respond with the adoration I'm aware of from others.
For all I did enjoy about the show throughout, it's also a sung-through musical, with almost no dialogue, and that's just not one of my favorite styles. A few shows have been able to pull it off wonderfully for my taste (most notably Sweeney Todd), but in general -- for me -- I find that dialogue can usually bring out the drama, humor and subtext of a scene better than singing everything. Songs tend to be at their best, for me, when they highlight a moment of emotion that exceeds the spoken word, but not so much when they're getting across conversation. (For the sake of perspective, I like Les Miserable, but am not enamored of it, for this same reason.) That's a general comment, and there are many exceptions, not just for whole shows, as mentioned, but also for extended sequences within a show. But for the most part, I find sung-through musicals a bit surface in getting across their story, while accepting that they often can have a spirited pace from the full-fabric of wall-to-wall music. And accepting that some people absolutely love them.
Also, and this is especially personal, I don't have a good ear for picking out rap lyrics. It's not that I don't like the songs or their driving pace, but rather than I personally have a difficult time making out all the words. (When I read books, for instance, I often like to pause, consider the phrasing, sometimes even flip back to check context. I certainly don't do that with songs, of course, but it's sort of the way my mind works, listening to structure and craft, as much as context.) That's hardly the songs' fault, but it's a reality for my reaction. As a result, I missed a good portion of what was being said here. I had a far-better time with the ballads, love songs or more standard material.
Not helping this was that I didn't think the sound system or acoustics at the Pantages were as ideal as I would have wished them. So, that impacted even more my hearing the details of what was going on.
In fairness, I did hear plenty. And I liked much of it. The first two songs are quite enjoyable, "Hamilton" and "My Shot." And King George's song, "You'll Be Back" (which is a traditional comic number) is terrific. I also very much enjoyed "Burn," sung by Hamilton's wife Eliza, burning his old love letters in building heartbreak after he writes a public mea culpa to put off accusations of bribery, when an affair he had has caused him to pay blackmail and threatens to come to light. It's a very good song, and movingly performed by Solea Pfeiffer.
But for all the cleverness and drive of much of the lyrics -- that I heard -- some quite intricate and at times, amazingly ingenious, I also found more of the lyrics ordinary and forced than I prefer, sort of pushed out to fit the driving pace of the rap. They're often very effective for the sensibility of the songs, but as structured numbers there are too many false-rhymes for my taste. (I take rhyming very seriously -- if you're going to rhyme, that's the point, do so. Don't come close. When I hear a false rhyme, even when it works well, I'll often think the moment I hear it, "Oh, he couldn't come up with an actual rhyme," and it takes me out of the moment, never a good thing.)
Having said all this, what I will also try to do now, after having seen the show, is listen to the cast recording of Hamilton and have a lyric sheet with me, so that I can follow-through it all and get a better grasp on what all is there. I have absolutely no doubt that there will be much about it that I will appreciate far more. (In fact, my suggestion to anyone who plans to see the musical is that they do this beforehand, listen to the cast recording a few times to become familiar with it. Usually, I'm loathe to do such a thing, preferring to "discover" a new show as it was intended, but I think it would help here. For that matter, it seems to have been the case with much of the younger audience, which appeared to be thoroughly familiar with the songs and often cheer material as it began.)
I liked the second act more than the first. That's not "damning with faint praise" -- I thought the second act was pretty good, dealing with the founding of the government and early years of formulating the United States. And it did a strong job dealing with intertwining characters, romance, betrayals and politics, The first act is mostly about the Revolutionary War period, and I found it a bit perfunctory. Like when Hamilton meets the man who will become the Father of Our Country, and they basically sing -- I'm exaggerating here, but not much -- , "General Washington, I'm Alexander Hamilton," "I've heard good things about you, you're hired." (This also relates, in part, to what I said above about songs not always being as effective as dialogue.) To be very fair, I completely understand that trying to encapsulate the Revolutionary War in one act is a monumentally thankless task, and they handle it with an expansive flair that's energizing. But daunting as the challenge is, it was their choice to tackle it, and the first act was too brusque for me.
(I don't mean this at all snidely, and hesitate to include mention for that reason, but I think it adds perspective, that Stan Freberg managed it in his classic The United States of America. Yes, that was a parody, and a record album, and he wasn't dealing with rich emotions and human intricacies. So, it's hardly close to a fair comparison. But the point is that Freberg. using dialoge and song, managed it, and in much less time. And yes, of course, there are many things in the first act that Hamilton manages far better than Freberg.)
I have a feeling that I would have been more involved with the show had I seen it with Lin-Manuel Miranda in his original starring role. Not that Michael Luwoye wasn't good -- in fact, he was very good, as were almost all the performers. But having himself written the difficult songs, I sense that Miranda knew them inside-out and they likely flowed naturally from him, which is critical with the unrelenting flow of rap. But with some of the performers here, it just seemed like they were at times fighting to get the rhythm and pacing of some of the raps out properly, and it occasionally took me out of the moment. And a show, while always better with "The Best" cast, shouldn't rely on that cast to get everything across effectively.
(Okay, one cast quibble. The actor who plays Lafayette, Jordan Donica, does so weeez such a beeeg gartooneeesh French agzennnt that almost the only word I got was "Lafayette." He doubles as Thomas Jefferson and is far better there, though a bit too fopishly over-the-top for my taste, though I suspect that's how the character is written.)
To be very clear, which I fear might be lost at this point, even having had my disclaimer above, I really did like the show. And also loved parts of it. Why I've gone into much more explanation of the various things that didn't grab me personally is because the show has become such a phenomenon that I find it less important here to say all the reasons why I liked it (which have rightly been written about and praised extensively elsewhere for several years since its opening), than it instead being far-more explain myself, explain the reasons why while I quite liked it I wasn't up in the rafters with much of the rest of the audience. This here is not why I didn't like the show -- I did like it (as I trust has come through) -- but why my appreciation didn't reach the exalted level of so many others.
It's personal. And much of it even has nothing to do with the show itself, but my own limitations, not to mention theater acoustics. I get why it's such a hit, and I'm glad for it. And I'm glad I saw it and had a good time. There's much memorable about it. And it's an impressive work. I just -- personally -- like many other shows I've seen more. Personal taste and all.
Here's a scene from the show's presentation at the 70th annual Tony Awards, the Battle of Yorktown. And oddly, though happily, I think it pretty much supports all that I said above, because I like this performance much more than this number done at the Pantages. It's clearer, crisper, with better sound and with a smooth performance by Lin-Manuel Miranda, and a Lafayette I could actually understand.
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Robert J. Elisberg is a political commentator, screenwriter, novelist, tech writer and also some other things that I just tend to keep forgetting.
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