Mark Watches ‘Hamilton’

“Why are there so many young people here tonight?” the woman said, rather loudly, and I later wondered if she’d done so on purpose, just to be heard. A few of us in line turned around or peered over heads to gaze in her direction. “Don’t they know they’re seeing a Broadway show?”

*

This post and all of its gushing and excitement is dedicated to one person: Lina. I first stood outside for the Hamilton lottery last week after darting from the Metropolitan West, where I was speaking at Book Riot Live. The crowd was immense, excited, and keenly aware that the odds of getting one of those $10 front-row seats was miniscule. Despite knowing this, I was still disappointed that my partner and I had not gotten a ticket.

Thirty minutes later, I was walking down 6 Av when I got an email from Lina with the impossible news: she had a ticket for me. I’d spent the previous month listening to Hamilton on repeat. In fact, I’d say that the last three weeks worth of reviews were written entirely to the cast recording and literally nothing else. I had not become this obsessed with a musical since RENT more than a decade earlier. (I did get a chance to see In The Heights on Broadway, which I loved, but it didn’t hit me like Hamilton has.) I had not cried to an album so frequently in years.

Lina made this happen, so this is all for her. Thank you. You’ve changed my life.

*

I don’t listen to cast recordings before I watch musicals. This isn’t all that related to the Mark Does Stuff universe; I just like being able to try and figure out the story through the music. When I finally saw The Book of Mormon last year, I saw it largely unspoiled. (Which made a few of the numbers quite surprising, especially since I didn’t know how filthy the show was.) It’s not an ironclad rule like the whole No Spoiler business here and over on Mark Reads, but I generally haven’t heard cast recordings for things I’ve not seen. Even then, I have a complicated relationship with musicals. I love them, unabashedly so, but I’ve seen relatively few of them. Simply put: I’ve never really had the money to see them. On top of that, I was burnt out on them by the time I entered college. I got obsessed with them during high school, but longed deeply for any sort of representation of myself in this world. There’s a longstanding stereotype that gay men adore musicals, and while it’s never bothered me, I was always aware of how white and straight the musical theater world was.

(A bit of an aside: I was Harold Hill in The Music Man my senior year of high school, which I had a blast being in, but I honest-to-god heard complaints when I was cast that I was not “American” enough to play Harold Hill. For what it’s worth, white folks were the minority at my school, but apparently a non-white Harold Hill was a travesty. I’m so glad I killed it in that role.)

I’d heard of Hamilton back when Lin-Manuel Miranda performed an early version of “Alexander Hamilton” to Obama, and since I’d enjoyed In The Heights, I would infrequently check up on the project whenever I remembered to do so. By “infrequent,” I mean like… once a year. Honestly. I heard wonderful things about the off-Broadway production, and the hype began to appear on my Tumblr dashboard and Facebook when the show moved to the Richard Rodgers Theatre. But I remember the day that NPR streamed the entire album. I listened to the first act, enjoyed the hell out of it, and then got so consumed with writing for the next week or so that I couldn’t find the time to give it a proper listen. (And for what it’s worth, I often don’t write to musicals and podcasts, which are lyric-heavy or densely spoken, because they’re distracting. I’m convinced that if you read my last month of reviews, there are unintentional Hamilton references everywhere. Whoops.)

When the album came to Apple Music, I decided to pop in some headphones and give it a good try while working on reviews. A couple hours later, I’d only written a couple hundred words, my writing schedule was completely destroyed that day, and I was mesmerized. Look, it’s not that I distrusted Miranda at all; Hamilton is not the first time he’s brought uncommon musical elements to Broadway. But as someone who has grown up on hip hop, rap, and R&B, it’s easy to be skeptical about these genres appearing in a medium that is full of people who don’t consider the former genres worthy of respect.

I’m just so glad that I don’t have to be skeptical of Hamilton. It’s every bit as amazing as the hype, and I’m here to tell you why.

*

Just for the sake of this, I’ll be discussing groups of songs or individuals ones from the show from here on out. So, in case you need it: There are nothing but spoilers for Hamilton on Broadway beyond this sentence. If you don’t want to know about casting, costumes, the scenery, the acting, or the choreography, don’t read this. It’s not for you.

“Alexander Hamilton”: I had a friend ask me when I started crying first during the show, and I am not ashamed to admit that it was the second Leslie Odom, Jr. stepped out into the spotlight and began to sing this song, the one I’ve heard more than any other one in the production. I had told myself that I was not allowed to get excited about the show until my ticket was scanned at the front door, and the truth is that I contained myself until the lights dimmed. I lost it because this musical had come to mean so much to me over the course of the month of October and in the weeks leading up to this day. And suddenly, it was all coming alive, right before my eyes.

I had a seat up in the rear mezzanine, and the view was spectacular. I was only four rows from the back of the theater, but the Richard Rodgers stacks folks quite vertically, and it works. I’m thankful for the overhead view because it allowed me to take in the entire set and to get an interesting look at the choreography. It’s still mind-blowing to me that this show was able to do so much with so little. The set contains two levels, a dual-rotating stage at the center, and an ensemble cast that helps facilitate set changes in remarkably fluid ways.

But what surprised me the most was the delicate nature of the music. I’m so used to listening to the cast recording with headphones that I was blown away by how quiet some moments were that felt louder on the recording. But they all had to be that way. When Aaron Burr began his narration at the start of Hamilton, it felt like he was a wise sage imparting an epic tale. He’s perfect as the narrator, and that became a theme of the night: this cast is so perfect it hurts to think about.

“My Shot” / “The Story of Tonight”: But nothing could have helped me to deal with the sheer camaraderie, chemistry, and joy of watching Daveed Diggs, Anthony Ramos, Okieriete Onaodowan, and Lin-Manuel Miranda. It’s unreal. And it has to be! If we’re to believe these four friends were as close as they were, then the acting needs to demonstrate that. Here’s where the brilliance of the style comes in handy: the fact that these four men are rapping makes it a billion times better. It’s such a clear attempt to reference young hip hop heads making beats and rhyming for the first time. And that’s really what they’re doing prior to “My Shot.” (The album denotes it as “Aaron Burr, Sir,” but it’s not listed in the official program at all.) So when “My Shot” finally bulldozes onto the stage, it’s incredibly clear this musical is utterly unlike anything else that’s graced the stage. Rap isn’t here as a gimmick; it is intrinsically part of the story, and to do anything else dilutes the meaning of Hamilton.

More on that later. Does anyone think of “The Story of Tonight” as Hamilton‘s version of “Drink With Me”?

“The Schuyler Sisters”: GOD, OH GOD, WHAT DID WE EVER DO TO EARN THE PRESENCE OF PHILLIPA SOO, RENÉE ELISE GOLDSBERRY, AND JASMINE JONES ON THE SAME FUCKING STAGE??????? I DON’T KNOW, BUT I WON’T QUESTION IT. If you even remotely enjoy these three on the cast recording, you aren’t fucking ready.

“You’ll Be Back”: I was lucky enough to catch one of Andrew Rannells’s early performances as King George, and as lovely as Jonthan Groff is, Rannells is absolutely perfect. What’s astounding to me is how much of the humor around this character deals almost solely in subtle bits of body language. As a whole, King George is not a subtle character in Hamilton. He’s nasty, arrogant, and self-absorbed. I can see now how any actor who is given the role can stretch it to suit their comedic strengths. Rannells uses all sorts of tiny gestures and facial expressions to make King George the funniest single character in the entire show.

“Right Hand Man”: Of everyone in this cast, Christopher Jackson was the one actor I was most familiar with and most eager to see. Initially, I was disappointed that my performance did not feature him, but thirty seconds into “Right Hand Man,” I CHANGED MY MIND. Sydney James Harcourt is a goddamn dreamboat, both because he’s impossibly good-looking and because he treats Washington as he needs to be treated within the musical. Washington has to both physically and metaphorically loom over ever here, and I never once doubted that Harcourt was the same man. His presence has to be stately, serious, and respectable, and Harcourt nailed it.

“Helpless” / “Satisfied”: It’s very easy to see why this pair of songs are often people’s most favorite out of them all, and I certainly count “Satisfied” as one of the best songs I have ever fucking heard in my life. Seeing it live is something else; the set, the choreography, and the vocal performances lift the songs up to feel like the first mega-huge number in the first act. Phillipa Soo’s voice is dreamy, but she’s got a force to it that blew me away. But y’all, “Satisfied.” The stage direction for this song alone made the entire show worth it. Getting to see the reversal and the flashbacks weaved into a complicated choreography, one that Goldsberry participates in AND STILL HITS EVERY NOTE AND EVERY RAPID-FIRE VERSE, was a wonder. I was awe-struck. It’s somehow even more powerful live, and it’s such a huge turning point in the story. It’s the first chance for us to view Hamilton in a different light within the show, and it’s possibly the best point in the first act.

“Wait For It”: EXCEPT IT’S FOLLOWED UP BY THE SONG THAT WAS MY INSTANT FAVORITE THE FIRST TIME I LISTENED TO HAMILTON, AND YOU DON’T KNOW HOW GOOD LESLIE ODOM, JR IS UNTIL YOU SEE HIM QUIETLY SING THE OPENING OF THIS SONG, ONLY TO BURST INTO THAT HUGE CHORUS, AND IT’S SIMPLY TOO GOOD FOR WORDS.

“History Has Its Eyes On You” / “Yorktown”: It’s hard to talk about “big” numbers in the first act because it feels like there are a lot of them. I’ll talk more about the flow of Hamilton once I get to Act II, but I did want to talk about the scope of the show in the first half. These characters feel larger than life, and again, Harcourt’s performance as Washington helps hold these scenes together. Y’all, you have no idea how awkward “Meet Him Inside” is until you see it live. IT’S SO INTENSE. (Also, I’m going to imagine that the “I’m grown!” line is a Beyonce reference.) But the Revolutionary War plot comes to a stunning resolution within these songs. “Guns and Ships” is just as spellbinding as you think it is, and Daveed Digs is out of this world. I’m pretty sure I heard other audience members singing out, “LAFAYETTE!” during that song. Washington’s grace during “History Has Its Eyes On You” leads into the tear-inducing joy of “Yorktown.” I cheered during the high five that comes after, “Immigrants: We get the job done.” And when the first lines of “The World Turned Upside-Down” rang out in the theater, it sent chills through me. The initial moments are done with a heavy reverb, and it gave the effect of citizens in the distance, singing of an impossible victory over the British army.

I cried.

“Non-Stop”: Admittedly, this is also one of the top songs in this show for me, and I’ll be real honest with you. The first few times I gave Hamilton a listen nearly a month ago, I would always repeat “Non-Stop” a few times before continuing to Act II. I continue to experience a particular affection for it because there’s an element to it that feels as if it’s speaking solely to me. I as listening to Hamilton while I was writing close to 7,000 words a day for Mark Reads and Mark Watches. (It’s even more than that once you tally up the Sense8 reviews.) At night, I found time to work on my novel, pushing my final count closer to 10,000 words a day.

How did I write like I was running out of time?

It’s been something I’ve thought of in other contexts before, but this particular show made me reflect on the massive output I have. It’s true that I have a fear that I won’t get to do everything I want to, so I write more than I should just to chip away at the iceberg. And seriously, I didn’t expect to find a way to relate to Alexander Hamilton in the year of our lord, 2015.

But here we are.

*

I’d rushed downstairs at Intermission, brushing tears out of my eyes, and I was certain that I never wanted Hamilton to end. Some of my OTHER favorite songs were still coming, but I was caught in a surreal haze. Was this really happening?

After a quick visit to the Men’s Room, I got stuck in a massive crowd at the bottom of the stairs. Folks were rushing to the restrooms, trying to buy drinks and snacks, and I was just attempting to get back to my seat. I stood motionless, trapped between the merch counter and the steps, and I felt someone brush up against my right arm. I turned to stare up at a tall black man, a sleek tie draped down his front, and he smiled at me.

“This is a mess, ain’t it?”

I nodded my head. “At least we got down early.”

“Is that Star Wars?” he asked, gesturing to my arm. When I confirmed that my sleeve was indeed full of nothing my Star Wars ships, he laughed. “You know, this is the first time I’ve ever seen someone with a tattoo sleeve at a Broadway show,” he explained.

“The first time? Surely there are tons of folks who are tattooed in New York.”

He leaned in and said, under his breath, “Not in this crowd.”

*

“What’d I Miss”: There are a number of transformations in the second half of Hamilton, from Daveed Diggs’s flawless portrayal of Thomas Jefferson to Anthony Ramos’s run as Phillip Hamilton, which is SO GOOD. But I must take a moment to admit that there’s no bigger transformation than Okieriete Onaodowan becoming James Madison. He is nothing like Hercules Mulligan, and somehow, the same actor plays both roles. Someone in my row didn’t even recognize Oak for most of the second act, and he deserves praise for how fucking incredible he is.

And if you found Daveed Diggs entertaining as Lafayette, YOU HAVE NO CONCEPT OF HOW FANTASTIC HE IS AS THOMAS JEFFERSON. It’s like he was born for this role, and watching him humorously dance across the stage during this song is something I’ll always see in my mind when I listen to it.

“Take A Break”: You have not lived until you’ve seen Anthony Ramos play 9-year-old kid sharing his first rap to his father. You simply have not.

“The Room Where It Happens“: I’m also not surprised why this song got such a riotous response from the audience. In one sense, it’s a very musical theater number, but somehow, I felt like I’d never heard a song like it in my life. Leslie Odom, Jr. upstages the whole production here, and his voice is so versatile. From the lower registers to the high notes at the end, he absolutely owns this song. Like many of the numbers in Hamilton, I’m also thankful to see the visual component to it that I was meeting. It’s a huge dance routine, and there’s a part where a tablecloth is ripped out from under Aaron Burr and I GASPED. It’s just too much.

“Schuyler Defeated” / “Washington On Your Side”: First of all, gods all bless the folks where were sitting around me who all gasped and ooohed-and-aaahed during the rap battles. It was like an extension of what was happening on stage. (I desperately wanted to be Thomas Jefferson’s hype man.) I mentioned this earlier, but I feel it’s relevant here: This musical is not nearly as interesting if you take out the rapping. It’s electric. And it so perfectly represents the fractured nature of the dual parties that were at war with one another during the formation of our nation. It’s easy to see these scenes not just as rap battles, but as the growing “beef” between the Federalists and the Souther Democrats. There’s a great deal here that’s both a visual and subtextual metaphor that is integral to the story, and it’s brilliant.

SOUTHERN MOTHERFUCKIN’ DEMOCRATIC REPUBLICANS

It’s just as powerful live.

“One Last Time”: Here’s why I believe the second act of Hamilton is stronger than the first: the transitions between numbers are far smoother. There’s more cohesion, and I think that’s because the focus isn’t so grand. Miranda didn’t have to jump around between time periods and events. At the end of “Washington On Your Side,” you get to watch Jefferson submit his letter of termination, so “One Last Time” is a perfect segue.

I always liked this song, but it never really hit me that hard from the cast recording. Live, however? It’s fucking heartbreaking. You can see the disappointment in Hamilton’s face when he realizes Washington is serious about stepping down. But man, it’s the nearly-word-for-word final address that killed me. From “Everyone shall sit under their own vine and fig tree, and no one shall be afraid,” right to the end of the song, I got VERY EMOTIONAL. I blame that on the performance of Harcourt, first of all, but there’s a lot of fascinating choreography here that adds to the sadness of the song.

“The Adams Administration”

“I Know Him” is folded into the beginning of this song in the program, and oh my GOD, Andrew Rannells does a thing during this scene that sent the entire audience into a bout of rolling laughter. Even better? He stayed at stage right as Leslie Odom, Jr. came out for the beginning of “The Adams Administration,” still doing this thing I don’t want to spoil, and it was so funny that Odom actually broke character and laughed at him. GODS BLESS HIM.

As rough as Hamilton’s life gets from this point on, I really appreciate the fact that Miranda was so willing to be as negative and dire as he is starting from this song and until the end of the musical. I don’t feel an affinity for negativity, but his downfall is just so FASCINATING to me, and I think these songs really show us why.

“Hurricane”: And “Hurricane” is a perfect demonstration of that. The man was obsessed with his legacy, and that sense of self-importance really was his downfall. But holy shit, THE STAGE DIRECTION AND CHOREOGRAPHY FOR THIS SONG IS NOT OKAY. The entire cast is on stage, there’s a “hurricane” projected around Hamilton, and there’s a moment where they re-create a hurricane and IT’S SO FUCKING COOL.

“The Reynolds Pamphlet” / “Burn”: I think it’s pretty spectacular that this show goes from possibly the funniest song – wait until you see Jefferson and King George prance about the stage, making it rain with pamphlets, while chatting, “Never gone be President now” – to the one that made me cry UGLY TEARS FOREVER. “Burn” is perhaps the biggest single turning point in Hamilton, and Phillipa Soo makes it a billion times more heart-wrenching live. (Actually, her anguished cry at Phillip’s death and the final moment of the show might rival that. I don’t know, I WAS CRYING A LOT.) “Burn” is set on a pitch-black stage with just Phillipa, a bench, a lantern, and a bucket where her letters are slowly set on fire.

Everything hurts. YOU AREN’T READY.

“It’s Quiet Uptown”: Okay, it’s sad enough that you get to watch Anthony Ramos die twice in this musical. (There’s actually an entire part not on the cast album just after “Dear Theodosia” that addresses Laurens’ death, and WOW, THANKS, I KNOW IT’S HISTORY, BUT IT’S STILL SAD.) But Lin-Manuel Miranda transforms so completely after the death of Phillip that it’s unreal to think of him as the same boisterous, loud-mouthed, and energetic Hamilton that came before this. It’s haunting to watch because for the remainder of the show, it’s like he’s got the weight of the universe resting upon his frame, and not even during “The Election of 1800” does he ever gain it back.

I’m pretty sure there were like, maybe five dry eyes in the whole theater during this song. Which I was thankful for because I’d been ugly crying since the previous song.

“The World Was Wide Enough”: I don’t even know how to describe the choreography during the duel. It’s so complicated, and it communicates a ton of shit the song just can’t do justice. Hamilton’s rambling monologue, which references nearly every major point in the musical, is a billion times more upsetting when you get to see how the show directs it. The rotating stage is used the entire time, and it’s super upsetting to see Burr frozen in place while Hamilton bounds about, reliving his life and glimpsing into the world of death.

I also flooded the theater by the time Leslie Odom, Jr. got to the titular line of the song. We all died because I cried so much that everyone drowned.

“Who Lives, Who Dies, Who Tells Your Story:” I cried because I didn’t want Hamilton to end. I cried when Eliza sang of Angelica because I stayed in Battery Park City during this trip, and every single day, I passed by Trinity Church, where Hamilton, Angelica, and Eliza are buried. I cried because Eliza got to watch children in the orphanage grow up, but she never got to see Phillip become a grown man. I mentioned earlier that there’s a delicate nature to many of these songs, and you have no idea how soul-crushing the ensemble parts are in the finale until you hear them live. Hamilton does not go out with a bang. It’s a quiet hope from a cast of characters, all hoping that some day, the world will appreciate what Alexander Hamilton did to change the United States.

It will ruin you. If you are unsure of this, just know that there’s something that happens at the very end, after the last note, that isn’t on the cast recording. It will ruin you.

*

I waited patiently after the cast bowed and exited the stage for the crowd to die down so that I could head downstairs and regain a semblance of dignity once more. I saw the show by myself, so I had my nose buried in a book while I waited. (I was gifted The Devil in the White City by Jude at Borderlands Books, and I’m now halfway through it.) I overhead a woman ask her husband what he thought of the show. “I adored it,” she said, before he could say anything. “I’ve never seen anything like it.”

“It was okay, I guess,” he replied grumpily. “I don’t know why it had to be so trendy.”

“Oh, don’t say that. It’s popular for a reason.”

“I just don’t think you should write a musical to appeal to the wrong crowd. Why did they have to have all those fast rap parts? I couldn’t understand anything they said.”

At this point, I was staring at the man, waiting for the inevitable to come out of his mouth. I saw his wife swat him on the arm. “I don’t know why you have to be so negative. I thought it was one of the most unique things I’ve ever seen.”

“I suppose. But at what cost?”

She rolled her eyes, a frown settling on her face.

*

It would be foolish of me to call Hamilton revolutionary. It’s absolutely worthy of every bit of praise it’s gotten, and I’m writing this piece while listening to the cast recording. It’ll be on rotation for weeks, I’m certain of that. I’ve already purchased tickets to see it again on my birthday next year. But I wanted to include some of the things I observed at the theater because it struck me that this musical is vitally important. I’ve only seen a few shows on Broadway, but last night was easily the most diverse crowd I’ve ever seen at a show. Was it overwhelmingly white and straight? Sure, but I was shocked at how many people were very young. I saw people with skin darker than mine everywhere. And I saw how the very nature of Hamilton forced people to talk about race and history and music in ways they’d probably never would have without it.

I’ve seen more about Hamilton on Tumblr and Facebook than anywhere else. There’s fanart. Fanfiction. There’s the Genius.com annotations. There’s the massive presence on social media. I wouldn’t call it a revolution because there’s still a steep barrier to get to Alexander Hamilton’s story. That’s not the show’s fault, of course, and they are doing wonderful things to make sure people can see it cheaply. (Never have I wished more that I went to school in NYC so I could see Hamilton FOR SCHOOL.) But I can’t help but spout positivity because this matters. It matters so much to see people like this get standing ovations, to have people so obsessed with musical theater, to become a phenomenon. I think I cried because of that, too, and as a creator who sometimes worries about my stories being too brown and black, too queer, and too much of what I wish I had growing up, Hamilton tells me to throw that anxiety away and tell the story I want because that story matters.

Go see Hamilton if you can.

Mark Links Stuff

I am now on Patreon!!! MANY SURPRISES ARE IN STORE FOR YOU IF YOU SUPPORT ME.
– I will be at Borderlands Books, Book Riot Live, and Windycon this fall! Check the full list of events on my Tour Dates / Appearances page.
– My Master Schedule is updated for the near and distant future for most projects, so please check it often. My next Double Features for Mark Watches will be Kings, season 1 of Sense8, season 1 of Agent Carter, seasons 1 & 2 of The 100, Death Note, and Neon Genesis Evangelion. On Mark Reads, Diane Duane’s Young Wizards series will replace the Emelan books.
– Mark Does Stuff is on Facebook! I’ve got a community page up that I’m running. Guaranteed shenanigans!

About Mark Oshiro

Perpetually unprepared since ’09.

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