Death is an absurd piece of punctuation that shows up by surprise in the middle of an otherwise perfectly good sentence.
Last night we went to see the musical Hamilton here in Los Angeles. I posted some things on Facebook about it, but wanted to talk about the experience more in depth here.
First of all, I’m not going to explain the musical to you. If you don’t know much about it then you really do need to get out more often. Not only is it one of the most award winning musicals, its also a nice bit of history, a ground breaking blend of rap and broadway musical, and a well crafted commentary upon the value of immigrants and people of color to this country. Since it opened in New York the musical has constantly been sold out. When the touring company came to L.A. I figured it was the best chance I would get at seeing it. The show is massively popular here in L.A. too, so tickets were not cheap.
I’m going to start by saying I was probably a fan of Hamilton before you were. That’s not a brag, I have a degree in U.S. History, and Alexander Hamilton was one of my favorites from way back then. This was in the mid 80s, back when Hamilton was still a stuffy old white guy. The question then was, did the modern recasting of the man change him in any significant way?
I first came across the Hamilton from the music. Bits and pieces started filtering into my world, especially after it won so many Tonys. Out of curiosity I downloaded the Original Broadway Cast recording about a year and a half ago. I have loved it from the first listen. I can’t recommend it enough. The music is quite powerful, and does a good job of telling Hamilton’s story, warts and all. If the whole Hamilton phenomena could be reduced down to just this music, I think it would still be a worthy of the praise. It is history brought to life, with all the worry, drama, love, and subterfuge of the founding of our nation, but presented in a three act structure, with all the elements that make for good drama (or for that matter, good story-telling). Just from listening to it you get probably 90% of what goes on in the musical. In fact, there was only one small part of the show last night that strayed outside of the recording (the “Tomorrow There’ll Be More of Us” scene which I found out was intentionally kept off the recording to be a nice easter egg for those going to the show). My goal in wanting to go was to not just hear the music live (like one might for their favorite rock band), but to see if the staging of the music made the story that much better. The short answer is, indeed it did.
Hamilton is being performed at the Pantages Theater in Hollywood. It is a lovely setting, an Art Deco treasure, chock full of fun and interesting details. I could spend a week there with a camera and an internet connection, trying to trace down and discover the meaning behind all of the wonderful statues, reliefs, and decorations. If you love art, then just going to this theater is a sight for sore eyes. To my mind the building is every bit as lovely as the Walt Disney Concert Hall, or the Parthenon. Mind you, it is lovely for different reasons then those other two architectural treasures, but I think you get the point.
The stage is simple, befitting a musical when the story is told mostly by lyric. There are some fancy parts, mostly the turn-table floor which rotates at times on parts of the stage, but this is pretty low-key compared to some plays and musicals, and never once overwhelmed. The orchestra was pretty reduced with most parts played on modern instrumentation. Much of the music was I believe pre-recorded. It sounded remarkably like the Original Broadway Cast recording, which is probably a very good idea as the music itself is perhaps the musical’s strongest selling point. The actors were individually mic’d so their voices did not have to carry to fill the room, which brings me to one of my big criticisms. From our vantage point, center and close to the stage, the sound was not very good. The actor performing the part of Hamilton was quieter than everyone else in the mix for most of the night, so he was at times difficult to hear. The overall sound quality was only fair. A lot like the sound quality of of your a cineplex build in the 90s. The music was at times distorted and mushy, the sound muffled, the highs clipped, and the midtones over blown. It sounded as if the volume of each singer was constantly changed to match the needs of the music. This is perhaps good stagecraft, but at a few points, especially at the big dramatic endings of songs, the actors sang loud enough that they became too loud and distorted. To be fair, the theater might not lend itself to good audio. All those wonderful art deco details might make for an echoic and mushy room, still when you pay top dollar for a musical I believe having a good sound system does not seem too much to ask.
Mind you, all of these are minor points. Most listeners will probably not notice such things. If you’re a recording engineer then you’ll probably find even more flaws than I did, but for most people the sound will be more than adequate. The music was clear, the lyrics understandable, and sound was loud without being anywhere near to rock-concert volume. My wife and son, both of whom have only heard bits and pieces of the soundtrack, found the music wonderful, and had no problems following the story, even when it was delivered at a blistering rate.
The staging of the music, especially seeing different characters sing the various parts, really made the music come to life. The Original Broadway Cast recording is great, as I mentioned above, but suffers in that you often cannot tell which character is singing what part. The voices of Lin-Manuel Miranda (Alexander Hamilton) and Leslie Odom Jr. (Arron Burr) are close enough to my ear that I cannot tell by listening that they often trade lines back and forth in a song. Seeing them do so on they stage brought much greater depth to the songs.
Perhaps my favorite example of this was the wonderfully subtile scene in the song One Last Time. The song begins with Washington asking Hamilton to write for him one last speech. Most of the song goes into the reasons for the speech and Washington’s retirement, but near the end we get to hear part of the actual speech itself. It starts with Hamilton speaking the words front stage, with Washington back stage about as far as you can go, directly behind him. The rest of the stage is largely bare. As the song progresses, Hamilton slowly moves back stage, and Washington comes to front stage. When they pass the song goes from spoken to sung, and the voicing seamlessly transitioning from that of Hamilton, the speech-writer, to Washington the speaker. All the while the song is building from just single voice and a cello, to multiple instruments. Near the end the ensemble has come onstage, dressed formally, arranged in couples as if listening to a speech at a park, with the men holding their hats high over their heads in respect. It is lovely, and powerful, and fairly simple. Never once does it get in the way of the performance. The movements and the costumes supported the song perfectly.
Another example is in the song The Room Where it Happens. This is the turning point for the antagonist (Aaron Burr), as the song captures the moment he goes from being passive to active, following, as he later tells him, Hamilton’s example. In terms of dramatic structure, this scene is key to the story. It ties up one theme (wait for it), and introduces another (room where it happens), adding complications along the way. In the cast recording the emotional impact of Burr singing “I want to be in the room where it happens” is not very strong. Seeing it staged you realize this is a life changing moment for the man (and later for Hamilton as well). The music alone does not do this song justice. Seeing it performed really brings it all home.
I could say the same for easily 3/4ths of the songs. The staging really takes them to another level. On some songs, like the complicated relationship between A Winter’s Ball, which runs into Helpless, and finally Satisfied, the staging really helps to understand the story. The songs captures the moment when Angelica Schuyler first meets Hamilton in A Winter’s Ball, and then later rewinds so that she can relive that same moment at her sister’s wedding to Hamilton in the song Satisfied. This is pretty complex for stage craft. Movies often go back and forth in time, but it’s a hard thing to do on a stage, let alone in a song. The staging does both scenes perfectly, changing only a few small parts, which add all the wonderful emotional undercurrent to the story.
Finally, I’d like to mention the actors. On the night we saw it the part of Hamilton was played by Ryan Alavarado, who is listed in the playbill as a standby. Either he was having a bad night, or his performance was not particularly polished. Either way his was perhaps the single “average” performance. This is not a complaint. When you go to the theater you get what the director gives you. Unlike a movie which can be shot with multiple takes, you only get one take on the stage. It either nails it or it doesn’t. Alvarado was a good performer but his voice was quieter (as I mentioned before) and his acting was a bit stiff. Perhaps his was a great performance, but only look worse when compared to those he was staged with, because the rest of the cast really pulled out the stops. Stand outs from such a wonderful cast are hard to find, but Joshua Henry, singing the part of Aaron Burr, really nailed it, and Isaiah Johnson singing the part of George Washington was incredible. His ending of One Last Time was soaring, a great example of how much better theater is at performing a song then any rock band. (Take note. If you’re in a band and really want to take things to the next level, this is what it looks like.) Rory O’Malley reprised his role of King George, since he was part of the original broadway cast. His performance takes a comic part and milks it for all it’s worth, to great effect. He was a show stopper. Finally, of note was Raven Thomas’ performance of Angelica Schuyler. She is listed in the program as part of the Ensemble, not a lead part. How she got the part of Angelica I don’t know. What I do know is she sang and acted as if this was her “shot”, and let me tell you, girlfriend knows how to aim. I expect to see more of her.
So in closing, was seeing the play worth the cost? Yes. The staging makes the play so much better than the music. It adds more drama, more comedy, more sadness, more of everything. In spite of a few quibbles I would go again. Already my wife has said she’d like to. I don’t know that we’ll sit in the same seats, but I have a feeling we’ll be back.