Since opening on Broadway in 2015, “Hamilton” has chartered a rare course into our national consciousness. Beyond its critical and commercial success, it has made the remarkable story of Alexander Hamilton and his contemporaries come alive for millions of people who aren’t normally preoccupied with early American history or musicals.
Not since the 1996 Broadway debut of “Rent” have so many people obsessively listened to and memorized songs from a musical, in most cases long before ever having the chance to see it. The show’s success even prevented Hamilton’s image from being removed from the $10 bill (instead, Andrew Jackson will be replaced by Harriett Tubman on the $20).
As the musical’s April 23 opening night in Rochester was getting under way, the sense of anticipation and excitement in the Auditorium Theatre was palpable—and “Hamilton” did not disappoint. I had heard all of the songs many times and am very familiar with the history that the musical depicts, but seeing it all come together on stage was unusually moving and thrilling. The intricate choreography and superb vocal performances would be enough to pull you into any story. Yet the indisputable potency of “Hamilton” cannot be separated from the historical narrative it tells and the unique manner in which it chooses to tell it.
When I first heard about the production of “Hamilton,” I recall wondering if reimagining his story through the use of hip hop and a multiracial cast might serve to distract from a narrative that needs no embellishment or artistic flair to be compelling. But the choice of these artistic devices not only make for a more entertaining and memorable evening, it also stills that part of the viewer’s mind that has a tendency to look for seeming inaccuracies (or dramatic license) in performances that purport to retell history.
We know going into “Hamilton” that we are not witnessing a historical reenactment. This enables us to relax about the accuracy of the details and instead to focus on the amazing life of Hamilton and the timeless lessons his story illustrates.
The other significant feat accomplished in “Hamilton” is simultaneously elevating the lives and accomplishments of the Founders while bringing them down to earth. We see the Founders for who they are. Not demigods or paragons of perfection. But rather men of great talent, vision and drive who—despite their relatable vanities and shortcomings—took bold action to improve their society and set into motion the complex and perpetually perfectible American experiment in self-government and individual freedom.
Anchored by especially strong performances by Edred Utomi (Hamilton), Josh Tower (Aaron Burr), Stephanie Umoh (Angelica Schuyler), Paul Oakley Stovall (George Washington) and Peter Matthew Smith (who plays a hilarious King George), the traveling production of “Hamilton” will be long remembered by Rochester audiences. And hopefully its lessons about life, love, courage and the American founding last even longer.
“Hamilton” is playing through May 12. As of the time this is written, some tickets (albeit the pricier ones) are still available through Ticketmaster. And there is also a daily “lottery” through which 40 tickets per performance are being sold for only $10 each: https://www.luckyseat.com/hamilton-rochester/.