Whenever I had an evening off, I would fill out an online form and then impatiently check my e-mail. If I won the “Hamilton” Online Lottery, I’d get to see the acclaimed musical for $10. After a few months of playing, though, I decided that my patience reached its limits and decided it might be worth swallowing the cost. Since the show is usually booked in New York, and the upcoming London performances have been all sold out eight months in advance, I kept my hopes low.
However, in Chicago you can still get tickets directly from the venue without overpaying for them. So I went to see “Hamilton” at the PrivateBank Theatre, which is conveniently located a few blocks from The School of the Art Institute of Chicago’s (SAIC’s) campus.
I’ve always liked musicals, so I was aware of the hype surrounding of “Hamilton.” The show about the American founding father presents the beginnings of the United States through a diverse cast, and popular musical genres like hip-hop and rap. It won 11 Tony awards (and a record-breaking 16 nominations), a Grammy award, and a Pulitzer Prize for Drama.
“Hamilton” is played in a relatively small (I could clearly still see actors’ faces from my back row) theater, with a simple set. Costumes reference the fashion of the 1780s, but they are more suggestive than they are flamboyant. Sometimes the performers break the fourth wall and notice the conductor for some comic relief. Most of the musicians, however, are hidden, as is tradition, in the orchestra.
The story follows Alexander Hamilton — an orphan born out of wedlock, who came to New York from the Caribbean on an academic scholarship. He proceeded to fight in American Revolution, becoming George Washington’s right hand man, and eventually became the first secretary of Treasury. He’s so important to the country that his face is on $10 bills.
However, Hamilton’s fate is, in fact, predictable — especially as the story unfolds some tragic patterns in his personal life. Even Hamilton’s relationship with his friend — and eventual enemy — Aaron Burr closely resembles similar plots of antagonists who complement each other; they reminded me of the relations of Valjean and Javert in “Les Miserables.” Burr’s character, however, does not become a catalyst for dramatic events until the second act. Beforehand, he balances between being a narrator of the story and a foil for Hamilton.
Contrasts between reserved, calculating Burr and hot-tempered, spontaneous Hamilton are constantly emphasized. Both men are united by ambition, and it is obvious that the tension between them is going to escalate.
Even though these characters are somewhat stereotypical, they are relatable. Hamilton (originally played on Broadway by musical’s creator Lin Manuel Miranda; and by Miguel Cervantes in Chicago) is familiar to all aspiring artists, activists, and self-starters. His humble beginnings are constantly emphasized: A potential love of his life declares him “penniless”; later on, political antagonists despise him for being a “new money.”
Thanks to his determination and hard work (“writing like running out of time”), Hamilton rises to the political elites, constantly fighting for what he believes in and enjoying life to the fullest. However, he’s still a complicated character, because he cannot find satisfaction despite his initial successes in private and political life.
Despite fighting for his beliefs, Hamilton is capable of betraying his friends, political ideals, and even his wife. However, nobody in the audience cares too much about Hamilton’s politics, and he is quickly forgiven for his misdeeds. That is because he evolves as a character, coming to an understanding of his own mistakes and giving up some ambition in favor of realizing that family life should be enough for him.
Burr’s character, portrayed with charisma and complexity by Wayne Brady in the performance I saw (he’s been replaced by Daniel Breaker since then), also becomes more than a jealous opponent of our protagonist. He is motivated by his own ambition and constrained by reservations. Eventually, he becomes inspired by Hamilton’s energy and acts upon his huge political aspirations.
The show is carried by those two characters, as well as by the female protagonists — Angelica and Eliza Schuyler (Karen Olivo and Ari Afsar). The Schuyler sisters have strong voices, but, unfortunately, quite stereotypical roles in the narrative. (F Newsmagazine wrote about these problems in a previous article.) The clichés in the story can be forgiven thanks to the powerful songs that give an insight into characters’ troubled emotional lives.
Angelica and Eliza rise above romance and broken hearts by advocating for women’s rights, becoming pioneering biographers and historians of the American Revolution, and writing themselves into the male-dominated narrative.
The supporting characters like King George, Marquise Lafayette, and Thomas Jefferson (both Lafayette and Jefferson are played by a college senior, Chris Lee, who is a shining star in the cast) are valuable additions to the story. They provide surprising moments of comic relief, while Washington’s bass and height make him literally stand out.
The history of American Revolution, and the formation of the new country gain a newfound energy thanks to contemporary lyrics and music. For example, political disputes over the role of the state in citizens’ lives turn into Hamilton’s and Jefferson’s rap battle.
Historical characters speak with a contemporary voice — their personal dramas become more important than politics, but “Hamilton” is not supposed to be a political commentary. Above all, it is a story of the power of human will and ambition — a story of an idealistic immigrant who contributes to the formation of his new country, learns from his mistakes, and is “not throwing away his shot.”
Whether you are an artist, a writer, an activist, or a musical fan — what will stay with you after the show is the memory of Hamilton’s hard work and his concern for the historical legacy. Through observing founding fathers’ struggles set in a contemporary musical context, we realize that all of us have a work to do — and a story to be told.