Let’s start with this, because it’s so charming. Lin-Manuel Miranda’s shoutout to Sondheim during his Tony-acceptance speech for In the Heights, sandwiched between his cast and crew thank you’s and a waving of the Puerto Rican flag:
“Look, Mr. Sondheim! I made a hat! Where there never was a hat! And it’s a Latin hat at that!” The reference was apt – Heights was Miranda’s first hat to hang on Broadway, and it was shiny and appealing, the winsome work of a bright newcomer, a singular talent even.
For me, though, the accolade of the groundbreaking, of “where there never was a hat” – rarified musical theater territory that Sondheim has trafficked more than once in his career – belongs to Miranda’s second show, which Jay and I saw last month at Joe’s Public Theater.
Where do I start? There aren’t any real clips of the show yet, no cast recording. There is this, from the White House in 2009, which turned into the opening number of Hamilton:
There’s a Sondheimian storytelling bravura to this opening number, which covers the first 17 years of Alexander Hamilton’s life in just over 3 minutes, as told by the “damn fool that shot him.” Miranda shares Sondheim’s faculty and delight in rendering a mythic character through unconventional means. In this case, the unconventional comes not only from telling Hamilton’s story as a hip hop story – not only from applying contemporary language and composition to centuries-old history, not only from casting to play the white men of our history books a multi-racial company whose roots reflect our country’s actual founding story – but from giving Aaron Burr the first word, and Hamilton and Burr the central love story. This is the brilliant trope. The innovation in Hamilton, like that of most groundbreaking theater, is ultimately rooted in character, relationship, and plot. Not actually making something new, but looking at something familiar from a new angle or leading it down a new path. Or placing it somewhere unexpected. Where there never was a hat.
Miranda says the show is about a man who writes his way out, who makes his mark with words, whose brilliance is astonishing and ultimately historic. He speaks of the Hamilton’s embodiment of “the word’s ability to make a difference,” and you can hear Sondheim’s influence there.
Sondheim says art is teaching, and Miranda, it seems to me, is a history teacher of sorts here, as deeply vigilant to historical accuracy as he is to fashioning something new out of it. Not that Miranda upends every tradition; though we get to hear Burr’s oft-untold version of the story, and though people of color tell the story and the white man is relegated to the comic sidenote, in the form of King George at his empire’s decline (singing hilarious British pop), we don’t really hear a female voice at the center of things.
The women’s voices in the show are distinctive, at times fierce even, but decidedly ancillary. Hamilton ends with his wife Eliza in the spotlight at center stage, a nod to her character that I both appreciate and didn’t see coming (read: didn’t feel was earned). We are introduced to Eliza through “Helpless,” and though we kind of know that she’s anything but, though we wait for the moment where we see that she, too, writes her own story, and though that moment does inevitably come – nonetheless, a redemptive moment does not a central character make. Eliza is the one who fell in love with greatness, the supportive stalwart in the shadows. Hers is a secondary character trajectory, and “Helpless” a secondary character’s introduction. Hamilton and Burr are where it’s at.
This is not a critique (outside the critique of the unearned ending, when so much else was earned). Hamilton is a show about the founding fathers, and its unbridled masculinity is part of its pleasure. When Thomas Jefferson says to the audience, after a moving domestic scene, “Let’s get back to politics,” I am more than happy to oblige. And I trust it to be historically accurate that women were not “in the room where it happens,” as Burr longs to be.
I sense intent in the traditionalism of Miranda’s themes here. Miranda has a way of being at once edgy and comforting, pushing the envelope while limning the familiar. He sets up something cutting edge and contemporary, and then tells everyone in attendance they’re in on it, they’re the cool kids who get it, when in fact what he puts out is wonderfully, intelligently mass-appeal. This is not Sunday in the Park with George. Miranda’s lyrics and, in Hamilton, the ideas he explores, have a Sondheimian density, and yet, unlike “Sunday,” Hamilton’s opening number is a finger-snapper from beat two, and the story accessible to anyone who grew up in this country, or anyone who is part of our immigrant narrative, or anyone who is a striver in our land of inequitable opportunity. It’s ultimately feel-good theater, a song and dance show reimagined, at once critical and hopeful, progressive in form and conventional in theme, and to that last point, Miranda works in the golden-age tradition of Sondheim’s first mentor, who transformed musical theater storytelling, the great Oscar Hammerstein.
Or Webber. Oscar Hammerstein and Andrew Lloyd Webber? Funny how things are unconventional, until they’re conventional. Jesus Christ, Superstar: a classic Biblical story, told through rock songs. Similarly “edgy” for its time, easy-to-swallow, and undeniably excellent. Appropriating genres new to musical theater (in Webber’s case, not just rock, but opera’s recitative dialogue) in ways that exhilarated audiences without the bewilderment that often accompanies witnessing the utterly avant-garde.
This isn’t blasphemy to draw this comparison (despite the fact that Second Stage, which produced Miranda’s first incarnation of In the Heights, used to have a set of rules printed on show programs that included [and I paraphrase, from untrustworthy memory], “No smoking, no talking during the show, and absolutely NO ALW.”); Miranda spent Easter weekend tweeting Superstar lines in response to fan questions between shows. I spent Easter Saturday making cuzuppe with my mother and daughter, while Jesus Christ Superstar played from her kitchen speakers. Don’t you know, everything’s all right now?
I almost auditioned for In the Heights. Not the Broadway version, obviously. The original incarnation of that show, which I think was called In Washington Heights, hatched at Wesleyan University when I was a senior and Miranda was a sophomore. I didn’t know him, but I heard his casting call to the student body via a “bulletin broadcast,” a sort of voicemail of campuswide announcements (some relic of the past century). The audition announcement was funny and charming and entirely sung through, and I thought, “That would be fun to audition for.” True to my form in college, I signed up for an audition slot scheduled between a campus newspaper staff meeting and an orchestra rehearsal, told no one, and secretly prepared an audition song. Highly uncharacteristic of me in college (though, perhaps, more characteristic of me now), I didn’t show up for the audition. It is one of the very few things I regret about my college career. I do think it would have been fun to audition for.
As it was, I stood in line and couldn’t get into the ‘92 Theater to see the show, but I remember the buzz on campus, the heady talk of Broadway. Eight years later when I saw it in New York, I thought, I almost witnessed this at its birth. How lucky.
I feel that same sense of luck, and wistful inspiration, at seeing Hamilton in its premiere.
I have decided that Miranda’s career is one I’ll follow closely. I hope to see each of his shows the way I saw Hamilton, in its first bloom in an intimate venue, and though I know not all of his works will be masterworks, like not all of Sondheim’s are, I hope all of them will contain some of the incandescent brilliance that suffuses Hamilton.