Christopher Jackson as George Washington in Hamilton, photo by Joan Marcus
Normally when the culture nabobs chatter excitedly about a revolution on Broadway, your best move is to avoid the latest affront to taste or desecration of widely shared values. Nothing can be more boring than a show labeled “transgressive” by The New York Times. This fall, though, the revolution being staged at the Richard Rodgers Theatre is the American one, in Hamilton. So unabashed and heartfelt is the show’s respect for the Founding—it even styles itself on the marquee not Hamilton: A Musical but Hamilton: An American Musical—that the show is actually, in the context of the theater world, daring: Sometimes a revolution can be delightfully reactionary. When was the last time you heard a musical number about the Battle of Monmouth or the Federalist Papers? Hamilton has all the craft of Hair or Jesus Christ Superstar but replaces the hippie fatuousness with exuberant patriotism.
Alexander Hamilton was a dynamo and a visionary with feet of clay: he was a tragic figure whose adultery may have cost him the presidency and whose prideful inclinations led to two catastrophic duels—his son also lost his life on that cursed Weehawken ground. He is played by thirty-five-year-old Lin-Manuel Miranda, who also wrote the book, music, and lyrics for the show. The audacity is comparable to Orson Welles’s demanding, and receiving, from Hollywood the authority to exercise complete control over his debut film, Citizen Kane. Miranda’s gifts prove (as Welles’s did, at least temporarily) equal to his presumption. Hamilton is a glory.
Miranda, a New Yorker of Puerto Rican descent, experienced upon reading Ron Chernow’s 2004 biography Alexander Hamilton a deep connection to the story of a logorrheic bastard social climber from the West Indies who arrived in New York as a young adult with scarcely a penny to his name: “Hey, yo, I’m just like my country/ I’m young, scrappy and hungry,” the character raps. To add to the cheek of casting himself as Hamilton, Miranda has cast black actors to play Washington, Jefferson, Madison, Lafayette, and Aaron Burr. But it isn’t just cheek, or a way to make history seem contemporary and fresh: Miranda is knitting past and present together, reminding us that, say, the upper Manhattan neighborhood named after Washington is today strongly identified with its Latino population. In Miranda’s view, the Founders, being revolutionaries, are misfits—grasping, rash, arrogant, foolhardy. It isn’t such a stretch to say that their personalities overlap with those of today’s blustering, cocky rappers, and Miranda’s usage of contemporary musical idioms such as rap makes the story as contemporary and urgent as it was at the time it was happening.
Phillipa Soo, Renée Elise Goldsberry, and Jasmine Cephas Jones in Hamilton. Photo by Joan Marcus.
I hear you saying: but rap music is an oxymoron. True, hip-hop beats can be monotonous, but Hamilton,which is almost entirely sung-through, is also sweetly scored with more traditionalist romantic ballads, rhythm and blues, and pop numbers. Miranda is a magpie, equally enamored of showtunes and hip-hop, and so expansive is his frame of reference that he might well be the only person in the building who catches all the allusions. I’ll admit to being more conversant with Gilbert and Sullivan (Miranda has Washington describe himself as “the model of a modern major general”) than with the oeuvre of Biggie Smalls (to whom Miranda respectfully refers in the lyrics of Hamilton’s youthful declaration of his moment of arrival “My Shot,” though as the cause of Mr. Smalls’s premature death was gunfire, there seems to be an unintended double entendre).
Some of those ballads, particularly one sung in agony by Hamilton’s widow near the end, are surprisingly poignant. But even the rap songs are engaging, indeed ingenious, because Miranda packs so much historical information into them, notably in two spectacularly entertaining rap battles with Thomas Jefferson (an uproarious Daveed Diggs, who also plays Lafayette). The first is about nationalizing the states’ debts and creating a national bank and the second about the merits of sending military aid to Revolutionary France and the Neutrality Act of 1793. In the federalism rap-off, which like much of the show freely mixes rhymes with assonance, Jefferson notes, “When Britain taxed our tea we got frisky/ Imagine what gon’ happen when you try and tax our whiskey.” Here is Hamilton:
If we assume the debts, the union gets
A new line of credit—a financial diuretic
How do you not get it?
If we’re aggressive and competitive
The union gets a boost. You’d rather give it a sedative?
That’s a clever way to put it (except for the clunky mention of a diuretic), as well as a highly appealing invitation to study the Founding at greater depth: as the show settles in for a years-long run on Broadway and inspires touring and amateur productions and an inevitable movie version, it figures to reach millions of young Americans. For many of these it will be a gateway drug that animates a passion to learn more about its subjects, and not just their foibles and personalities but their ideas. Even more so than 1776, the superb 1969 musical about the Declaration, Hamilton is a history lesson that dazzles and makes you laugh and cheer. Few are the musicals—few are the popular entertainment offerings in any form—that contain so much substance. The historian and National Review writer Rick Brookhiser, himself an expert on the Founders and the author of a Hamilton biography, has praised the show’s detail and general accuracy. It’s so good that it makes rap bearable; for the duration of the evening, try to think of rap as merely a particularly rhythm-heavy variety of sprechstimme.
Sprechstimme is, of course, a strategy frequently deployed as cover for weak singers, and Miranda is a weak singer. Even his speaking voice doesn’t have the degree of command one expects in a lead performer; the show would be even better if Miranda ceded the lead role to a more charismatic actor. He is easily upstaged by his supporting players, notably Diggs, who plays Jefferson with an abundance of strutting self-regard that is both amusing and insightful; Phillipa Soo, who exhibits a gorgeous voice as Hamilton’s betrayed and bereft wife Eliza; Christopher Jackson, a towering and authoritative George Washington; and perhaps especially Jonathan Groff, who as a prissy King George III periodically glides onstage with crown and scepter to sing a series of smugly reproachful solo numbers informing the upstart colonials that to demolish is easier than to construct, and that their hopes for America’s future lie somewhere between fanciful and laughable. Even the Americans themselves seemed to sense that they were reeling into an uncharted future: after Yorktown, Miranda has the pubs ring out with merry cries of “The World Turned Upside Down,” the tune played by musicians of the defeated British army. But that is merely the end of Act One: in Act Two, order begins to form amid the chaos, even as one of America’s principal architects is undone by his own obstinance.
It’s a magnificent story of “Another immigrant, comin’ up from the bottom/ His enemies destroyed his rep, America forgot him.” Among the least of Barack Obama’s calculated outrages is that his administration has proposed removing Hamilton’s face from the ten-dollar bill, rather than Andrew Jackson’s from the twenty, but that the president attended Hamilton in July ought to give hope that the idea will be scuttled: like no chief executive before him, the current one is keenly attuned to the buzz of the chattering classes. If it takes a rap musical to protect the most visible emblem of Hamilton’s importance, so be it.
As if in answer to Hamilton, a musical number called “The World Is Upside Down” opens the second act of another musical that has found a large audience this year on Broadway, Finding Neverland (at the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre). If Hamilton demonstrates that what’s old can be fresh, Finding Neverland is resounding proof that what’s old can be stale too. If Hamilton illustrates how to embed a large amount of accurate information within a biographical piece, Finding Neverland shows that a stage biography can also be stuffed with loads of inaccurate information. If Hamilton boldly scales new heights, Finding Neverland cravenly seeks out the well-worn groove. This is the Peter Pan story again, sort of, and it’s sticky stuff.
Finding Neverland is a very London show. I don’t mean that it is set in London, although it is, but that it reminds one of London, though not the London intended. I don’t mean the comic lords-and-butlers upper-class Edwardian London of the play itself, nor yet of the fairytale Tower-Bridge-and-Big-Ben London in Peter Pan, the play within the play. I mean contemporary London. Finding Neverland is crass, busy, loud, an oasis to tourists and increasingly a stranger to Englishness. In New York, one frequently encounters quintessential New Yorkers, but finding a quintessential Londoner in London would be a challenge. And if English remains by a wide margin the language of New York, the next ten people you encounter in London are likely to speak English unevenly if at all. And so the lavish West End stage devolves into English-as-a-second-language theater.
It’s a little distressing to find such shows turning up in New York, but Finding Neverland is a success, selling something like one million dollars’ worth of tickets each week, and doing so with flaming disregard for the tastes of the city’s most discerning theatergoers. The Italian clan next to me certainly seemed to hush with awe when Tinkerbell appeared as a dancing light on the end of a fishing line at the opening of the show, and again at the close when five Tinkerbells twinkled and capered for applause. There’s a pas de deux in which the leading man dances with a giant bear on roller skates. “We were Wilde about Oscar and I supported Bernard when no one was Shaw,” goes one joke, and the word playwright is mentioned to set up the huffy rejoinder “Perhaps he should get his play right!” Newcomers to the language, rejoice.
Yet wouldn’t I, I ask myself, have enjoyed such wordplay at age ten? Perhaps, and it is only sporting to point out that Finding Neverland regards itself not as a tourist’s musical but a children’s one. It’s a treacly adaptation of the 2004 Johnny Depp film (aimed at adults) that relates how the Scottish playwright James Matthew Barrie (Matthew Morrison, a star of television’s Glee) broke out of a creative rut after meeting four rambunctious boys, including one named Peter, in Kensington Gardens. Their mother, Sylvia Llewelyn Davies (an anodyne Laura Michelle Kelly) is conveniently a widow, and relations between James and his society wife Mary (Teal Wicks) are fraying. After his latest play flops, Barrie is urgently required by his clamorous American producer, Charles Frohman (Anthony Warlow), to devise a new piece to employ the company and fill the theater. Barrie promises to write something different. No, protests Frohman, not something different. “I said I wanted something new.” It’s the one wise, albeit rueful, line in the entire production: creative folk who wish to keep the paychecks flowing had better learn how to renovate, to refresh, to reupholster. By my unofficial count, this stage musical is approximately the one millionth iteration or isotope of the Peter Pan legend to be publicly produced. The millionth-and-one, a big-budget film called Pan, is due in theaters October 9.
Locating a stageable conflict in Barrie’s story requires exertion: It would not be overly reductionist to say that Finding Neverland is simply the story of a man who needed an idea and got one. It is overselling Barrie’s creative traumas to claim, as the show does, that putting Peter Pan on the boards was a major struggle. (When Frohman appears nonplussed by the idea of depicting mermaids frolicking in a pool, Barrie tells him that the water can be implied. Oh.) To round things out, though, there is a love story, albeit a thin one, about Barrie’s growing affection for Sylvia, even as Mary becomes disaffected and leaves him.
Finding Neverland takes liberties: Sylvia’s husband was still alive when Barrie met the family and didn’t die until three years after the premiere of Peter Pan. Moreover, Barrie and his wife also didn’t break up until after Peter Pan became a success, and the actual relationship between Barrie and Sylvia was not, it appears, physical. Barrie, who died without issue, simply wasn’t a plaything of Eros. In the words of The New Yorker’s Anthony Lane, he “loved many women, but the evidence suggests that the actual making of love lay outside his interests, or beyond his grasp.”
If James Graham’s book forges only the feeblest bonds between Barrie and Sylvia, the songs don’t much strengthen them. The music and lyrics come courtesy of Gary Barlow, the former lead singer for the 1990s boy band Take That, and his fellow songwriter and producer Eliot Kennedy. The tunes are earnest, eager pop trifles, aggressively inoffensive. To ask them to support (exhaustingly) robust Mary Poppins–style production numbers is to ask too much: they’re background music of the Céline Dion phylum. They’re strong enough to be barely noted at some bright eatery where hollering children consume cakes and pizza, not to enchant an audience.
It’s not Barrie and Sylvia’s love that fuels Finding Neverland. The emotional energy is generated by the relationship between Barrie and Peter Davies (who is played by several young actors in rotation), and it’s a fond, even slightly obsessive one. “Boys should never be made to go to bed,” Barrie avers. “They always wake up a day older.” His conspiring with Peter creates the comic centerpiece of the first act: During a formal dinner for stuffed shirts, the guests freeze so the playwright can let his fancy wander. In his mind he roams about the stage twitting the twits, climbing on the table, mussing the hairpiece of the starchy Lord Cannan (Tyley Ross, overbroad in the quintessentially West End manner). In this adventure of the imagination Barrie is joined by Peter, his fellow imp and boy-muse. The way the two share a glorious secret seems obtusely suggestive; it’s one of several occasions when Barrie’s willful childishness and somewhat sweaty attachment to Master Davies may put you in mind of a fellow Neverland enthusiast, Michael Jackson.
If you don’t grasp that the theme of the evening is “Everyone has a child inside them screaming to get out,” you will have by the time Barrie delivers exactly that line to Frohman. The producer scoffs that Barrie doesn’t even have a villain, waving his cane in the air so that the tip of it casts a shadow that looks like a hook. Aha, Captain Hook (also played by Frohman). The audience seemed pleased by this maneuver, too. Anyone who has ever been the author of a work of imagination is familiar with the dreary question, “Where do you get your ideas?” “My head” is clearly not the answer sought: the accommodating artist will instead offer a pleasing story to reinforce the comforting fallacy that anyone can be creative by simply listening to the music of the cosmos. Is this show for tourists or children? I’d suggest a tourist’s play panders to the audience, whereas a children’s play (at least a good one) expands its imagination.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 34 Number 2, on page 39
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