Sometime in the fall of 2015, I read on twitter that Lin-Manuel Miranda would be releasing the soundtrack for his newest musical, “Hamilton,” a rap/hip-hop musical about one of America’s lesser recognized Founding Fathers. While history never quite interested me as much as I wanted it to, I knew Miranda’s music from “In the Heights,” and figured that this history musical may not be so bad.
I decided to give it a try, mostly thanks to the fact that it was free on Amazon Prime Music.
Upon first listen, on a cold and dreary drive to Montclair, I realized that I had grossly underestimated this musical.
Though it took a few straight listens to understand everything that was going on (the words move SO FAST and at first I had a hard time keeping up), I ended up hooked. I made it my mission to learn every word to every song. I listened to “Satisfied” over and over again until I could spit Angelica’s rap flawlessly — an impressive feat for a nerdy white girl. I’ve listened to the soundtrack so many times, and yet I still find myself crying during “One Last Time” and the finale.
In October, I started bugging my mom about tickets. “We need to see this show. And we need to get tickets NOW.” My mom kept brushing me off until I finally got her to listen to the soundtrack — but it was too late. Tickets were already sold out through June. But by some miracle, my mom was browsing the resale tickets and ended up finding us some, er, more reasonably priced seats. Sure, they were all the way up in the top of the house. And sure, they were for April 9th, which felt like forever away. But I got a call one late October morning — “We’re going to see Hamilton!”
Fast forward to last week. News started circulating on social media that Jonathan Groff, who played King George III (flawlessly, I might add) would be leaving the show. I frantically read throught articles until I found an end date: April 9th. I couldn’t believe it. Jon Groff, or Groffsauce as he is affectionately known on social media, has been one of my favorite actors since I saw him in the OBC of “Spring Awakening” in 2006. By some kind of fate, the tickets we had bought to “Hamilton” months earlier ended up being for the same night as Jon Groff’s final performance.
I’ll spare you all the story of trying to get through midtown traffic and trying to park last night, but finally we made it to dinner with enough time to eat and get to the theater. Even standing outside in line, I could feel the energy — not just from the audience, but from the theater itself. There’s a certain buzz around the Richard Rogers theater that I’ve never felt at any other Broadway theater. Once we got inside, the ushers efficiently got everyone into their seats (shoutout to the amazing usher in the upper mezz, house left, who got the entire mezzanine to shut up so she could tell everyone where the restrooms are).
It was easy to tell that much of the audience knew it was Groff’s last show. When the pre-show announcement, narrated by King George III, started, it was met with thunderous applause.
From the opening notes, the audience was very clearly ecstatic. Each of the main characters received applause and cheers as they walked onstage. For the most part, we got the original cast. However, Andrew Chapelle was in for Okieriete Onaodowan, who plays Hercules Mulligan / James Madison. I also didn’t notice until I looked at the Playbill that there was a swing in for Charles Lee, usually played by Jon Rua. As it usually goes with understudies and swings, the replacements made no notable difference in the show — they were wonderful in their roles. (And I was looking at the understudy list — Chapelle understudies pretty much all of the main male characters, so good for him!) The entire show is perfectly cast, of course. But one of the most important casting decisions is the Schuyler sisters, and I think the casting directors nailed in. Renee Elise Goldsberry (Angelica), Phillipa Soo (Eliza), and Jasmine Cephas Jones (Peggy) have a relationship that translates so well on stage. The three of them together were one of my favorite parts of the show.
But more on the cast later.
If you’ve listened to the “Hamilton” soundtrack, you’ve probably notice the drastic emotional difference beween Act 1 and Act 2. Seeing the show, that difference is even more pronounced. Act 1 is fun, action packed, high energy, and ultimately, happy. The ambition of the revolutionaries, choreography of the war scenes, and intertwined Schuyler sisters plot lines make you think that nothing is impossible. Act 2, however, is darker, both in lighting and context. It carries more heavy elements. And it’s poignant.
Of course, there are exceptions. There’s a moment in Act 1 that’s not on the soundtrack — when Hamilton finds out that his best friend, John Laurens, died in a shoot-out that happened after the war. The scene, which comes right after “Dear Theodosia,” is a sad and dark moment in an otherwise light and fun act. Hamilton asks Eliza to read him the letter from Laurens’ father, and then tells her he needs to get back to work, which leads into “Non-Stop.” The scene shows a moment of sad vulnerability that we don’t get otherwise from Act 1 Hamilton.
In Act 2, we see much of Jefferson’s comic relief (“Can we get back to politics?!”). I only saw one little problem with this — the comedic elements and energy in “The Reynolds Pamphlet” seemened to lessen the powerful opening moments of “Burn,” Eliza’s poignant and haunting solo. Phillipa Soo, who plays Eliza, managed to rein the audience back in, though, and you could hear a pin drop by the time she got to the second verse. She also commanded the audience during the finale; I for one was in tears through her entire performance.
Briefly, I want to write a bit about my personal favorite moment of the show. Ever since I first listened to the soundtrack, I’ve felt a connection to “Helpless” and “Satisfied,” and specifically the different perspectives. The way these numbers are choreographed, especially the rewind, makes the numbers even stronger. The whole show was well done, but those two numbers stood out to me (and not just because they’ve been my favorite from the start).
One thing I noticed is that Lin-Manuel Miranda plays the role of Alexander Hamilton so well that I found myself having to work my brain to separate the actor and the character. I’ve always felt negatively toward the actions of Act 2 Hamilton, but watching the physical changes as he becomes more and more important changed the whole dynamic. I found myself wishing for Hamilton to fail. Whenever he tried to speak to Eliza during “It’s Quiet Uptown,” I got angry (I’m pretty sure I audibly scoffed when he said “I know I don’t deserve you, Eliza”). This, of course, is a testament to Miranda’s writing. I went from loving Hamilton to hating him, despite knowing the story as well as I do. The story felt fresh and new to me, despite the fact that I’ve listened to the soundtrack hundreds of times.
And, of course, we have to talk about Jonathan Groff. The man had the audience going crazy from the moment he set foot on stage. He didn’t move around much during his numbers, but he didn’t need to; his delivery brought the house down. I’m not sure which of his moments were out of the ordinary because it was his last night, but there was a moment between “I Know Him” and the beginning of “The Adams Administration” where he got Leslie Odom Jr (Burr) to crack up — he ended up sitting off to the side of the stage and the cast seemed surprised (and yet not at all surprised) that he was there. He also got a little dance solo during “The Reynolds Pamphlet” That left everyone in fits — and contributed to that energy that muddled the first few moments of “Burn.”
It was Groff’s last performance, so obviously the cast woould honor him. However, after curtain call, the Schuyler sisters led a quick rap about BCEFA (Broadway Cares, look it up, it’s awesome), and moved into the cast singing something along the lines of “We’ve loved sharing our time with you” as everyone turned to Groff. Emotions ran high as Lin brought out a king’s robe…
Although Groff’s successor is likely incredibly talented and will succeed well, there’s just something about Groff and the way he performs King George III that’s so uniquely his own. I’m sure it’s sad for this cast to lose him.
I’m losing steam as I write this post because the show is so great that it’s hard to remember eevery single moment I wanted to write about. Overall, the show was just as amazing as I anticipated. It surpassed every single expectation I had, and I now have visuals in my head for whenever I listen to the soundtrack. This show has made history in so many ways, and I have no doubt it will continue to do so for quite some time.
And for everyone who has asked, yes, it is absolutely worth the hype it’s getting.