'Hamilton' in LA in the time of Trump

Hamilton-Company-Joan-Marcus.jpgThe national company of "Hamilton," now at the Pantages in Hollywood. Photos by Joan Marcus.

"Hamilton" was one of the great cultural achievements of the Obama years. The president nurtured its growth by hosting a 2009 performance of the show's titular song in the White House, before the rest of the musical was even written. Then, after "Hamilton" had opened to widespread acclaim in New York, where its story is set, Michelle Obama called it "the best piece of art that I have ever seen" at yet another White House event in 2016.

That's not all. Both Hamilton himself and Barack Obama were young men from islands who came to the mainland and became brainy political superstars. And, yes, while Obama was serving as our first African-American president, Lin-Manuel Miranda's musical was intentionally cast with actors of color in the roles of the white founding fathers.

Of course, now that "Hamilton" has opened in Los Angeles, the Obama years have been replaced by the Trump years - or at least the Trump months.

This week Trump, whose political rise coincided with his lies about Obama's birthplace, defended the crowd who chanted "Jews will not replace us!" while protesting the removal of a Robert E. Lee statue from a Charlottesville park. To the extent that these fledgling Trump acolytes are aware of "Hamilton," you can imagine how they probably feel about the production's casting of black actors as Washington and Jefferson.

This doesn't mean that "Hamilton" is less relevant. It means that "Hamilton" is more urgent.


The casting isn't the only component of "Hamilton" that was designed to entice the larger, younger, more diverse audiences of the 21st century into a story about the founding of our nation - and into musical theater. Listen carefully - Miranda's score reflects a deep relationship with the music of his generation, as well as the music of Stephen Sondheim and Rodgers and Hammerstein. Many of the lyrics are rapped, using intricate, ingenious rhymes that Sondheim himself has praised.

Beyond reaching a younger audience, Miranda's score also introduces older audience members to popular sounds that many of us started ignoring, decades ago. Simultaneously, Miranda satisfies the previous tastes of boomers with such examples as the music for the story's priceless appearances of King George, who sounds like a British pop star from decades ago.

Speaking of the '70s, the "Hamilton" narrative is more reminiscent of the Andrew Lloyd Webber/Tim Rice "Evita," a boomer-era classic, than of any other musical that quickly comes to mind. Or consider certain similarities to another '70s script, "Amadeus," in their two stories about rivalries between two men in the same profession - one of whom was clearly more naturally gifted than the other.

Yet "Hamilton" is much more complex than either of these precedents. Its story achieves the stature of classic tragedy. Hamilton's explosive, verbal personality contains the roots of his own destruction - and even that of his son.

Miranda gives the "damn fool that shot" Alexander Hamilton, Aaron Burr (Joshua Henry in LA), such rich dramatic texture that some observers have questioned why the show's title has only one man's name. When "Hamilton" received its Tony awards, the actor who played Broadway's Burr (Leslie Odom Jr.) won for best leading actor in a musical, defeating Miranda himself, who played Hamilton. In LA, Henry's Burr creates more of a visceral response from the audience, especially in "The Room Where It Happens," than Michael Luwoye's performance as Hamilton.

In other words, although "Hamilton" is clearly an Obama-era creation, it's hardly a "kumbaya" version of how happy we'll all be if we can just get along with each other. The exuberant spirits of the first part of "Hamilton" are severely chastened before it ends. In 2017, this emotional arc corresponds more accurately to that of Obama's fans than it did to their 2008-2015 (or pre-November 2016) journey.

I didn't see earlier versions of ""Hamilton," so I can't compare the experience of seeing it at the Pantages Theatre here to any of its previous incarnations. In Hollywood, I was near the front of the mezzanine, which gave me an expansive view of the stage and the choreography but limited views of the actors' facial expressions.

The sound quality inside the Pantages is presumably state-of-the-art, but (as I predicted in my column a month ago) the live experience also brings aural distractions in the form of audience reactions, especially when there are 2,700 people in the room. Listening to the score in advance (it's free here) is still the best way to hear and appreciate all of the sometimes fast-moving lyrics and to understand in greater depth what's happening, scene by scene.

However, there were certainly moments at the Pantages that I had not yet appreciated by only listening to the score. One of them was the profound silence of those 2,700 people during the pauses as Eliza Hamilton (Solea Pfeiffer) sings "Burn." Another was a cheeky lighting effect in one of the appearances of King George (Rory O'Malley) and his deployment for a few moments outside his own solos.

Miranda had the dramatic license to take a few liberties with the actual facts, apparently with the blessing of Ron Chernow, the biographer whose "Alexander Hamilton" inspired Miranda's idea. Chernow took a bow during the curtain call on opening night at the Pantages, along with Miranda and the other key creators - music supervisor Alex Lacamoire, choreographer Andy Blankenbuehler and director Thomas Kail.


Still, as a reader of Chernow's tome, I'm going to mention a couple of historical subjects that aren't addressed in "Hamilton." First, although the script makes several references to Hamilton's abolitionist activity (an especially apt theme in the wake of Charlottesville), it doesn't mention the inconvenient truth that his in-laws' family, the Schuylers, owned slaves in upstate New York.

Second, how can a chronicle about the early days of the American nation entirely ignore the original inhabitants of America, especially when it's a show that's so devoted to diversity?

Chernow notes in his book that in 1781, the Schuyler home was the target of an attack by a group of about 20 Tories and Indians but also that Hamilton's father-in-law, Philip Schuyler, negotiated with Indians around Albany to guarantee their neutrality. Hamilton himself "championed a humane, enlightened policy toward the Indians" and in 1793 joined the board of a new school that was designed to educate both white and Native Americans boys, in English and in Indian languages. That school, initially dubbed the Hamilton-Oneida Academy, was later named Hamilton College when it received a new charter in 1812, after Hamilton's death. It still exists (now with women as well as men).

Dear Mr. Miranda - please apply your remarkable theatrical and musical savvy to the subject of how to mention these topics in your inevitable movie.

Elsewhere around town

"Hamilton" is hardly the first production to update and diversify seemingly antique stories for the current times. Directors have long been interpreting Shakespeare for contemporary audiences. Two of my favorites among the professional Shakespeare productions in LA this summer were adventures along these lines.

Only one of them, Independent Shakespeare Company's "Two Gentlemen of Verona" in Griffith Park, is still playing. It's a model in how to handle this famously difficult comedy. Director David Melville applies a lively rockabilly sheen to the music (directed by Dave Beukers), choreography (by Katie Powers-Faulk) and costumes (by Ruoxuan Li), and he argues persuasively in a director's note that this sensibility is in accord with the original play's spirit.

His cast deciphers sometimes-laborious comic exchanges with remarkable verve and clarity. And Melville nimbly traverses the script's most controversial moment with the help of an original musical finale that takes a feminist stance that's more modern than rockabilly. In fact, just about everything he attempts works so well that he apparently had a problem knowing what to cut, so the production runs a little too long. Plan on three hours in the park, including the long intermission, which will only become longer as more fans of no-admission-charge theater realize that this great deal won't last forever.

TWO-GENTLEMEN-ds.jpgNikhil Pai, Sylvia Kwan and Evan Lewis Smith in "Two Gentlemen of Verona" at the Old Zoo at Griffith Park. Photo by Grettel Cortes.

The other highlight of my Shakespeare experience this summer was farther from LA - Shakespeare Orange County's "The Tempest" in Garden Grove's alfresco Festival Amphitheatre. Director Peter Uribe added Korean drumming and dancing (choreographed by Josh Romero and Miock Ji) and Asian-inflected design (sets by Dipak Gupta, costumes by Jojo Sui). Two Ariels (Daniel Kim, Jay Lee) had a fleet of "Midsummer"-like assistants, apparently cast from among the Korean dancers.The script's island appeared to be located somewhere off an east Asian coast instead of in the Mediterranean. Yet the vision remained strikingly coherent, even with non-Asian heavyweights in the cast, including Harry Groener as Prospero, Morlan Higgins as Caliban and Hal Landon Jr. as Gonzalo. Apparently the play's Italians were taken or blown way off course by the titular storm.

Meanwhile, at our other major summer alfresco venue, the Theatricum Botanicum in Topanga, my top pick isn't one of the Shakespeare plays but rather "Trouble in Mind." This Obie-winning Alice Childress play from 1955 isn't as well-known as her later "Wedding Band," but in some ways it's a more assured script. Maybe it's because in "Trouble," Childress was writing about the world of black actors in the New York theater in the '50s, which she had experienced firsthand. The luminous performances of Earnestine Phillips and Gerald Rivers, as black actors in a white liberal's would-be anti-racism play, help raise the emotional and political stakes.

Only one of Center Theatre Group's three summer productions is still playing, and fortunately it's the best of the three - Simon Stephens' adaptation of novelist Mark Haddon's "The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time," at the Ahmanson Theatre. It begins on the seemingly intimate level of a case study of a 15-year-old British kid who's apparently on the autism spectrum, as he investigates a dog's death. But it soon begins to fill the large Ahmanson stage thematically, scenically and choreographically - although it's not a musical. The second act attempts to give the audience a visceral feeling of what it must feel like when this young man ventures outside his comfort zones, using a variety of non-verbal methods. As staged by Marianne Elliott, it's a revelatory journey.

Stephens also wrote "Heisenberg," the two-hander that played CTG's Taper this summer, but it was small and forgettable in comparison to "Curious Incident." Meanwhile, over at CTG's Kirk Douglas Theatre, Lauren Yee's "King of the Yees" initially stirred interest as a meta-theatrical examination of the playwright's relationship to her father, a member of a Chinatown social club in San Francisco. The first act incorporated intriguing references to the real-life case of the imprisoned ex-Sen. Leland Yee, but the second act devolved into excessive flights of fancy.

Finally, a nod to the late Sam Shepard. Can we count him as an LA playwright because of his youth in Duarte? Maybe not, but he certainly appeared to bring an LA sensibility to such plays as "Curse of the Starving Class" and "True West."

Curious-Incident-ds.jpg"The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time" at the Ahmanson. Photo by Joan Marcus.

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