Friday, October 27, 2017

Hamilton at the Hollywood Pantages

Richard and I are in LA, where the temperatures have soared past 100 degrees fahrenheit the past three days. We've been enjoying the latest Pacific Standard Time conglomeration of visual art shows that have taken over the major public galleries here in the city; this time the linked series of exhibitions is focusing on Latinx artists along the west coast of the US and throughout Mexico and Central and South America. We especially enjoyed the Radical Women show at the Hammer, which was superbly curated, and which featured a ton of important work we wouldn't have otherwise ever seen.

However, truth be told, the real excuse for the trip was to finally take in a performance of Lin-Manuel Miranda's blockbuster musical Hamilton. The touring version of the show is on in LA through December, and this was the first chance we had to score non-resale tickets; that said, the regular orchestra price for our seats at the historic Hollywood Pantages Theater (a huge over-the-top art deco pile near Hollywood and Vine) was still the most I've ever paid for a theatre show. Was it worth it? In a word, yes: not least for the actual spectating experience itself. I don't think I've been in a house where the anticipation and excitement was so palpable, nor where the full diversity of its members (from the very young to the very old, and with the widest cross-representation of races I've ever seen) have been so consistently rapt in their attention.

As so much has already been said about this particular work, I don't think I will attempt to provide a standard review. Instead, I propose to offer a few impressions of the global experience of the production:

1. Getting there. The performance really started on the way to the venue. A bit pressed for time, we decided to grab a cab from the stand outside our hotel on Sunset Boulevard, rather than use Uber (which has been a mixed experience so far in LA). Traffic was literally bumper to bumper, as there had been an accident on Fountain and Hollywood was closed for some reason. However, knowing we had this particular curtain to make, our driver did an amazing job of negotiating the side streets, depositing us outside the theatre with ten minutes to spare.

2. Believe the Miranda hype. As book-writer, composer, lyricist and original star, there is no denying that this show is Lin-Manuel's baby. Two years after its Broadway debut, with the work now fully franchised and raking in the cash, and with Miranda single-handedly trying to save America, one might be tempted to cut this particular tall poppy down at his knees. But it's hard to deny the real talent behind what we see on stage. In terms of musical idioms alone, Miranda's abilities seem limitless. Of course, the way in which he has so seamlessly incorporated hip hop into the musical theatre form is what everyone has been obsessed about (and the rap battles between rival senator-MCs Alexander Hamilton and a boastful and self-obsessed Thomas Jefferson--who does not come off at all well in this version of history--are a real highlight of the show); however, Miranda has just as much facility with more lyric forms, and he gives most of his lead cast members an opportunity to let loose in a power ballad. His rhyming abilities also ably cross musical genres: someone who constructs a whole song around the multi-syllabic word "Unimaginable" has got to be respected.

3. The show is about today. While Miranda does not shy away from delving into the historical complexities of colonial America, the early days of the US republic, and Hamilton's own complicated personal life, the material never feels overly explanatory or didactic. Instead, we receive many of the scenes and plot details as resonantly contemporary. From the references to slavery and Wall Street (Hamilton having been the architect of the US's financial system), to King George's "I told you so" musings on the difficulties of governing and getting rid of a leader you do not like, it is hard to ignore how much the issues explored in the musical intersect with the pressing problems of a divided modern-day America. A case in point: Hamilton is arguably the first major American politician brought down by a sex scandal. Plus ca change.

4. Hamilton and Burr. One of the great strengths of this work is the central dynamic between its two leads. As with any great tragedy, we know from the beginning that the mercurial Aaron Burr is going to kill our hero, Hamilton. However, like Jesus and Judas in Jesus Christ Superstar, the two men--whose lives were thoroughly intertwined from a very young age--are presented as two halves of the same coin. Indeed, Hamilton is as much of an antihero as Burr, who as both character and narrator in many ways emerges as the work's central focalizing agent--particularly with respect to the idea of how historical legacy depends on who is telling the story.

5. Movement. In all of the press around the musical, I don't recall there being much discussion about Andy Blankenhuehler's choreography. That's a shame, because it's an integral aspect of one's enjoyment of the show. And while I haven't seen Christopher Wheeldon's celebrated adaptation of An American in Paris, I would hazard to say that there hasn't been as satisfying an integration of music and movement in an American musical since Jerome Robbins helped lift the music and lyrics of West Side Story (of course, I had to get a reference to Stephen Sondheim in here somewhere).

6. The cast. It is truly remarkable to cast one's eyes upon a professional theatre stage and see so many non-white bodies. But it's the depth of talent among these individuals that most resonates. A couple of members from the Broadway show have joined this touring ensemble (including Rory O'Malley as King George III and Emmy Raver-Lampman as Angelica Schuyler, both amazing); but most of the cast is new and relatively untested. You wouldn't know it. This production is as good as anything I've seen on Broadway or in London's West End. Consider, as well, the fact that three of this show's leads--the actors playing Hamilton, Burr, and Eliza Hamilton--were being replaced by their understudies last night; this did not diminish my appreciation of the work in any way. Everyone was at the very top of their game.

Throw in the fact that outside the theatre I also got to trod upon Bette Davis's Hollywood star and you have the makings of an amazing performance memory.


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