Broadway’s top ticket is Larry David’s Fish in the Dark, which has set a record for advance sales. (Pretty, pretty good!) Off Broadway, it’s…Alexander Hamilton? Founding father, Federalist Papers, Treasury Secretary, Aaron Burr...that Alexander Hamilton? Yes–but not your great-great-great-etc. grandmother’s Alexander Hamilton, though she’d certainly recognize, and grow to appreciate, the resemblance.
Based on Ron Chernow’s acclaimed biography, Hamilton is the unlikely brainchild of Lin-Manuel Miranda, a Tony winner for his score for In the Heights. Or, rather, unlikely-seeming. Seizing on Hamilton’s status as an impoverished “whore-child” and orphan from the West Indies, Miranda has found in him a much different story of immigration and assimilation, and has given himself the part, with a multicultural cast playing the Founding Fathers and the notables in his short, turbulent life. If it sounds a bit like 1776, well, it doesn’t sound like 1776–the show has Miranda’s sung-through hip hop score, which catchily manages to rhyme words like “diuretic,” and only rarely rises above a PG-13 in explicitness.
I should add that neither me nor my wife, a pushover for sentimental musicals, cared much for In the Heights, which I saw twice, Off and on Broadway. Too broad, too saccharine. These are not problems with Hamilton–Miranda’s book sticks, perhaps too faithfully, to our roiling history of strategizing and war and backstabbing that somehow led to a uniting of states. There’s a full season of House of Cards in this, as Hamilton, “the ten-dollar Founding Father without a father,” emigrates to New York and attends what is now Columbia University, aids General Washington in the Revolutionary War, writes the Federalist Papers, and becomes Treasury Secretary. His climb up the ladder is vexed by Thomas Jefferson and frenemy Aaron Burr, of that fateful duel in Weehawken, NJ. High-minded though he may be, Miranda is not above a Jersey joke or two, nor shies away from the seamier side of the subject, the first noted American politician to become embroiled in a sex scandal ready made for tabloids like the New York Post–which Hamilton also founded. (Ensemble members dressed, by Paul Tazewell, as period tarts slink about the stage when Hamilton steps out on his devoted wife and neglected children, which is often enough: “I’m a trust fund, baby, you can trust me,” is a typical pick-up line.)
Teeming with incident and characters, Hamilton is a big show, abounding with politics, love affairs, duels, and show-stopping appearances by musical stalwart Brian D’Arcy James, as King George III, who is bemused by the colonial rebels. (A comic villain on the order of Herod, in Jesus Christ Superstar, George sings, “When push comes to shove/I will send you a fully armed battalion/to remind me of my love.”) Miranda’s Heights collaborators, director Thomas Kail and choreographer Andy Blankenbuehler, keep a lengthy production moving at a good clip, though a certain sagginess does set in with the weighty material, however lightly, and cleverly, delivered. Miranda, a naturally ingratiating performer, is maybe too ingratiating for the avid, ambitious Hamilton, yet his performance suits his conception of our country’s history as a melting pot rich with influences.
Hamilton‘s Off Broadway run, which concludes in early May, is sold out. Look for it to reopen on Broadway in August, out of the way of the Public’s Broadway export this season, Fun Home–but smack dab in the middle of the summer doldrums, where only the long-running, tourist-friendly hits tend to thrive. Based on the strong reviews and whatever prizes it scoops up Off Broadway, the hope is for a hit on the order of Hairspray, which also opened in August. That, however, was a known property, with a star lead. I’m concerned that Hamilton, good as it is now, is more of a musical theatre buff phenomenon, which doesn’t have the legs for a longer run. With Off Broadway as a test bed, Miranda is still revising it, and a strong marketing push is guaranteed. I felt Miranda was honored more for intent than for achievement with In the Heights, though I did find more to appreciate in its Broadway run, where it won the Tony. No such reservations with this one. I look forward to revisiting Hamilton–Miranda may not have reinvented the wheel with this deeply felt production, but he has given it a mighty good spin, and by summer it should be ready to “take its shot,” as Hamilton says. One thing’s for sure: School groups on the lookout for fresh, up-to-date material with the added bonus of educational value will perform it forever.
I never did comment on the recent, star-filled revival of Edward Albee’s A Delicate Balance, probably because it wasn’t all that hot. Except for John Lithgow, whose quaking breakdown late in the show was truly something to see. (When the formidable but less comfortably cast Glenn Close and Lindsay Duncan came onstage to see what was happening, you got the feeling they weren’t watching the character, but him, to see how he could do this performance after performance.) The 1996 revival of the play, featuring the unforgettable Rosemary Harris and Elaine Stritch, cast a long shadow for me–and I also found the show, where nameless terrors creep in and paralyze a household of hard-drinking WASPs, somewhat dated. Thanks to the internet, wall-to-wall news, and social media, the new normal is terrors named and unnamed seeping into our homes. What was unfamiliar, surreal, or existential in the 60s feels quaint today.
Movies into musicals I understand; movies into plays baffle me. A recent favorite, the Swedish vampire thriller Let the Right One In, received ecstatic reviews in the UK under the auspices of the National Theatre of Scotland and was well-received in its recent Brooklyn run, for reasons that escaped me. Like the stage Brief Encounter and The Graduate, it was very “cinematic,” with lots of pointlessly choreographed movement accompanying the young vampiress and the boy under her spell, and elaborate recreations of sequences from the film that didn’t come off. Why bother? Where’s the “theater” in all this grinding production? Maybe it helps not to have seen the film? All I can say is that the acting and scripting was unremarkable, and when the constant soundtrack, a key part of the overarching “concept,” failed for about half a minute the show was dead in the water, becalmed. That was hair-raising.
Speaking of movies into musicals, Honeymoon in Vegas. The 1992 comedy is a mild souffle, the kind of thing you forget you’ve seen 10 minutes after you’ve watched part of it on AMC, and then you tune into it again months later and the same thing happens. The Memento effect probably isn’t helping it at the boxoffice, nor are reviews on the order of last season’s fast-faded Bullets Over Broadway–but I enjoyed both. Usually writing lugubriously beautiful scores for the likes of Parade and The Bridges of Madison County, Jason Robert Brown has let his hair down and come up with some witty ditties, performed by the liveliest orchestra currently on Broadway. And if Tony Danza can reasonably approximate a song and dance man at this point in his life and career, well, there’s hope for all of us. (Rob McClure, Brynn O’ Malley, and Nancy Opel as a mother who interferes in the rom-com romping from beyond the grave, in one hilarious number, nimbly support his aspirations.) Oh, yes, the Elvises do fly, spectacularly. The fun won’t last so if any of this appeals, go and enjoy.
Speaking of “movement,” Constellations. In the 70-minute play, a British import by Nick Payne, Broadway debutantes Jake Gyllenhaal and Ruth Wilson are in perfect sync as a couple imperfectly matched, “delving into the infinite possibilities of their relationship and raising questions about the difference between choice and destiny.” So says the Manhattan Theater Club website, and that’s about what I got out of it, too. Under Michael Longhurst’s direction, it is an expert two-hander–or, more correctly, four hander, and legger, too; the performers are constantly in motion, circling, bobbing, and weaving, as the clock ticks down. It’s an impressive display, pure theater (with wonderful balloon production design), and it cements Gyllenhaal’s reputation as an actor with few peers. (Have you seen Nightcrawler yet? Get to it.)
Off Broadway, Rasheeda Speaking–and when she speaks, you’d damn well better listen. Tonya Pinkins is Jaclyn, an inconvenient woman experiencing constant low-level friction with her doctor boss (Darren Goldstein); he enlists his other, tidier, receptionist, Ileen (Dianne Wiest) to spy on her, with tables-turning consequences. Who is “Rasheeda”? You’ll have to find out in Chicagoan Joel Drake Johnson’s hot button melodrama, which Cynthia Nixom, in her directorial debut, directs to rattle the nerves and our cultural assumptions. The play gave me flashbacks to my own awful office management experience of 20 or so years ago, and revisiting it with these two great actresses was like a waking nightmare, in a good way. Striking the only false-seeming note is an elderly patient (Patricia Conolly) who seems to have wandered in from a sitcom–who then delivers the sting in the tail of an edgy New Group production.
When I was 13 I wanted to explore the mystery of love and sex with Diane Lane–and thanks to the Lincoln Center production of Bathsheba Doran’s The Mystery of Love & Sex, I finally got my chance. In an overdue return to the New York stage she’s great fun as a Georgia peach gone a little stale with a mystery writer husband (the always outstanding Tony Shalhoub) and a college-age daughter (Gayle Rankin) whose yearnings are a mystery to her. Further confusing the situation is the daughter’s platonic roommate and lifelong soulmate (Mamoudou Athie), who keeps his own desires tightly bottled up–and before you can say “Rasheeda speaking” things are a typically Off Broadway mess of race and religious relations and identity crises (plus nudity from the two younger actors). It’s complicated, and a bit familiar, yet broadminded and sprinkled with laughs, many from my longtime crush, who’s more relaxed than usual. She had a hit with Tennessee Williams’ Sweet Bird of Youth in Chicago in 2012–may we see that next?