“I am not giving away my shot!”
Prophetically true, as I wanted so badly to attend the closing night of In The Heights on Broadway but could not manage to make it happen.
Sometime before Christmas, I got word that Lin-Manuel Miranda was set to open Lincoln Center’s American Songbook series of performances with an expanded presentation of work from his future concept album, “The Hamilton Mixtapes.” For those who scoff at the possibility of Treasury Secretary (and face of the $10 bill) Alexander Hamilton being hip-hop magic, here’s a preview from a performance Lin did at the White House.
Yeah. He did THAT.
So I took some things into consideration: THIS performance was going to be on a Wednesday night (which is a Sunday in my work schedule so I didn’t need a vacation day), and if I timed everything perfectly I could arrange cheap travel and get to the show without needing to stay over. The Lincoln Center website said the performance was sold out—refusing to be let down again, I took a chance and CALLED the box office, securing one of the last few tickets available. Needless to say, I’ve been flying since early December.
I’ll post the full travelogue version in a later blog and focus on the performance here….
The Allen Room performance space is magnificent–small, but perfect for a music performance. Columbus Circle and the bustling city proved an appropriate backdrop for an evening beginning with Miranda’s spin on Empire State of Mind, masterfully sliding a little Sondheim and Kander & Ebb amongst the Billy Joel and Jay-Z. Backed by a five piece band and a few of his talented vocalist friends, the sound was immense. We spent the first few minutes traveling down memory lane as Miranda lyrically skipped through many of his childhood hip-hop influences, beginning with the atypical (but very dear to me personally) Passing Me By by Pharcyde. Joined by some of his Freestyle Love Supreme compadres (Utkarsh Ambudkar, Jon Rua, and James Monroe Iglehart with vocal and percussive assists from Christopher Jackson and Chris “Shockwave” Sullivan), they flowed and jammed and passed the mic effortlessly. The audience was then treated to a sampling of verses from more influential lyricists: Notorious B.I.G.’s Juicy, Big Pun’s You Ain’t A Killer (perfectly run by Lin himself, who was TOTALLY giddy afterwards), and the Eminem verse from Jay-Z’s track Renegade (one of the best verses in hip-hop, in BOTH our opinions. I’d like to say I spit the whole verse perfectly along with him, but I stumbled a couple of times—but our unofficial duet was still cool. ;-) ) The hip-hop memory tour ended with an In The Heights reunion duet on Talib Kweli’s Get By, expertly performed by Lin and my other crush, the versatile, multi-talented Christopher Jackson.
Finally, we arrive at the beginning of the Hamilton cycle, on which Miranda has been furiously working since the White House performance. Miranda introduces us to each piece like a troubadour guiding us through a live, hip-hop version of Schoolhouse Rock. This evening’s jaunt into history goes a little further back into Alexander Hamilton’s early life, beginning with My Shot, a duet between Miranda’s Hamilton and Iglehart’s Hercules Mulligan discussing their fervor to step up and make a difference in forming their country into a new nation independent of England’s rule. We go from there to General Washington’s search for a Right Hand Man, a trio with Hamilton, Ambudkar’s Aaron Burr and Jackson’s Washington discussing battle strategy. As we are settling into the spirit and fervor of the colonists, we then switch gears to the other side of the pond and the audience is treated to the masterfully stoic and wildly hilarious performance of Gavin Creel, in his turn as King George in You’ll Be Back. The tune itself is a blend of delightfully ominous lyrics to melody that sounds like the love child of the Partridge Family and James Blunt, and it simply didn’t help to have Creel’s ramrod, regal posture juxtaposed with the priceless Burger King crown….EVERYONE was in hysterics, including Miranda himself. Moving into happier times, we are treated to the lighter side of Hamilton’s life where he meets the woman who would become his wife, Eliza (Elizabeth Schuyler), at a ball in Washington. One look at each other and they are Helpless to stop to power of love, delivered in a delightful doo-wop ditty by Moesha Mcgill. Jumping back into battle, we go to Valley Forge, where Washington has to make a daring and desperate call to win the war by aligning with France. As America emerges victorious (or, in LMM vernacular, “we effin’ won”), Creel’s King George returns to the stage for a musical reprise, denouncing the new country for their efforts and asking them to consider What Comes Next. On the verge of establishing our newly-won freedom, we take a brief step back from the war and politics to listen to Hamilton and Burr musing about their children’s future in Welcome Theodosia, a hopeful tribute to Burr’s daughter and Hamilton’s son Philip.
The fledging new nation is struggling to form a new government, and is hampered by the meteoric plummet of Alexander Hamilton’s star. So focused on his ideals and principles, he fails to play the political finesse game and manages to rub against the grain of nearly everyone in the new Congress, particularly future president Thomas Jefferson, whose debates with Hamilton take the form of the modern-day rap battle. In the Jefferson vs. Hamilton battles, now President Washington “moderates” the proposals regarding the nation’s debt and the potential of aiding France in their latest war (If you’ve ever seen the YouTube series Epic Battles in Rap History, this will give you a general idea of how things go). The third “rap battle” takes place after Hamilton’s involvement in a sex scandal with Maria Reynolds, a wickedly (no pun intended) seductive turn from Heights alum Mandy Gonzales in Say No to This. The Aftermath, the last Jefferson/Hamilton battle, marks the beginning of the end of Hamilton’s career in politics. On the heels of Hamilton’s final public slight of Burr, we arrive at the musical finale, a more fully developed version of Alexander Hamilton enhanced with full instrumentation and background vocals. (Shout-outs here to Rebecca Naomi Jones, Cian McCarthy, Michael Aarons, Matt Rubano, Sean McDaniel, Tim Keiper, and of course, Alex Lacamoire…the show wouldn’t have been the same without you all.)
Naturally, from a fan’s perspective I’m going to say that this concert was AWESOME. But it actually was–I am amazed at the melting pot of musical styles Miranda uses to tell this tale in American history–rap/hip-hop, salsa, R&B, musical theater–and blends them in a way that makes so much sense you wonder why no one thought of trying it before. I can think of no other artist who can morph his audience into history geeks while getting them to bop their heads and tap their feet at the same time. His infectious enthusiasm for the material makes even the shortest attention span want to run out and get the mile-thick Ron Chertow tome that inspired Miranda in the first place. And the acting talent of all of his backup players is not lost, either–you could really see and hear history unfolding on stage thanks to the characterizations given by everyone, no matter how seemingly small the role in the performance. Alexander Hamilton couldn’t have asked for a better 255th birthday present.
Thanks again to Luis and Luz Miranda for the young, scrappy and hungry lad you unleashed on the world. It was an experience I will always remember…and wish for everyone to have just once.