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The press opening of Hamilton, which has taken up residence in the Kennedy Center Opera House for the summer, was a predictably Washington affair, populated with local and national radio personalities, reality show stars, and philanthropists, all of them awaiting the now-familiar chords that open America’s favorite musical. D.C.’s obsession with a show that paints the federal government in such a favorable light seems easily dismissable in a place as appearance-obsessed as this one, where being seen doing something is, at times, more important than actually doing it. Yet the show—through a magical combination of hip-hop, history, and theatrical fairy dust—transcends the hype. In this capital, at this time, this alternately tragic and uplifting story allows its audience to believe in good government, even if just for a few hours.
Aside from the obvious similarities between the show’s namesake and the performing arts center’s namesake, the Opera House seems tailor-made for this show. Touring productions tote sets and equipment from coast to coast for years at a time and can look out of place on stages of different sizes, but the Kennedy Center is a perfect physical and acoustic fit. Every note comes through clearly, which is essential because, as you may have heard a thousand times before, Lin-Manuel Miranda has packed centuries worth of American history, hip-hop references, and musical theater stylings into speedily delivered lines that will seamlessly worm their way into your brain.
Yes, Hamilton is as amazing as advertised. Yes, even if you have listened to the original cast recording, you will find new ways to appreciate Miranda’s lyricism and diverse sets of knowledge. Yes, the tickets that people camped out overnight for are worth it. Miranda and the rest of the creative team created a show that is compelling enough on its own, then assembled a spectacular group of artists to push it over the edge.
Starting with the title character, Austin Scott imbues Alexander Hamilton with a sly sexiness that allows him to advance through life despite his lower class origins. With apologies to Miranda, who played Hamilton as a brainiac with a constantly churning mind, the sultry tenderness that Scott gives the character makes songs like the raunchy “Say No to This” more significant, and projects his self-obsession more clearly. There are multiple ways into every character, something that Scott and Nicholas Christopher, as the antagonistic Aaron Burr, make a point of emphasizing. Burr can be made to seem either like a villain or a sympathetic man frustrated when opportunities pass him by, and Christopher trades heavily in Burr’s villainous qualities, slithering across the stage as he fights for attention and respect.
The intent communicated through movement is one of the best parts of seeing Hamilton on stage. Miranda’s artistry is fully present if you listen to the cast recording, The Hamilton Mixtape, or any number of YouTube covers, but seeing how choreographer Andy Blankenbuehler sets those ideas in motion makes the production more complete. It’s so mesmerizing that it shouldn’t be spoiled, but suffice it to say it has a cinematic quality that projects to the back of the Opera House—a venue that seats nearly 1,000 more people than the Richard Rodgers Theatre, Hamilton’s New York home.
In movement heavy moments, the 21 castmembers fill the stage to the point where it feels like it’s vibrating. When only one or two actors are on the stage, it seems to shrink, forcing the audience to focus only on them. This does not work with every musical and every performer, but when Scott and Christopher duet on “Dear Theodosia” or when Julia K. Harriman, playing Eliza, Hamilton’s wife, looks back on their marriage in “Burn,” the performances pull you in. In a room packed with 2,300 other bodies, it is impossible to look away.
It is also impossible, while watching Hamilton in Washington, to not consider the show’s D.C. origins. More than 9 years ago, Miranda performed an early version of the opening number for the Obamas and guests at the White House, referring to Hamilton as someone who embodies hip-hop. By the middle of Obama’s second term, the full show was selling out in New York and transforming people’s perceptions of musical theater. The show also speaks to D.C.’s origins, when three Virginia gentlemen, Misters Washington, Jefferson, and Madison, push to move the nation’s capital closer to home. Centuries later, the same river the men want to return to remains a cultural touchstone for pre-show and intermission selfie-takers.
Looking back, Hamilton feels specifically of the Obama era not only because it originated then, but because Hamilton and Obama, two driven men born on islands who arrived in New York ready to prove themselves and ended up dealing with financial reform, have more than a few things in common. Both outsiders aimed to fix the federal government from within but in both cases the optimism they brought with them was fleeting.
The forward-looking lines in Hamilton land particularly hard these days. “If we lay a strong enough foundation, we’ll pass it on to you,” Burr tells his daughter about building a new nation from the ground up. He is proud of what he is giving the next generation—that sense of national pride seems to have gone missing in 2018.
Absorbing the remaining bits of good is a suitable coping mechanism in dark times but even this wholly good thing is colored by the world that exists outside of it. “Raise a glass to freedom, something they can never take away, no matter what they tell you” Hamilton sings with his pals Hercules Mulligan, John Laurens, and the Marquis de Lafayette early in Act One. As those words reverberated off the plush red walls of the Opera House, people seeking the freedom those men helped secure slept in cages inside detention centers.
To Sept. 16 at 2700 F St. NW. $99–$625. (202) 467-4600. kennedy-center.org.