Geiger's Culture Counter: Don't throw away your shot
After two years of waiting the moment finally arrived. On Saturday I saw “Hamilton: An American Musical,” arguably the hottest show of the century, at the Denver Center for Performing Arts. I’m satisfied that I didn’t throw away my shot.
In 2015 I learned what the fuss was about when my Twitter feed exploded with praise for the daring work, but I didn’t want to spoil myself by listening to the soundtrack before seeing it in person. Songs in musicals are tent poles, but threads are still needed to tie it all together.
For those that don’t know: the musical tells the tale of America’s first secretary of the treasury from the Revolutionary War to his premature death. It was nominated for a record 16 Tony awards and won 11 for its genius rap lyrics and breathtaking choreography performed by a cast that’s 98 percent non-white. Having only known he was on the $10 bill and died in a duel, at first I didn’t see what could be so exciting.
Then the Grammy’s happened. I wasn’t going to look a gift horse in the mouth and watched the original cast perform “Alexander Hamilton,” the opening number, during the awards ceremony. From then on I limited myself to just playing the first captivating song.
If I still have trouble following the narrative to “The Lion King” with the Broadway soundtrack I naively thought I would be lost by listening to the second track. Yet “Hamilton’s” songs are practically the script and there’s only one surplus scene saved for the stage. I was encouraged—and now encourage others—to listen ahead because of the fast and complex rhymes.
My mom couldn’t bear to wait anymore and wanted the CD for her birthday. So in 2016, I bought it and the companion book “Hamilton: The Revolution,” partly as a gift to me, too.
We listened to the whole 2 hours 30 minutes in one sitting on a road trip and by the end I was emotionally overwhelmed. The energetic first half gave me the courage to tackle an army and the second half denouement turned me into a sobbing puddle. iTunes still shows a heavy preference to Act 1, which I’ve listened to 36 times, while “Burn,” “It’s Quiet Uptown” and “Who Lives, Who Dies, Who Tells Your Story” hover around 12 because they will always make my eyes water.
I learned that Hamilton’s life was so more complicated than imagined. He was an illegitimate orphan immigrant who lost his son in a duel and had an affair. There’s a reason why creator Lin-Manuel Miranda thought “gangster story” when he read Ron Chernow’s biography on the Founding Father.
I poured over the nearly 300-page book, fan-named the Hamiltome, and read a chapter each night. The annotated lyrics taught me that “10 Duel Commandments” borrows from Notorious B.I.G.’s “10 Crack Commandments,” Hugh Laurie helped with “You’ll Be Back,” and “The Story of Tonight” uses a tune Miranda wrote in high school.
My obsession grew and I subscribed to “The Room Where It Happens” podcast, where each episode has superfans talking to other superfans—like Adam Savage and Rachel Bloom—along with cast members about their favorite song. The instant it dropped I downloaded “The Hamilton Mixtape” to hear how Miranda’s inspirations covered his songs.
I saw the Hamiltome come to life in the PBS documentary “Hamilton’s America” and Miranda recite his masterpiece while wasted on Comedy Central’s “Drunk History.”
On Saturday I had goose bumps as I mouthed the memorized lyrics. It wasn’t the version I'm accustomed to—no one can replace Christopher Jackson or Leslie Odom Jr.—but all were still spectacular. If the program didn’t tell me I wouldn’t have known that an understudy played Eliza. Additionally, seeing Mathenee Treco, who grew up in Aurora after his family moved from Nassau, play Hercules Mulligan and James Madison was something special.
Reality didn't sink in until “Satisfied” and I shed a few tears of joy witnessing the most difficult track of the musical sung live. Shortly thereafter they flowed again during dancehall rhythm of “Wait For It” as Aaron Burr exposed his heart.
The innovative staging and brilliant turntable in the floor for songs like “Non-Stop” and “Yorktown” dazzled me while the stark pair of chairs in “Dear Theodosia” carried immense weight.
Words and music can only tell so much of the story. I was astonished when the handheld mics were brought out for the cabinet battles and Thomas Jefferson tossed papers in “The Reynolds Pamphlet.” Likewise, King George having cameos outside of his songs made me smile and the passionate jazz dancing in “The Room Where It Happens” left my jaw on the floor.
“Hamilton” coaxed me to give hip-hop a second chance, reinvigorated my love for theater by having me go to the DCPA 13 times in the past two years, and blessed me with an experience like no other. When I awoke Sunday I wondered for a few moments it was a dream. Then I looked and saw a souvenir shirt telling me to “rise up.”
Oceans rise, empires fall, but “Hamilton” will be with me forever.