My friend and I held our breath as soon as the Fox Theater lights dimmed on Aug. 25 and the overture for “Alexander Hamilton” began. After listening to the live musical soundtrack for months, we were finally in the room where it happens.
As its title suggests, “Hamilton,” a musical written by Lin-Manuel Miranda, tells the tale of American founding father Alexander Hamilton (Pierre Jean Gonzalez). As Hamilton’s sister-in-law Angelica (Ta’Rea Campbell) laments in “Who Lives, Who Dies, Who Tells Your Story,” “every other founding father’s story gets told.” “Hamilton” therefore dedicates two hours and 50 minutes of a mixture of rap and show tunes to describe decades of the political conquests and relationships of the rags-to-riches historical figure. Miranda’s decision to tell Hamilton’s story using a multiracial cast and a hip-hop musical style set “Hamilton” apart from other American historical retellings as “a story of America then told by America now.” The musical grew in popularity from its Broadway debut in 2015 and its Disney+ recording release in 2020. The Fox Theatre’s production will run from Aug. 26 to Sept. 26, 2021.
Though I’m incredibly partial to the original cast of “Hamilton” (Lin-Manuel Miranda’s rendition of “My Shot” will always give me chills), I was nevertheless star-struck by how the Fox Theatre’s production added its own quirks and idiosyncrasies to each character. Stephanie Jae Park’s portrayal of Eliza was more emotive than that of Phillipa Soo: Park delivers Eliza’s resolute line “I’m erasing myself from the narrative” with an irritated, rather than a removed, tone, which made me gain a new respect for her as a bold character. Neil Haskell plays King George with a nasally, grating voice that only furthers his obnoxious role in the musical. Gonzalez in particular plays a tough, confident and direct Hamilton who raises his voice at British officials and boldly asks for Eliza’s hand in marriage. I certainly missed the wistfulness and warmth of Miranda’s portrayal, but I appreciated that we as the audience received an entirely new representation of Alexander Hamilton along with Gonzalez’ stronger vocal ability.
Beyond its novel characterizations, I also marveled at how the live theater production used light and sound to bring Alexander Hamilton’s resilient story to life. The Fox Theatre was bathed in a cool aquamarine during “Hurricane,” and lit up with striking, vibrant colors during the gunshots in war songs such as “Right Hand Man.” As an audience member who knew an embarrassingly little amount about American history, I found that the shocking, sudden flashes of lights helped immerse me into the narrative. “Hamilton’s” sharp contrast between loud and quiet moments in the soundtrack were emphasized by the Fox Theatre’s rich acoustics, which caused the voices of the ensemble to grow louder than any song on its Spotify soundtrack. I particularly noticed that the live production introduced longer pauses than its original counterpart: Angelica’s extra beat of silence while on stage alone with Hamilton in “Satisfied,” for example, only exemplified her regret at throwing away her chance with him.
The charm of the immersive live theater experience is being part of a dynamic audience. After its Atlanta production had been postponed for 18 months, the theater was packed with masked patrons who, like Aaron Burr, were willing to wait for it. In a year-and-a-half filled with solo Netflix screenings and living room movie nights, many of us have likely forgotten what it feels like to experience a work of art in a community with a crowd. For the first time since the COVID-19 pandemic, I watched as a musical I loved evolved from my own individual experience to a collective one as the audience around me clapped, cheered or laughed at King George’s dance moves. I felt that the musical’s themes of hope, resilience and determination were especially poignant after the school and family stress that I have experienced due to the pandemic in the past year. The audience’s resounding applause following the closing number “Who Lives, Who Dies, Who Tells Your Story” not only honored the immense talent of the cast, but also celebrated that the pandemic did not cause the production to throw away its shot.
“Hamilton” was certainly a collective experience, but it also granted me an opportunity to reflect on how much the musical meant to me. Hamilton’s earnest desire to “not throw away my shot” reminds me of the values that my parents and Emory’s culture have instilled in me to work as hard as I can academically. On the other hand, I empathized with Aaron Burr’s ambiguous future idealization of being “in the room where it happened” as a senior at Emory, because he reminded me that it is never too late to realize your passions. My connection to these characters made the production feel intimate and personal to me, even as I was surrounded by people who were laughing at the same jokes or tearing up at the same numbers. As an audience, we collectively experienced each high and low of the production, but I guarantee that every member in the Fox’s 4,000+ seats encountered their own unique interpretation that made “Hamilton” feel like home.
With a brilliant cast, extraordinary sound and lighting and the joy of returning to in-person theater, seeing “Hamilton” at the Fox Theatre was a night to remember. The Fox Theatre production mixes the best of the original production with new twists to drive home a central “Hamilton” message: how lucky we are to be alive right now.