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Theatre Reviews Hamilton and King Charles III make history in more ways than one

Rap battles between Thomas Jefferson (Daveed Diggs, left), and Alexander Hamilton (Lin-Manuel Miranda, who is also Book, music and lyrics) are among the highlights of the Broadway hit Hamilton.

SARA KRULWICH/NYT

Hamilton

4 stars
Book, music and lyrics by Lin-Manuel Miranda
Directed by Thomas Kail
Starring Lin-Manuel Miranda
At the Richard Rodgers Theatre in New York

King Charles III

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2 1/2 stars
Written by Mike Bartlett
Directed by Rupert Goold
Starring Tim Pigott-Smith
At the Music Box Theatre in New York
 

The history play is being thoroughly reinvented on Broadway – for better and for verse.

Hamilton, to begin with, is everything they say it is. Lin-Manuel Miranda's hit hip-hop history musical about U.S. founding father Alexander Hamilton – and, more broadly, about who owns the republic and its stories – is simply the most exciting piece of theatre to make it to the Main Stem this millennium.

How does a bastard, orphan, son of a whore and a
Scotsman, dropped into the middle of a
Forgotten spot in the Caribbean by providence
Impoverished, in squalor
Grow up to be a hero and a scholar?

Aaron Burr (the sly Leslie Odom Jr.), a lawyer, politician and infamous duel-winner positioned by Miranda as the Salieri to Hamilton's Mozart, begins the show by dropping this verse. It gives an idea of the lyrical intricacy and dexterous rhyme scheming to come.

Hamilton is a listening show, one that keeps you on the edge of your seat with its rapier-witted raps – and, in its most brilliant ones, makes you want to leap out of it.

Miranda's masterful musical – which has now amassed a record $57-million (U.S.) in advance tickets sales – works on multiple levels.

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On the most basic, it is a stage biography of Hamilton (Miranda himself, bouncing around the stage like a cerebral spring) – the man who was George Washington's right-hand man during the Revolutionary War; wrote the bulk of The Federalist Papers; and later became the USA's first Secretary of the Treasury and eventually the face on the $10 bill.

For both history nerds and hip-hop heads, rap battles between Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson (the impossibly charismatic Daveed Diggs, who also plays the Marquis de Lafayette) over debt and foreign entanglements will be the highlights by a mile, or eight.

To some, telling the story of an American founding father through rap and R&B with a diverse cast will seem radical in itself.

But Hamilton actually suggests the opposite – that this form, and the so-called non-traditional casting, are a self-evident way to theatrically get at the truth of these historical figures: immigrants and orphans who fought oppression, used their verbal skills to create a country from scratch, and followed a macho code that led to shootouts when words failed or were not enough.

Miranda not only knows his country's history, but is well acquainted with theatre and hip hop's founding fathers – and through lyrical and beat-based shout-outs goes out of his way to position his musical as an example of continuity rather than change.

Hamilton drops references to Rodgers and Hammerstein, in a sly nod to South Pacific; and W.S. Gilbert, whose patter songs place rhythm and rhyme at the very birth of musical theatre; and even William Shakespeare, whose history plays similarly mix together high- and low-born characters, comedy and tragedy, and require deep listening.

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Meanwhile, everyone from Grandmaster Flash to the Notorious B.I.G. get nods in the show, in the grand tradition of sampling that lies at the heart of all kinds of culture.

With Hamilton, The Color Purple and the Japanese-American musical Allegiance on Broadway right now, this season is being called the most diverse in the history of the commercial theatre district nicknamed "the Great White Way." This has led to a more complex critical conversation surrounding race and theatre – and not everyone has lined up behind Miranda's musical.

Katori Hall, the African-American playwright best known for her Martin Luther King drama The Mountaintop, recently wrote: "Though I applaud Hamilton for its use of race-revolutionary casting, let us not forget that brown bodies are still being used to further mythologize and perpetuate the narratives of dead white men, historically and currently the most privileged group in American society."

I see this as a misreading of Hamilton, however – a show that, certainly, gives an entertaining and accurate account of its subject's achievements and shortcomings, but is at all times talking about America today. At a moment when Republican front-runner Donald Trump speaks of "anchor babies," here we have the Marquis de Lafayette and Hamilton high-fiving and shouting: "Immigrants: They get the job done."

Director Thomas Kail's vivid, clear production is not colour-blind, but colour-conscious – with the race of the actors something to be read, rather than ignored, there to suggest modern parallels or subvert the subject matter. Having African-American actors playing slave owners like Washington (a surprisingly sweet Christopher Jackson) is not a whitewashing of history, but a daring, multilayered theatrical act – and one that never lets you forget America's original sin for a moment. Notably, the only lead currently played by a white actor is King George III (a superbly sardonic Andrew Rannells from The Book of Mormon).

Hamilton is about power and privilege as much as anything – and is intensely self-aware of its own narrative limitations, frequently returning to the question of who is telling this story, and whose story it is.

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Without giving away too much, the way Miranda handles the relationships between Hamilton, his wife, Eliza Hamilton (Phillipa Soo), and her sister, Angelica (Renée Elise Goldsberry), acknowledges that there are always voices sidelined and silenced in any history. And, in the final half-hour of the musical, Hamilton follows that thread beyond the show's earlier visceral, musical and intellectual pleasures to an ending that packs an emotional and political punch and lifts the enterprise up that extra notch – to genius.

King Charles III, a new play by Mike Bartlett, is also a mix of innovation and a traditionalism. It's a history play set in the future, written in blank verse. The premise, while certainly clever, does not sustain.

In this mock-Shakespearean drama, Bartlett – a stylistically promiscuous British playwright whose plays Cock and Bull have been performed across Canada – turns his eyes to the moment when Elizabeth II dies and Prince Charles ascends.

In Bartlett's imagining, Charles is a man who has been waiting on the shelf for too long – and now yearns to wield the power he possesses. "My life has been a ling'ring for the throne," he says in his first soliloquy, delivered in iambic pentameter.

Given what we know about Prince Charles and his so-called "black spider memos" to British politicians, this speculative future King Charles (a convincing Tim Pigott-Smith) is entirely plausible – though his first intervention, refusing to sign a bill that limits the power of the press, is an unlikely one.

Charles's principled stand soon provokes a constitutional crisis – and he finds himself not only facing down a Labour prime minister (Adam James), but the ambitious Kate (Lydia Wilson) and his son William (Oliver Chris), too.

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All the while, Harry (Richard Goulding) – mourning his grandmother – seeks his own way to escape impotent symbolism, after falling for an arts student named Jess (Tafline Steen).

Bartlett's frequent nods to Shakespeare are fun, while the verse is often entertaining – as in a speech where Charles compares the monarchy to a map that travellers are happy to have to turn back to when the GPS fails.

After the novelty wears off, however, boredom creeps in – especially as the characters behave in unsurprising ways and the plot slouches towards the obvious conclusion: That it will take the photogenic Will and Kate to keep the monarchy alive and thriving.

It's very possible I might have enjoyed this overlong parody more in a production other than Rupert Goold's, which, tonally, never settles on exactly how serious the exercise is. The director has hired actors who, for the most part, look like the Royals in question – and this movie-of-the-week casting asks us to engage with these people as celebrities, as at a wax museum, rather than as characters.

While Hamilton, the more spiritually Shakespearean history play, uses a colourful cast to make the past feel more like the present, King Charles III dreams of a white future – save for one black fellow in the cast who, inevitably, ends up playing a kebab seller. Bartlett's writing may be imaginative, but the production blandly holds the mirror up to nature. When it comes to the non-musical plays that make it to Broadway, Anglophilia wins again – while so many of the current crop of truly interesting young American playwrights remain sequestered off-Broadway.

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