I’ve experienced dozens of Broadway musicals over the years, but three absolutely stand out from the crowd. In 1979, I was a 14-year-old theatre enthusiast, and seeing “Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street” was a revelation. It’s titanic production (some claimed TOO big) at the then Uris Theatre, was one of the galvanizing forces of my young life as an artist. Angela Lansbury became like an empress to me. And, years later, when I actually got to perform in a show with Ken Jennings (who won a Drama Desk Award for “Sweeney”, as Tobias)–it was beyond thrilling. When Mr. Jennings introduced me to Len Cariou (the Tony and Drama Desk Award winner, as the original Mr. Todd himself!) backstage after one performance–I could’ve fainted. “Sweeney Todd” remains my favorite musical, but there was a period when I questioned whether I was blinded by rose-colored nostalgia. That question was answered when I attended the 2005 Broadway revival starring Patti LuPone and Michael Cerveris. With a radical, stripped-down production, from the maverick West End director John Doyle–“Sweeney” maintained its greatness for me. Just as good 26 years on…and in some ways better. Stephen Sondheim is a god.
In 1996, a triptych of events, shot the popularity of Jonathan Larson’s “Rent” into the stratosphere. First, Mr. Larson died of an aortic dissection (often thought to be AIDS, an urban legend brought on by one of the major themes of the show itself), on the same day as the musical’s Off-Broadway premiere. Next, the show captured the Pulitzer Prize for Drama. Soon after, “Rent” bowed on Broadway, and grabbed a number of Tony Awards–including Best Musical. I was in the audience for “Rent” that September…and the experience was astonishing. People were dancing and rocking in their seats, and the cast couldn’t help but occasionally acknowledge them. The feeling in the Nederlander Theatre was electric. I wept during Adam Pascal’s rendition of “One Song Glory”, I gasped at the power of Daphne Rubin-Vega’s belting of “Out Tonight”, and I thrilled to the cast’s enthusiasm during the rush of “La Vie Boheme”. “Rent” was a masterful last gasp from a talent that would never get another shot. Larson is legendary now, but I’ve heard a number of “Rent” naysayers raise objection to its rocket-like trajectory. Balderdash! If you sat in that theatre with me, early into the “Rent” juggernaut, you’d have to be a misanthrope to deny its power. “Rent”…that beautiful, sparkling, brilliant star–ran for 12 years. I made certain to see it again before that original production went dark.
It’s now 2015, and we have been given “Hamilton”. Can it possibly be as exceptional, as almost every single New York critic has pronounced it to be, since it hit the big stage in August, after a lauded run at the Public Theater earlier this year? Will “Hamilton” dominate the 2016 Tony Awards? Before that, will it match the “Rent” feat of grabbing the Pulitzer Prize, becoming only the 9th musical to do so? Is it accurate to label Lin-Manuel Miranda’s accomplishment…genius? A resounding YES to all. And you can access my August review of “Hamilton”, on this site, to read how I marveled at it from the very last seat of the Richard Rodgers Theatre, just days after its official opening. And in the space of three months, “Hamilton” has climbed the ranks to position itself amongst my three favorite musicals of all time. I knew it held greatness when I saw it. And now with its incredible cast album available…I can’t stop listening. “Hamilton”‘s music is extraordinary. It makes me wish I had seen Miranda’s “In The Heights”. I’ll probably end up buying that one too. It’s difficult to grasp just how Mr. Miranda pulled this miraculous, non-traditional feat off. It makes one consider, the possibility of a muse.
Is it all superlatives to be expected here? Yeah, I’m afraid it is. You already know I adore the show, but does the hip-hop and rap-infused cast album properly present its excellence? F*ck, yeah! Upon its release, it debuted at #12 on the Billboard 200 charts. That just happens to be the highest entrance for a cast recording in over 50 years. Highlights? Where to begin. I can’t help repeating the lyrics to “My Shot” for hours after hearing the incredible and vigorous number. Listen above for evidence. And the superb Jonathan Groff nails every single King George “relief” appearance during the hilarious renditions of “You’ll Be Back”, “What Comes Next”, and “I Know Him”. I didn’t give enough credit to the ladies of the ensemble when I watched male-domininant “Hamilton”, but I’m making up for that now by loving “The Schuyler Sisters”, “Helpless”, and “Satisfied”. The contribution of the female actors, led by Renee Elise Goldsberry and Phillipa Soo, has been underrated. Thomas Jefferson’s return from France is chronicled in the electric, “What’d I Miss”, and Daveed Diggs is wonderful. And my heart breaks during “Blow Us All Away”. I could go on. “Hamilton”, like “Rent” before it, is a game-changer. It’s transforming Broadway. How often does this happen? Once a generation is my guess. So, if you can’t quite get a ticket right away, this astounding 46-song recorded masterpiece should suffice for a while. “Hamilton” is an absolute addiction. Listening helps quell the infection, but I don’t believe there’s a real cure, except for time. Like maybe a generation from now.
This recording rates a perfect 10.