Even with ticket prices sailing over $100, Broadway's musical theater season continues to thrive. Rhode Island Public Radio theater critic Bill Gale caught two shows recently and says one is a masterpiece of the new, the other a pleasant enough look at the past.
You rarely encounter two art works of the same genre that are as different as “Hamilton,” and “An American in Paris.”
Created by Lin-Manuel Miranda, a Latino-American in his 30s, “Hamilton” takes on the life and times of Alexander Hamilton, America's first Treasury Secretary. In a rollicking three-hour musical done to the riming, chanted beat of hip-hop music “Hamilton” is as bodacious a show as I've ever seen.
On the other hand, we have George and Ira Gershwin's wonderfully bright and sweet music in “An American in Paris.” It tells a tale of post World War Two lives: a G.I. meets a Parisian girl and, after many a false step, finds life and love – just as you would expect.
I'd call “Hamilton” an outrageous success, a new way to do an old form and about as game-changing, driven a piece of art as you will ever see. Can Hip Hop, be a new way for the American musical theater? Maybe. It sure works for “Hamilton.”
“An American in Paris” on the other hand is about as an old-fashioned a show as you will ever catch.
Taken largely from the 1951 film starring Gene Kelly and Leslie Caron, its pokey plot is saved only by that glorious Gershwin music. Songs such as “They Can't Take That Away From Me” and “I Got Rhythm” can go a long way.
So can the opening moments of “Hamilton” where it is pointed out, loudly, that Alexander Hamilton is literally a “bastard,” born out of wedlock. Raised in St. Croix in the American Virgin Islands, he was thrown into poverty by his father's abandonment.
Hamilton raised himself by emigrating to the mainland British colonies, fought his way into what became Columbia University. He wrote much of the famed “Federalist Papers” and then convinced George Washington that he should be a General, a battler of the British, a founder of the United States of America.
Miranda's script goes on to point up Hamilton's faults, his ornery mind-set, his great talent and hidden anger, his sexual affairs, his downhill slide, his being shot and killed in a duel with another American rebel, Aaron Burr.
All of this is done with the force of the modern street talk which makes up so much of hip-hop. But “Hamilton” is about more. Over and over, it makes the point that we Americans are all immigrants, in some way.
George Washington and Thomas Jefferson are played by African-Americans. On a set of wood and real-appearing brick, the 26 cast members, are constantly in motion, always making new assertions, new arguments, a new look at an old story. Originally produced by Oskar Eustis, the former director of Providence's Trinity Rep, “Hamilton” is a musical – and an idea – that we all should see, and think about.
That's not exactly the point with “An American in Paris.” The show was put together with the idea to recreate a 1950s story, and, well, that's been accomplished, unfortunately.
The plot – boy meets girl, can't get girl, finally gets girl, is so quaint, so see-through, that you find yourself just waiting for the next Gershwin song.
And that's what saves this production along with some very show-biz-y choreography done with vibrant energy by that class of dancers you can only find on Broadway.
So, if the plot is hokey and slow, there's still something wonderful about “An American in Paris.” Hip-hop is nowhere to be seen. But the music and lyrics of those Gershwin guys is worth hearing any where.
Both of these shows will probably be running for months, perhaps years in the case of “Hamilton.” Either one is worth seeing on a trip to New York. One for a reasonable try of an old story and the other for its ground-breaking newness, its piercing look at America's birth in new colors, in a new light.
“Hamilton” is at the Richard Rodgers theater. “An American in Paris” is at the Palace Theatre both on Broadway. Bill Gale reviews the performing arts for Rhode Island Public Radio.