The biggest musical of the social media age has landed in London. Andrzej Lukowski tells the story behind the hype
Just under a decade ago, a smart man named Lin-Manuel Miranda read Pulitzer-winning writer Ron Chernow’s book about Alexander Hamilton, the colourful first secretary of the US Treasury. It gave him an idea.
If you’re not familiar with the musical he wrote, let’s get you up to speed. ‘Hamilton’ is an action-packed biographical drama about the life of one of the US founding fathers, who was born in poverty, helped build a nation and died in a tragic, pointless duel with his former mentor Aaron Burr.
It’s a hyperliterate hip hop musical, rapped all the way through, but spiked with lashings of melodic, ’90s R&B-style singing. The cast is pointedly diverse: it’s a story about famous white people largely played by non-white actors, and a good-natured but powerful reclamation of American history that’s frequently very funny.
The critics went nuts for ‘Hamilton’ when it opened off-Broadway in the Public Theater’s 299-seat Newman Theater, with Miranda in the title role. But critics go nuts for a lot of things. However, the word-of-mouth for ‘Hamilton’ was wild. Everyone who saw it raved about it. Choice cuts from the soundtrack album were endlessly shared on social media. It appealed to everyone from hip hop heads to history buffs. The tunes were bangers and its celebration of immigration chimed with the last days of Obama’s America.
It won 11 Tonys and Miranda won the Pulitzer Prize. The Grammy-winning cast album was the fifth biggest-selling record in the US in 2016. Demand went through the roof. Touts started buying up the tickets en masse; in response, producers upped the top seat price to an eye-watering $849. The cast performed at the Obama White House and got into a feud with the Trump White House after delivering a polite address to Vice President Pence when he came to see the show. Plans to remove Hamilton from the $10 bill were quietly shelved. Miranda became a superstar.
There’s just one milestone left, and that’s London’s West End. The omens are good: the UK production, which finally opens on December 21, sold out its run when tickets went on sale in January (more will be released soon), while super-producer Cameron Mackintosh has such faith in it that he’s poured literally millions into fancying up the Victoria Palace Theatre for its new tenant. The London cast – a mix of newcomers and old hands, mirroring the US production (strictly no slebs) – needs to prove itself. Some commentators have asked whether Brits will fall for a show about US history (in fact it’s about British history too). But they’re missing the point: the soundtrack has already been devoured by thousands of us. ‘Hamilton’ is already a hit. Now it’s arrived.
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