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Lin-Manuel Miranda’s visionary musical lives up to the hype
Okay, let’s just get this out of the way. ‘Hamilton’ is stupendously good. Yes, it’s kind of a drag that there’s so much hype around it. But there was a lot of hype around penicillin. And that worked out pretty well. If anything – and I’m truly sorry to say this – Lin-Manuel Miranda’s musical about Alexander Hamilton, the first secretary of the US Treasury, is actually better than the hype suggests.
That’s because lost in some of the more waffly discourse around its diverse casting and sociological import is the fact that ‘Hamilton’ is, first and foremost, a ferociously enjoyable show.
You probably already know that it’s a hip hop musical, something that’s been tried before with limited success. Here it works brilliantly, because Miranda – who wrote everything – understands what mainstream audiences like about hip hop, what mainstream audiences like about musical theatre, and how to craft a brilliant hybrid. Put simply, it’s big emotions and big melodies from the former, and thrilling, funny, technically virtuosic storytelling from the latter.
‘Alexander Hamilton’, the opening tune, exemplifies everything that’s great about the show. It’s got a relentlessly catchy build and momentum, a crackling, edge-of-seat sense of drama, and is absolutely chockablock with information, as the key players stride on to bring us up to speed with the eventful life that Hamilton – the ‘bastard, orphan, son of a whore and a Scotsman’ – led before he emigrated to America in 1772 as a teenager. (NB there’s no need to swot up on your history – it tells you everything you need to know).
Thomas Kail’s restaged Broadway production is confident but not flashy: a series of taut, almost tableaux-like scenes with a crisp, minimal set and choreography that allows the music, words and the striking figures of the cast – largely BAME actors in period dress – to take centre-stage.
If there were worries a Brit cast might struggle, they’re unfounded. Relative newcomer Jamael Westman is a revelation in the title role: he can spit lines like a machine gun, sing like a dream, and being both young and prodigiously tall he perfectly channels Hamilton’s gaucheness, as the socially inept but relentlessly driven immigrant sets about trying to liberate and reform America with feather-ruffling vigour. Pitched against him is silky smooth Giles Terera as Hamilton’s mentor and nemesis Aaron Burr, a smart, inscrutable career politician increasingly dismayed by the success of Hamilton’s unconventional methods. There’s a touch of Mozart-Salieri to their relationship. But one of the strengths of ‘Hamilton’ is that it’s a rare musical that acknowledges real life is more complicated than heroes and villains: we see that Hamilton is a bit of a dick; we know Burr was hardly evil.
The first half of the show has the most terrific sense of velocity I’ve ever experienced in a theatre production. Miranda and Kail know exactly what buttons to press and when. We get the kinetic, virtuosic, info-heavy numbers. But it’s properly funny too. The interludes in which our very own George III (Michael Jibson) pops up to pass sneering comment are hilarious, and come with an infernally catchy song, the lovely, Beatlesy ballad ‘You’ll Be Back’. Elsewhere Jason Pennycooke is absolutely glorious in the dual role of frenzied Frenchman Marquis de Lafayette and preening, Prince-alike Thomas Jefferson. The show certainly doesn’t shy away from the fact that historical figures rapping is fundamentally amusing.
Like an expertly sequenced mixtape, ‘Hamilton’ never settles on one tempo for too long. The introduction of the Schuyler sisters – Hamilton’s future wife Eliza (Rachelle Ann Go) and his soulmate Angelica (Rachel John) – lobs a bit of sparky, ’90s-style R&B into the mix, and cedes the bloke-tastic narrative to its female characters (briefly). And then Obioma Ugoala’s booming George Washington adds another shade entirely – a rumbling, soulful giant who rises over Hamilton and his incessant squabbling.
The second half is bleaker. After the hero’s last legislative triumph – marked by Burr’s tour de force number ‘The Room Where It Happens’, clearly the greatest song anyone will ever write about a clandestine tax deal – our hero goes into decline. The ending is soulful and sad and lower-key than you might expect. But the final question, ‘who tells your story?’, is also the exact right poser to end things on.
That’s because the great symbolic power of ‘Hamilton’ lies in its bold placement of immigrants, minorities and their culture at the very centre of the American narrative: it says, this story is ours too.
Does it feel quite so important in London? Inevitably it still feels like an American story. But we’re a nation hooked on American stories. And it is celebratory of multiculturalism and immigration, things our city knows very well. Plus, in an age when some berks still write in angrily if a black person gets a minor role in a BBC costume drama, it is of tremendous significance that a group of relatively unknown BAME actors are in a period show that is, by a really very long way, the best and cleverest thing on the London stage.
I could bore on about ‘Hamilton’ as a sociological phenomenon for days, and considered in those terms, there are faults to find, from male-centricity to US jingoism and more. But what’s great is that in the room where it happens you don’t think about any of that. Whether or not ‘Hamilton’ is the best musical of our generation – it clearly is, but whatever – it’s been a hit for the only reason anything is a hit: because it is a great work of entertainment.
Find out here about cheap, last-minute and alternative ways to get ‘Hamilton’ tickets.
This review is from 2017. As of 18th November 2019, the cast of ‘Hamilton’ features Karl Queensborough as Alexander Hamilton, Allyson Ava-Brown as Angelica Schuyler, Jason Pennycooke as Marquis de Lafayette/Thomas Jefferson, Emilie Louise Israel as Peggy Schuyler/ Maria Reynolds, Trevor Dion Nicholas as George Washington, Simon-Anthony Rhoden as Aaron Burr, Sharon Rose as Eliza Hamilton, Emile Ruddock as Hercules Mulligan/James Madison, Carl Spencer as John Laurens/Philip Hamilton and Gavin Spokes as King George.