Is Hamilton, the smash-hit American history musical that won a whopping 11 Tony Awards and a Pulitzer Prize when it debuted on Broadway in 2015 and won the hearts of critics and audiences the world over, as good as everyone says?
In a word, yes. If you want to stop reading here and just book your tickets, we’ll understand.
There is a reason it is the most hyped show on Earth, and its writer and first star, Lin-Manuel Miranda, is now a household name. Some 3 million people watched the musical when it appeared on Disney Plus in July 2020, and almost 8 million more have seen it live, in cities across the US and in London’s West End. Now it’s Sydney’s turn, with the only production of the show in the world right now playing at the Lyric Theatre.
With the soundtrack available on Spotify and the original Broadway cast version available to anyone with a Disney Plus account on demand, Hamilton is competing not so much with other musicals for your dollars and attention (there are no other shows of this type that can match the show’s tactical brilliance), but with itself. Most in the audience are at least familiar with the show by this point, and quite a few are able to mouth along to every word behind their masks. If you can see the original Broadway version any time you want and listen to the soundtrack 24 hours a day, what power does the staged version still hold?
In a word, magic. The entire cast is extraordinary, with every dance move sharp as a tack and the constantly shifting stage a whirlwind of activity. Seeing it all click together like a precision-built Swiss watch is intoxicating. There are genuine thrills from the first notes to the final bows.
Jason Arrow is electrifying in the titular role, with a thousand-watt movie star smile and a cheeky self-confidence that makes the ‘polymath, pain in the ass, massive pain’ softer and far more charming than Miranda’s acerbic turn in the role. He’s perfect as the firebrand revolutionary full of ideals and ambition, and you can’t help but be in his corner. But Hamilton really is a two-hander, with Hamilton’s best frenemy Aaron Burr at least as large a presence as Alexander. Lyndon Watts is magnetic in the role, pulling focus in every scene he’s in. He has the perfect mixture of jealousy, desperation and reckless self-aggrandisement to put real pathos into tragedy. There’s gorgeous beauty in key song ‘Dear Theodosia’ that is genuinely moving.
Chloé Zuel is also extraordinary as Hamilton’s wife, Eliza. Her powerful voice soars in ‘Burn’, her big solo number. But as gorgeous as her singing is, her silence is even more powerful. There’s a moment in that number where the music cuts out and she pauses, radiating pain and rage. You could have heard a pin drop as every single one of the 2,000 people in the Lyric held their breath while Zuel stretched the silence. There were actual goosebumps.
The opening night crowd clearly knew the show well, with beloved characters like George Washington (Matu Ngaropo), Thomas Jefferson (Victory Ndukwe, also playing Lafayette), King George III (Brent Hill) and Hercules Mulligan (played in this version with a joyful exuberance by Shaka Cook) and Eliza and sisters Angelica (Akina Edmonds) and Peggy (Elandrah Eramiha) all drawing raucous applause. In fact, when Arrow introduced himself as Hamilton, the entire show paused to allow the audience to settle and the cheers to die down. But that doesn’t mean you have to know every word to the Marquis de Lafayette’s insanely fast ‘Guns and Ships’ rap to enjoy the show. Watching a cast as perfect as this one performing a show as brilliant as Hamilton is the apotheosis of theatregoing. Every single performance is jaw-dropping in its beauty and power. First-timers will probably miss some of the words and context, as many of the songs are fast and furious, with complex internal rhyme schemes and clever nods to musical genres from everything from Gilbert and Sullivan to contemporary R’n’B. That doesn’t mean the show is impenetrable, though, quite the opposite - masterful staging and brilliant lyrics make it easy to follow the story of the doomed Alexander from ambitious 19-year-old revolutionary to that fateful duel at age 49. That’s not a spoiler, by the way. The show was written for an American audience, every one of whom would know at least three facts about Alexander Hamilton before the curtain rises: 1. He’s on the ten-dollar bill; 2. He came up with the concept of federalism; and 3. He died in a duel with Aaron Burr. Indeed, Burr opens the show by introducing himself as “the damn fool that shot him”. Knowing Hamilton’s fate from the opening lines infuses every scene with Burr with poignant dramatic irony.
Without the knowledge that Americans have walking into the room, does Hamilton resonate with a 2021 Australian audience? Yes and no. Americans have a mythologised notion of the country’s foundation that is completely alien to Australia. That puts Australian audiences at a slight disadvantage off the bat, but the performances are so solid, the music so catchy and the lyrics so clever that even if you know nothing about the show or its historical context, you’ll be absolutely blown away. The more familiar with it you are, though, the more you’ll get out of it. So you’re just going to have to go again.