“It looks to me like Pirates of the Caribbean” said my mother, upon looking at the set. “Am I on the right lines?” “I suppose”, I smirked, “if you’re talking about a forgotten spot in the Caribbean, by providence impoverished….” This startling piece of cutting wit was wasted upon my mother however, as she had not listened to the Hamilton soundtrack. She was among the few. Only a few days after the opening night, the Victoria Palace Theatre was mostly filled with Hamilton megafans- the fans who could rap every line and sing every note of this 11-Tony-Awards-winning musical. Many people opted to wear Hamilton T-shirts, with the now iconic logo of Hamilton pointing at the sky, on top of a star, emblazoned on them. I was surprised (and faintly delighted) to find someone was even cosplaying as Eliza Hamilton, one of the principal female roles, in the queue to the toilets.
Giles Terera, playing Hamilton’s arch-nemesis Aaron Burr, has the first words of the musical: “How does a bastard, orphan…”, and immediately got the audience on board as soon as he strode out from the wings. Even as he started to speak a wave of excitement rode over the audience, as the cheering commenced. For the majority of the people in the audience (including myself) it was the first time we had seen a live production of this musical, although we had listened to the soundtrack many times. We had waited in earnest as productions opened in New York, then Chicago, then toured the US, and finally it had come to London. The musical about the founding of the USA, the Revolutionary War, and wisecracking, quick-thinking Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton was finally here. As the cheering died down, my mother whispered to me “I fear there may be hysteria at the end.” True, it was hard to imagine what other musical would have quite the same effect on an audience. It’s hard to imagine (although I’m sure many do) who would paint themselves green to see a production of ‘Wicked’, and who would turn up to ‘Cats’ with cat ears and a fluffy tail? Hamilton has become a brand, a way of life, and a philosophy. It’s hard to pinpoint exactly where this happened, but on Tumblr and Instagram, a myriad of “theatre kids” make art, tell jokes & more importantly have discussions and analyse every detail of the musical.
It’s not hard to pinpoint why this happened, though. The line that got the most applause (without a doubt), was “Immigrants, we get the job done”, spoken by Lafayette and Hamilton in the rousing battle song “Yorktown (The World Turned Upside Down)”. Lin-Manuel Miranda, the creator of ‘Hamilton’ wrote about this song “This election cycle has brought xenophobia and vilification of immigrants back to the forefront of US politics. This is a musical counterweight”. Hamilton has resonated with people, it’s as simple as that. The outstanding music & the fact that this is the first mainstream musical based around hip-hop only adds to this resonance. It’s the music of the people, providing a message of hope and provides an origin story in verse for America. The diverse cast adds to this message of anti-xenophobia, and the message that the ‘American story’ is for everyone. It would have been easy for Miranda to simply tell Hamilton’s story, but instead the musical explores what it means to write history (“Who lives, Who dies, Who tells your story”), and what it means to participate in the founding of a nation (“The Room Where it Happens.”) It’s about far more than just Alexander Hamilton: it examines what it actually means to participate in a narrative, and the responsibility that goes along with it.
The lyrics deserve their own review, if I’m completely honest. The musical is essentially made of thousands of soundbites, couplets and tercets of clever word play, and plenty of double meaning- try “A bunch of revolutionary manumission abolitionists? Give me a position, show me where the ammunition is.” The sheer intertextuality is astonishing too- from Macbeth: “Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow creeps in its petty pace from day to day”, to the Notorious B.I.G, whose 1997 song “10 Crack Commandments” is referenced with “10 Duel Commandments”. The lyrics are simply so inspiring and perhaps this is another reason for the Hamilton phenomenon- it’s a musical you listen to and then are ready to found your own nation. A few lyrics I particularly like are “You get love for it, you get hate for it, you get nothing if you wait for it” (from ‘The Room where it Happens’) and “I’m just like my country, I’m young, scrappy & hungry, and I’m not throwing away my shot” (from ‘My Shot’.) If I have an essay to write, I know Hamilton is the music I will listen to to get the job done. The words also have a distinctly modern feel, putting modern beats and catchphrases into centuries-old historical figures’ mouths, and making them feel contemporary and current. Jefferson and Madison feel like us, and it feels like we could be best friends with Angelica Schuyler.
(Spoiler ahead!) The part that’s possibly the most heart rending, is Philip Hamilton’s death in Act Two. Hamilton has just cheated on his wife with Maria Reynolds, and as Hamilton and Eliza gather round a dying Philip, they relive his childhood in “Stay Alive- Reprise” (“I would always change the line/un, deux, trois, quatre…” recalling “Take A Break”). This is in stark contrast to the upbeat, battle-rousing anthems in Act One. Act Two shows us the consequences of Hamilton’s overexuberance & arrogance in harsh terms: his infidelity and the death of his son, and then finally himself as he faces down Aaron Burr in a duel. It’s a cruel reminder that although Hamilton is idolised and glorified on various musical theatre accounts on various internet platforms (Tumblr… Instagram…), there is a more serious side to his life.
The two brightest jewels in this production were King George III, played with panache by Michael Jibson, and Lafayette/Jefferson, played with the appropriate amount of exuberant frivolity by Jason Pennycooke. King George III has been a hit in every production of Hamilton, and it’s easy to see why. His 3 short songs (each with a repeated melody) punctuate the rapping & beat boxing with easygoing campness. George III’s songs are easy listening, an easy character to laugh at (the line “When you’re gone, I’ll go mad/So don’t throw away this thing we had.” is a particular favourite of mine- given George III’s subsequent illnesses). In such an intense musical, where everyone is rapping fast, hard- especially in the more emotional second act where we see the consequences of Hamilton’s characteristic arrogance & hotheadedness- this punctuation is well needed. Lafayette/Jefferson was another triumph. I explained to my mother that this musical uses multi-roling, “Don’t worry” she said “I think I’m intelligent enough to understand.” Reader, as soon as we left the theatre she told me “You know, all that multiple character thing confused me, it took me a while to work out a new coat meant a new character.” Despite my mother’s confusion, Pennycooke multi-roled terrifically- strutting out as Jefferson with a red velvet coat, wielding a cane & singing a jazz song (again, rather camply!) about his time in France & Hamilton’s financial plan. All this was after he’d performed as Lafayette, the French revolutionary & a close friend of Hamilton’s, in Act One. He was simply extraordinarily good, and didn’t miss a beat.
Closing this review, I am aware that it is more of a retrospective of the Hamilton phenomenon than a review of the technicalities of the musical, but there’s not much else to say. Critics more knowledgeable and perceptive than I have covered the ins and outs of each performance- and there were so many excellent performances (in actuality, I’d say that every member of the cast exceeded my expectations). Peggy, Angelica & Eliza (Christine Allado, Rachel John, Rachelle Ann Go) made a terrific Destiny’s Child-cum-Schuyler Sisters- bringing life & energy to characters who would have been consigned to the oblivion of a minor role in history had it not been for this musical. Meanwhile, George Washington (Obioma Ugoala) cut a convincing figure as the firm and assured first President. Of course- we have still to discuss Jamael Westman, a recent RADA graduate, who had perhaps the hardest role: filling Lin-Manuel Miranda’s shoes as Alexander Hamilton himself. I thought he acquitted himself admirably, considering that almost everyone in the theatre (except for my mother, who had no clue) would have been familiar with Miranda’s now iconic performance. He showed us a keen young immigrant, who grew up to be the witty & sarcastic politician whose one passion was to nurture his young country to a brilliant future very, very well. It’s quite a feat to take such a smash-hit musical, and to transplant it halfway across the globe, and then to deliver something which matched the audience’s expectations, but judging from the (somewhat hysterical) roar of applause at the end, it managed just that.
The one thing I haven’t done- something I suspect that the most hardcore of Hamilton fans would have done- is read Ron Chernow’s celebrated biography of Alexander Hamilton, which Lin-Manuel Miranda based the musical heavily on. As most of my understanding of the Revolutionary War comes from a) Hamilton and b) titbits of information my American history fan of Father has fed me, it would be well worth my time to learn a bit more of solid context. Perhaps this should be my New Year’s Resolution. If you, like my mother, have given listening to the soundtrack a skip, make listening to it your New Year’s Resolution. You won’t regret it. Don’t be like that one guy in the Guardian comments section, who said “It is rap. And therefore unlistenable.” Give it a try.