Victoria Palace, London
Has there ever been a more hotly anticipated new musical? A rhapsodic biography of America’s ‘forgotten’ founding father, Hamilton has whipped up a hurricane (pardon the pun) of frenzy, speculation, and, nay-sayers would argue, hyperbole which has swept the world to become a truly global phenomenon.
With the fervour of its fans, the universal critical acclaim, and the charismatic presence of composer/lyricist/original star, Lin-Manuel Miranda, it’s fair to say I had pretty big expectations – heightened by having our tickets rescheduled thanks to the much publicised delay in the Victoria Palace’s refurbishment (CamMac has done a splendid job by the way, impeccable sightlines from the gods and swanky new bathroom facilities) – and I’m ecstatic to say that Hamilton has exceeded these expectations and more than lived up to the hype.
This is a watershed moment not only in musical or theatrical history, but in cultural and social history on an immeasurable scale. Miranda’s appropriation and recontextualisation of hip-hop and traditional musical theatre tropes enables him to tell multiple (hi)stories at once; the fight for a nation’s liberation and independence, while also holding up a mirror to contemporary America, highlighting the evolutions and similarities between then and now, such as the reality that the USA was founded upon immigration, something which remains a political hotbed, fuelled too often by racial discrimination, yet here represented by a celebration of migrant cultures as performed by a multiracial cast which represent the true face of America.
For a story of revolution, it seems entirely appropriate for that story to be told through such a revolutionary form. Hamilton’s struggles – as an immigrant, as a penniless orphan – are embodied by a language which reacts to and fights against social and cultural oppressions – the like of which are still present in today’s society. Therefore, Miranda’s musical is political in its very being. The fabric of Hamilton – from the iconic squeaky door riff, the opening and closing of doors which invite in or push out our protagonists – to the sublime intersection between the more traditional and quaint melody of ‘Farmer Refuted’ with Hamilton’s snappy and lyrically robust retorts (‘don’t modulate the key then not debate with me. Why should a tiny island across the sea regulate the price of tea?’), we see the language of oppression being undermined by the language of the oppressed.
Miranda’s affection for the art form is palpable in acknowledgments to his cultural and literary heritage, including references to Macbeth, Gilbert and Sullivan, and Dr Dre. And with Hamilton, he has cemented his place alongside his predecessors as a spokesperson for our time and for all time. I have stated elsewhere how Hamilton’s death speech in ‘The World Was Wide Enough’ is akin to the greatest Shakespearean soliloquies in its philosophical scope, the pin-point precision with which it skewers the disquietings of the human subconscious, and the way it plumbs the depths of our emotional capacities, all while maintaining Alexander’s characteristically endearing/infuriating aptitude to talk ‘non-stop’ even down to his dying breath. Add to this Andy Blankenbuehler’s abstract, yet humane choreography and Howard Binkley’s atmospheric lighting and within two and three-quarter hours of bombastic, show-stopping moments, this climactic showdown, for me, bears all the hallmarks of the heart-stopping, jaw-dropping magic which exemplifies just why I love the theatre.
If I have made Hamilton seem like a one-man-miracle that is not my intention. From Thomas Kail’s knowing direction, to the intricacies of Paul Tazewell’s costume design (I love the small alterations to the outfits as the narrative progresses through history – although Jefferson remains resplendent in his steadfast purple velvet frockcoat), details such as these show the amount of care and attention the creative team have put into the production. Binkley’s lighting is bold, creating and reshaping the lens through which we view the narrative; spotlights within spotlights mean we can zoom in on the action and focus in on the nuances of character. Blankenbuehler’s choreography is more than just modern shaping, it is integral to the storytelling as the ensemble enact abstract notions of death, life, and progression while bridging the space between us.
Jamael Westman is instantly likable, cool, and has just enough youthful naivety to make Hamilton’s more zealous and verbose aspects come across as charming rather than pompous. A virtual unknown, Westman has been well and truly thrust into the limelight and, if his turn here is anything to go by, he can look forward to a bright and prosperous future. Sifiso Mazibuko’s Aaron Burr is slick, understated and cool headed, a nice counterpoint to the energetic effusions of Westman’s Hamilton. Rachelle Ann Go is a sweet Eliza who isn’t afraid to show a harder edge, while Rachel John brings a cerebral wit and poise to the conflicted Angelica. However, the show was stolen by Michael Jibson’s gloriously waspish King George and Jason Pennycooke’s Thomas Jefferson. Pennycooke is spry, louche and wickedly funny, proving the ideal adversary to Hamilton in the rap-off cum cabinet battles. Praise also to Pennycooke’s extraordinary ability to wrap his mouth around some of Miranda’s most challenging word-play; the actor received an awed reaction following his verse in ‘Washington On Your Side’, which is so fast and lexically dense that it recalls traditional tongue-twisters with an additional intellectual clout (go on, try it: ‘I’m in the cabinet, I am complicit in watching him grabbing at power and kiss it, if Washington isn’t going to listen to disciplined dissidents this is the difference: this kid is out!’ – and faster… and faster!).
For me, the sign of a good show is when, come the final bows, I immediately want to watch the whole thing again from the beginning. I didn’t want Hamiltonto end, yet at the same time I wanted to go back and replay certain scenes to marvel once more at the multitude of joys that Miranda and co. have assembled. I’ve listened to the cast recording numerous times (I wrote my undergraduate dissertation on the song ‘Alexander Hamilton’) but there are still thrilling lyrical twists that I’ve yet to discover. This is a production that merits watching again and again and is sure to reveal new delights with each viewing.
Words have power. And just as Hamilton himself did, Miranda has used all the power in his lexicon to move the world – yes, a musical isn’t going to create the same political upheaval as the forming of a constitutional government – but I guarantee that following this, the social and cultural orbits that unite within the arts will shift slightly from their once too predictable axes. So many of Miranda’s songs have already become standards (‘Burn’, ‘The Room Where It Happens’, ‘Wait For It’, ‘Helpless’, ‘Satisfied’, ‘My Shot’, ‘Dear Theodosia’, ‘You’ll Be Back’, to name but a few) that it’s difficult to think of a contemporary composer that has had as great an impact at such a young age. Rich in theme, aesthetic, language, and context I hope and expect Hamilton to find its way onto many an English Literature syllabus where it can take its place amongst the classics of old. In fact, to further the Shakespeare comparison, while we Brits can claim Richard III and Henry V etc. then in Hamilton America has found its History Play and ushers in a new era of creative political commentary.
Hamilton is currently booking until 28 July, 2018.Cleve September, Jamael Westman, Jason Pennycooke and Tarinn Callender in Hamilton.
Photo: Matthew Murphy