What’s all the fuss about?
Hamilton is rubbish.
It’s full of synthetic hip-hop music and naff choreography. There’s nothing to it. You’d be better off spending the evening in the pub.
You will know by now this is not a commonly held view of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s all-conquering musical about America’s all-conquering Founding Fathers.
But it is valid.
It is the opinion of a rock musician, who saw the show on Wednesday night. The fella loathed it so much he left at half-time, and sat the evening out on his own in a local boozer.
I tell you this, because it is worth acknowledging amid all the hype and hysteria that Hamilton is not for everyone. For some it will be simply the latest irritating American theatrical import to roll off the Transatlantic conveyor belt, jazz hands and all.
To say Hamilton is just another transfer from Broadway would be like saying the Sex Pistols were just another boy band. It is a ground-breaking, game-changing, epoch-defining musical.
It is… a masterpiece.
I get what the rock guy was saying about the music feeling more anodyne than the sort of thing you’d find at a downtown hip-hop gig, or a rap night in a subterranean club.
He’s right, it doesn’t have that sense of barely contained anger or raw energy. But that’s because it’s a musical in a theatre, which is several stops along on the entertainment express from a sweaty night in a mosh pit.
The way in which it goes about its business of telling the story of Alexander Hamilton, a largely unknown figure in America’s fight for independence (although he is the face of the $10), is unprecedented, compelling, and important.
We meet our man and hear of his demise in the opening scene and first song of the show, in which its principles and premises are established:
How does a bastard, orphan, son of a whore and a
Scotsman, dropped in the middle of a forgotten
Spot in the Caribbean by providence, impoverished, in squalor
Grow up to be a hero and a scholar?
This is to be a tale as much about immigration, class, and race as it is about politics, war, and love.
In a casting move that echoes the revolution being played out on stage, the Founding Fathers are all non-white.
Their struggle is mirrored in the music, which comes from the African-American cannon (hip-hop, rap, jazz, R&B, and soul). The old establishment figures (George III and his army) on the other hand, are white, pompous and detached.
The message is clear: this is a story about the movers and shakers of the past, who changed America, told by the movers and shakers of today, who are undertaking the same task.
Barack Obama, who has been to the show several times, loves it.
President Trump, who has not seen it, called it “highly overrated”.
I feared, having seen the show in New York, that it would lose some of its magic crossing the Pond.
But it hasn’t.
In fact, if anything, it is better.
The songs, the music, the book, the acting, the singing, the choreography, the staging, the costumes, the lighting, the sound, and the newly refurbished theatre – are all five-star.
Jamael Westman, a RADA-trained rookie, plays Alexander Hamilton with the skill and charisma of an established star. The transformation his character has to make from a naïve, orphaned, teenage revolutionary to a political heavyweight helping shape a newly independent America, is not easy.
Westman makes it look a cinch.
Alongside him is the more experienced Giles Terera playing Aaron Burr, Hamilton’s friend and fatal foe, in a combined role of both narrator and protagonist; a structural task he lands with the easy authority and perfect timing of Mohammad Ali in his pomp.
The knock-out punches though, are delivered by Michael Jibson’s George III.
The King might have lost America, but he steals this show every night with three fabulously camp entrances, in which he asks America if going it alone is really that good an idea (You’ll Be Back):
You’ll be back, time will tell
You’ll remember that I served you well
Oceans rise, empires fall
We have seen each other through it all
And when push comes to shove
I will send a fully armed battalion to remind you of my love!
In New York the audience whooped, then laughed at a song that is right up there with Carly Simon’s You’re So Vain, as one of the most bitter and sarcastic break-up numbers ever written.
The London audience reacted slightly differently. Before the laugh is an anxious pause, as they quickly recognised the Brexit connotations, albeit with a Hammond not a Hamilton in charge of the Exchequer.
The singing is terrific throughout, but special mention has to be given to Rachelle Ann Go as Hamilton’s wife Eliza, and Rachel John who plays her sister, Angelica Schuyler. They sing with a soulfulness and musicality that has the audience rapt, most particularly in the Act I numbers, Helpless and Satisfied.
A musical like Hamilton comes along once in a generation. Showboat (1927), West Side Story (1957), Sweeney Todd (1979), Rent (1996); it belongs among them as one of the finest works to be created in the genre.
It is timely, intelligent, and irresistibly entertaining from the first note to the last. And also surprisingly scholarly.
Lin-Manuel Miranda, a one-time teacher, read Ron Chernow’s epic 800+ page 2004 biography of Alexander Hamilton while on holiday, and pitched to the now 68-year old historian that it would make the perfect subject for a hip-hop musical.
After some persuasion Chernow agreed, Miranda then performed the opening number at a White House poetry jam in 2009 and the rest, as they say, is history.