As Lin-Manuel Miranda’s smash-hit ‘hip-hop musical’ Hamilton finally makes its debut on the London stage, those of us lucky enough to see the show need to perhaps ask ourselves what Hamilton is asking us to do. What does it want from us? To think about immigration, and hard work, and the ways even the greatest of us can be human in our flaws, perhaps. What do we want from it? In the case of the latter, the answer might just be ‘a very good time’.
In so many ways, Hamilton is a fantastic piece of musical theatre. Engaging and enriching, unafraid to tug on heartstrings and often very, very funny, Hamilton just works. The story is solid and the music ear-worm-inducingly memorable, with the use of hip-hop never veering into tenuous, jarring or boring territory.
In the musical, Hamilton is often referred to as an immigrant. In the first number, the instantly engaging ‘Alexander Hamilton’, the cast tells us about his impressive life story, from beginning to end. Hamilton comes to a pre-America America, helps win independence from the evil British, builds a rock-solid financial system, falls in love and marries, before he cheats on his wife, loses his son, and eventually dies in a duel at the hands of his ex-friend and long-time enemy Aaron Burr. After his death, Hamilton’s wife Eliza carries on his legacy, helps to tell his story, and the Founding Father is remembered (at least, on stage) as a genius-minded writer who made his mark. The fact that Lin-Manuel Miranda read Ron Chernow’s biography of Alexander Hamilton and saw the theatrical potential of Hamilton’s life story had feels fortuitous. The tale of how “a bastard, orphan, son of a whore and a Scotsman… grows up to be a hero and a scholar” is Shakespearean in its simplicity, but completely American in style.
The Shakespearean aspect of Hamilton is seen most via stage veteran Giles Terrera’s excellent turn as Aaron Burr. Iago and Brutus-style backstabbers are common on stage, particularly in musicals. Here, the constant humanising of Hamilton’s eventual killer means that the audience might be unwavering in our support of Hamilton, but we don’t cheer for Burr’s downfall either. If Hamilton is the young, plucky, immigrant, upstart, Burr is the cautious, fence-sitting type, and it’s easy to understand his motives too. He also holds his own intellectually: we learn he was Hamilton’s university inspiration, and it is only after Hamilton takes Burr’s advice to ‘speak less, smile more’, that his political star rises higher. Terrera plays Burr with a quiet, jittery, intensity and growing anger, and his rendition of ‘Wait For It’—perhaps the best song in the entire show—is spine-tingling, uplifting and heartbreaking in that way that feels cliché.
Burr is less of villainous traitor, and more of a different take on the tragic hero, although that is not to say Hamilton himself is not tragic in his own way. Egotistical and outspoken, but also deeply charming, Alexander Hamilton comes to life thanks to young actor Jamael Westman. With only two other professional credits to his name since graduating from RADA last year, Westman takes over a role that originated with the musical’s author, Lin-Manuel Miranda himself. When Miranda played Hamilton, he had a decade on Westman, as well as both a Grammy and Emmy Award to his name. None of this seems to matter. Westman takes the role and makes it his, and his swagger and hip-hop bravado never feels anything less than genuine. The music gives the performers the space to really shine; Westman’s highlights include ‘Say No To This’, a 90s-style R&B slow jam, and ‘My Shot’, with a catchy refrain that weaves itself throughout the musical.
The rest of the supporting cast more than holds their own, again with the help of solid source material. Obioma Ugoala’s George Washington is commanding, strong, and dare I say sex, while Rachel John’s role as Hamilton’s sister-in-law Angelica, who loves him but cannot have him, constantly steals the show. The transition between ‘Helpless’ (the song her sister Eliza uses to explain how she felt falling in love with Hamilton) and Angelica’s ‘Satisfied’ works so, so well, with a hip hop style rewind and replay of the events we have just seen. John’s voice is stunning, her rap skills are second to none, and the song itself is a painful look Angelica’s dilemmas as a young woman whose aim must to be to marry well. Hamilton is hardly a feminist musical—the few named female characters talk and sing of nothing but Hamilton, and still get little stage time in comparison to the men—but ‘Satisfied’, along with ‘The Schuyler Sisters’, and Rachelle Ann Go’s Eliza’s ‘Burn’, are Hamilton’s successful attempts at allowing women their time in the spotlight.
Special mention must also go to Michael Jibson’s hysterical portrayal of King George, and Jason Pennycooke for his turns as the Marquis de Lafayette in Act I—a role completely sung and spoken in a comedy French accent—and Thomas Jefferson in Act II. Jefferson’s bars in the cabinet rap battles and the catchy ‘Washington On Your Side’ are tongue-twister bars he more than pulls off, and Pennycooke pulls both characters off with aplomb. Visually, the newly refurbished Victoria Palace Theatre looks beautiful, with dramatic spotlights used often in true hip hop fashion, and an orchestra that completely fills the room. Hamilton, when it comes to its story and the people who tell it, is near-perfect.
During the two hours and 45 minutes the cast takes to the stage, we hear them sing and rap with all the bravado hip hop needs to have, an we see an embellished story that nevertheless retains key kernels of truth. Most famously, we watch people of colour playing the roles of not just any white people, but famous historical figures. This is no colourblind casting, but instead, a deliberate effort to allow the audience to somewhat ignore the slightly more icky connotations of black and brown people playing slaveowners of old. The casting may be at odds with fact, but it also makes perfect sense. This musical would not work with an all-white cast. By virtue of its modern prose and mixed characters, Hamilton succeeds in a way it perhaps should not.
There’s an argument that it feels inappropriate to cast the likes of slaveowner James Madison or Thomas Jefferson—who was having children with his teenage slave, Sally Hemings—as black men. There’s also the problem of America’s Native population and the erasure of what the Founding Fathers were also doing to them; perhaps the only time I genuinely winced at the politics of the show was the first times the cast sings “I’m just like my country/I’m young scrappy and hungry”. Similarly, Hamilton’s rise is pure American bootstrap-mentality, in a narrative that puts his success down to his tireless hard work and plucky determination, rather than privilege.
Saying all this, the musical has had near-hysterically good praise across the board, and for good reason. Hamilton is constantly aware of what it is doing, and of the ways it flips the script to allow immigrants to not just take centre stage, but tell their own story as well as the story of those who have come before. It’s easy to see why so many of us—people unused to seeing ourselves reflected on the stages we love, and people who have always known hip hop has the capacity to shine on stage like other genres—have supported this musical so strongly. This support is in spite of the high ticket costs that will surely price out the young, black and brown, hip-hop loving people who should be Hamilton’s target market. (It was no surprise that at my own trip to Hamilton, almost everyone around me was white, and very few seemed to find the more subtle hip hop references as funny as I did.)
Hamilton the musical has come to London, and London should be grateful to have it. Politics can never be set aside for a show that’s so thoroughly political, which seems to me to be neither a help nor a hindrance to its success. It simply is. Hamilton tells a story the life of Alexander Hamilton, but it primarily tells the story of America—what America was made of, what America thinks it is made of, and in light of the turbulent times we’re living in, what America hopes it will be made of once more.