For two years, musical theatre lovers, the in-crowds, the quick and the dead-lucky ticket holders have all had the same words on their lips: “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?”
Finally, 34 months after Hamilton opened at the Public Theater in New York, London knows the answer to the question, posed in the opening lines to Lin-Manuel Miranda’s world-shattering hip-hop musical about one of America’s lesser sung founding fathers.
The unlikeliness of the enterprise, and its astonishing popularity since, is old news and nowhere near the most remarkable things about Hamilton. After all, weirder projects have been given the musical theatre treatment with just as much success – Les Miserables, for example, a musical based on a 1,000-page French novel about a minor 19th century student revolt.
But several things set Hamilton apart. First is how it turns the story of America’s founding ideals into a celebration of immigration, played by an extraordinarily diverse cast. Here, skin colour is no barrier to being allowed to wear the ruffs and epaulettes of history’s movers and shakers.
Brought across the Atlantic by impresario Cameron Mackintosh to a lavishly refurbished theatre, this show doesn’t feel like the young, scrappy and hungry product that it must have seemed when it hit Broadway. Commercial polish shines, just a little, on its surface. It’s less of a revelation. The payoff, however, is a sense of utter completeness.
That this has all emerged from the mind of one man, Lin-Manuel Miranda, is extraordinary. He wrote the book, music and lyrics and played the lead on Broadway. That’s surely what gives the production its feeling of unity. Direction, set, choreography, lighting, and the other elements that usually transform a piece are, in this instance, barely more than light touches dabbed on the canvas so as not to disturb the masterwork underneath.
Even on paper, it’s a piece of great intricacy, astonishing in the way phrases repeat and either intensify as the show goes on, or are put into new contexts to give them new and more resonant meanings. Every melody and lyric that Miranda introduces has purpose beyond its initial meaning.
Directorially, it doesn’t move heaven and earth. Under Thomas Kail, ensemble members still twirl tables and chairs over their heads, like in many musicals. Apart from one final scene, which sees actors perform complex choreography to an absence of music, this is fairly conventional execution – but of an extraordinary form.
David Korins’ set, too, is a big, empty playspace that exposes, and so intensifies, Miranda’s words. It’s like Christine Jones’ Harry Potter and the Cursed Child set, a great hollow hall of a space, but this is more shipshape – timber balconies, clusters of rope.
Although contemporary ideals are transposed to ye olden times, the parallels are not forced. Miranda hasn’t changed history or rewritten the narrative, although he does, crucially, draw attention to the fact that all history is subject to interpretation by its chroniclers and by posterity.
Instead he explores the theme that strands of morality and humanity don’t really change. There are people of principle, of action, then there are those without who cover their true motives. This is also a story about history, who tells it and how we can’t control our legacy, whether we’re goodies or baddies, and how our actions will be interpreted by future generations.
Take Alexander Hamilton (two words which no audience member will ever be able to say again without singing). As clever and principled as he is in so many ways, he is also flawed and suffers for those flaws. Jamael Westman conjures it all, from Hamilton’s desperation to fight for his country’s freedom to the strutting, rutting lothario he turns into. What a thrill, too, to see Westman’s programme bio (headshot, two professional credits) and then see him own that lead role in the country’s biggest musical.
If Hamilton is the show’s morally muddy hero, then Burr is its not-fully-evil villain. Slimy and supercilious, Giles Terera plays the prevaricating opportunist intensely, fixing the audience a stare and a sneer as if looking each of us directly in the eye. Terera’s Burr is completely unruffled. He’s centred like a spirit level, only thrown off-balance when he sings mournfully and beautifully about his lover Theodosia, and his illegitimate daughter.
Despite only really existing to be in love with Hamilton, the women of the show do get some of the best numbers (The Schuyler Sisters, Helpless, Satisfied) and showcase, among others, the incredible talent of Rachel John as Hamilton’s sister-in-law Angelica, who shifts stunningly from rapid-fire rap to belting out show stoppers.
Hamilton has a wry undercurrent running through it. Not that the wryness diminishes its huge heart, nor makes it cynical – not remotely. Senate hearings become rap battles, and there are strange moments where you wake up, as if from a trance, realising you’ve been completely enthralled by a song about the USA’s nascent fiscal policy. It knows it’s teaching you a lesson, but is so seductive in the way it educates.
George Washington comes on to an epic bass drop and a gangster rap, with Obioma Ugoala bringing commensurate authority as the father of the founding fathers. And King George III – the show’s comic core, played to arch perfection by Michael Jibson – is a grotesque, pale creature, effete and on the verge of tears, singing letters to America that are by turns needy and abusive. These little knowing concoctions and contrasts make the educational aspects of Hamilton palatable and only serve to intensify its more serious themes.
Hamilton is a touchstone. It’s zeitgeist, youthquake, Momentum, it’s woke, it’s post-musical. From masculinity, power struggles and the small things on earth, it metastasises into a crying epic about legacy, principle, nations, all the incredible mongrel people within those nations, and how all those people – every single one – can change the world. Even the bastard, orphan, son of a whore, immigrant Alexander Hamilton.