Hamilton Review – the cultural highlight of the 21st century

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Image courtesy of Wikimedia

Part of me wanted to dislike Hamilton. I went in to the performance thinking I could write a much more interesting review if I hated it. I tried my best to examine its flaws, to be able to interpret it in a balanced way. However, Hamilton has no flaws, and I quickly realised that there was nothing negative I could say about it. So instead, I am forced to heap more praise upon one of the most critically-acclaimed cultural works of the twenty-first century.

The story of Hamilton began when Lin Manuel-Miranda (its creator and original star) decided to pick up a biography of American founding father Alexander Hamilton as beach reading. Then, inspired by Hamilton’s journey from a penniless immigrant to a man who designed the American financial system and shaped the modern USA, which for Miranda represented hip-hop and the American dream, he began to work on a concept album in 2009, which would become a Broadway show in 2015.

It is worth noting that Hamilton was born from the Obama era, and so much of it speaks to his presidency and Democratic politics. However, aspects of the show that were celebratory during the Obama era, have become political and dissenting in the era of Trump. The line ‘immigrants, we get the job done’ is greeted with cheers by the audience. Hamilton is not a musical celebration of Obama’s America, it has instead become the greatest cultural resistance against the America of Donald Trump, highlighted in 2016, when the Broadway cast called out Vice-President Mike Pence when he was in the audience.

But, although it has huge symbolic power in America, there is the question of if Hamilton can be such a talking point and political influence in Britain, which we shall see as its run continues.

Hamilton opened in the West End last December, in the beautifully refurbished Victoria Palace Theatre, with loads of legroom, comfortable seats, and affordable wine. The set is exactly the same as for the American production, a bare wooden space with ladders and various levels. The theatre is filled with merchandise outlets where audience members can queue to buy a huge range of souvenirs varying from t-shirts to lapel pins to CDs before they have even seen the show.

But it is as if we have all seen Hamilton already. Before it begins people can be heard naming their favourite songs, singing parts of the show. The audience are not here to see something new, but to have realised the soundtrack that they have so far only been able to picture in their imagination. It is an extraordinary phenomenon when a musical theatre soundtrack is more popular than the musical itself, and the audience come because they know what to expect; a good show.

And this is what they get. We begin with the iconic lines Miranda first performed at the White House In 2009 at an event hosted by the Obamas:

“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?”

And for the next two hours, we are somewhere else. Battles are fought. Hearts won. Hearts broken. Machiavellian politics becomes the game in the second half. Despite all this being a retelling of American history, of the creation of the constitution and of a few men in the 1700s, Hamilton could not be more modern or entertaining.

The soundtrack, familiar to so many, is a fusion of rap, hip-hop, and pop, with a hint of the tropes of musical theatre. Melodies return in different songs, each character’s name is always sung in a particular way, and the cabinet is presented, almost knowingly, as a rap battle, with President Washington distributing microphones. The songs are so fresh, intelligent, and never melodramatic. ‘The Room Where It Happens’, which discusses the art of the political deal is a particular highlight. The songs also gain new meaning on stage. On the soundtrack, ‘Who Lives, Who Dies, Who Tells Your Story’, comes across as an emotional but lacklustre finale. However, on stage, it becomes the most powerful and overwhelming moment of the entire production, the focus shifting to Eliza as she announces: ‘I put myself back in the narrative’.

This line summarizes the entire musical. It is all about reclaiming the narrative of the formation of an independent USA. What was a group of white men, is presented by a cast of men and women of colour. It is also, despite being about the formation of a nation where women were denied the vote, a story of female empowerment. Angelica remarks:

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, and when I meet Thomas Jefferson, I’m ‘a compel him to include women in the sequel!”

And in the end after Hamilton’s death (not really spoilers – it’s revealed in the opening number), the final song focuses on his wife Eliza’s achievements, how she spoke out against slavery and opened an orphanage. Thus, the musical closes to show that women can achieve just as men can, if they are only given the opportunity.

The London production is excellently cast with a mixture of professionals and newcomers. Jamael Westman, fresh out of drama school is an excellent Alexander Hamilton, but the whole cast clearly love having such excellent material to work with.

I cannot overstate how exceptional Hamilton is. Every part of it works. Seeing it was an experience I will never forget, and I only wish I could see it for the first time again. Despite its subtitle ‘An American Musical’, its celebration of immigrants, and presentation of a nation unsure of its identity have profound relevance in Brexit Britain. Hamilton is mandatory viewing, you have no excuse not to be in the room where it happens.