Two or three years ago, my teenage daughter, a big musicals fan, started raving about an American show called ‘Hamilton’. She downloaded the sound track and listened to it obsessively, introducing it to her brother who became equally obsessed. The rest of us are not into musicals (particularly me), but nonetheless, I was intrigued by the concept of the story of the US Founding Fathers being told in rap, hip-hop and R&B and performed by a BAME cast. So when she was booking tickets for herself and her sister, I was happy to agree to her suggestion that I take their brother.
That was 18 months ago. And today I am so glad she persuaded me. ‘Hamilton’ is an astonishing show, performed with energy and verve by an incredibly talented group of performers. Jamael Westman is excellent in the lead role (at 25 he’s definitely one to watch) capturing perfectly Hamilton’s brilliance and tendency to self destruction. Giles Terera, as Aaron Burr, his friend, rival, political enemy, does a great job as the career politician, who admires, envies and eventually destroys Hamilton, much to his enduring regret. Rachelle Ann Go as Elizabeth Schulyer, takes us on a believable journey from adoring helpmeet, to betrayed wife, forgiving partner and the widow who keeps the flame. While Rachel John, as Elizabeth’s sister Angelica, is superb as Hamilton’s muse, and equal. Jason Pennycooke is hugely entertaining both as Lafayatte, the daring French ally in the revolution and a sparkly, witty Thomas Jefferson, Michael Jibson makes a hilarious King George and Obioma Ugoala is a dignified and thoughtful George Washington.
The show kicks off in exuberant style as Burr, the narrator, strides onto stage and asks ‘how does a bastard, orphan, son of 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’? He is joined by the rest of the cast who rapidly take us through Hamilton’s life and death, punctuated with the man crying ‘My name is Alexander Hamilton’. It’s a passionate and energetic beginning in the manner of a Greek Chorus, that managed to simultaneously, move me to tears and make me want to snap my fingers. No wonder I was hooked.
After that, the First Act rattles through Hamilton’s early life with similar enthusiasm, as he tries to make a name for himself and find his place in the American Revolution. His first encounter with Burr sets out the differences between them, where Hamilton is all passion and principle, Burr advises caution ‘talk less’, ‘smile more’, ‘don’t let them know what you are against or for’, advice Hamilton ignores both to his advantage and disadvantage. Instead he throws his lot in with revolutionaries, Laurens, Mulligan and Lafayette, meets the wealthy Schuyler sisters, marrying Eliza, and is taken up by George Washington.
Act Two moves us beyond the revolutionary years, as the founding fathers begin to build the United States. If the first Act lends itself to comparisons with ‘Les Miserable’s, Act Two, is West Wing in song. From the hilarious rap battles between Jefferson and Hamilton in George Washington’s cabinet, to the powerful ‘The Room Where it Happens’ where the political rivals are forced to thrash out a compromise, we see that nothing much changes in politics. And where the first Act shows the strength of Hamilton’s restless, impulsive side, here he must use Burr’s tactics to get what he wants. While he manages it once, like all tragic heroes, his fatal flaws of impulsiveness, arrogance and unwillingness to back down leads to his downfall, as in the aftermath of Washington stepping down, he finds himself immersed in a scandal of his own creation.
In the hands of a less gifted writer, ‘Hamilton’ could have easily descended into melodrama. But Lin-Manuel Miranda’s intelligent use of lyrics and music power the story through. A song such as ‘My Shot’ reveals a core truth of Hamilton’s character, ‘I’m young, and scrappy and hungry/And I’m not throwing away my shot’. These lines are repeated throughout, underlying how much this hunger for success drives him, while taking slightly different meanings each time. In contrast, the beautiful ‘Dear Theodosia’ has Burr and Hamilton singing side by side to their new born children, underlying the common humanity they share, and which they both forget, leading to the inevitable tragedy.
Miranda uses repetition effectively in other places too. Eliza Schulyer’s ‘Look around, look around at how/Lucky we are to be alive right now’ in her first appearance describes a youthful excitement of being out in the world. Later it transforms to a plea to Hamilton to stay with her rather than go to war. While her and Angelica’s plea for him to ‘Stay Alive’ takes on an even more emotional aspect in Act 2. ‘Rise up’ in Act 1, refers to overthrowing the British, but in Act 2, it is more about rising through the ranks. ‘History has its eyes on you’ starts with George Washington fearful he won’t amount to much, switches to a hope that Hamilton’s potential will be achieved, and later a reflection of the careers of both men.
The use of modern language, is an effective way to reflect the timelessness of the story, but it’s a strength of the script that Miranda manages to weave these with real historical words, such as Hamilton and Washington reciting the closing paragraph of Washington’s final speech. This, and the show’s progressive politics serves to confirm his assertion that Hamilton ‘is about the America then, told by the America of now.’
Miranda also uses his script to point up issues of equality. Hamilton’s immigrant status is crucial to the whole play. It is this which fuels him to be so much more productive then all the men with wealth and privilege he works with. And it his outsider status that makes him feared and resented by others. The wry comment in ‘York Town’ ‘immigrants get the job done’ confirms the truth that America wouldn’t BE America without immigrants. While the deliberate casting of mainly BAME actors demonstrates exactly WHY we have to create such opportunities. Normally the cast for a show like this would have predominately white. Choosing not do this means we get to see the phenomenal talent of Jamael Westman et al, which we would have missed otherwise. Positive discrimination is necessary and it works. Lionel Shriver, take note.
The treatment of women is also interesting. Angelica Schulyer was by all accounts an intelligent woman who wrote to all the great men of the day and had an affectionate relationship with Hamilton. Here she is presented as Hamilton’s intellectual equal and muse, who steps aside for the sister who she knows loves him more, and because she also recognises they are too similar to work as a couple. It is no coincidence that her first scene has her sparring with Burr about equality for women and citing Thomas Paine. Eliza demonstrates she is more than just a passive wife, in the powerful ballad ‘Burn’ as she destroys Hamilton’s letters, so that she can ‘write herself out of the narrative’. It is important that she reverses that decision as she closes the show describing the way she ensured his work wasn’t forgotten. The song also provides a moment for her to describe her own achievements, such as setting up the Washington memorial, and founding an orphanage. The affair with Maria Reynolds at first jars, with Reynolds being presented as a woman who throws herself upon poor overworked Hamilton who wants to ‘say not to this’ but can’t. Then you realise that Burr has pointed out in the opening lines of ‘Say no to this’, that this is simply Hamilton’s version of events. In the first political scandal, we only hear the side of the man in power, while the voice of the woman is dismissed. Sound familiar?
Throw in references to Gilbert and Sullivan, Macbeth, and commentary from a razzmatazz King George who alternatively pleads with and threatens his subjects with a wiggle of the hips, later gleefully enjoying their difficulties, and you can see why people describe Hamilton as a work of genius.
The music is lively, varied and though not always quite to my taste, full of brilliant showstoppers (‘Alexander Hamilton’, ‘My Shot’, ‘Ten Duel Commandments’, ‘Dear Theodosia’, ‘What Did I Miss?’, ‘The Room Where It Happens’, ‘Cabinet Battle’ (#1 and #2), ‘One Last Time’, ‘Burn’, ‘It’s Quiet Uptown’, ‘The World Was Wide Enough’, ‘Who Lives, Who Dies,Who Tells Your Story?’). And though the set is fairly simple, it is used well, particular the revolving stage. Angelica’s ‘rewind rewind’ at the beginning of the powerful ‘Satisfied’ allows us to repeat the scene of Eliza and Hamilton’s courtship from her point of view, adding complexity to the relationships of all three of them. While in the final duel, it is used to great effect to provide us with the moments before Hamilton’s death, as he reflects on what his legacy will be. Both are stunning high points in a show that really has no lows.
They’ve just extended the run of Hamilton at the Victoria Palace Theatre (huge props to Cameron Mackintosh to stage a show about the overthrow of the British monarchy round the corner from Buckingham Palace), and tickets are on sale again. So even if you can’t get there till next March, buy yours now. I guarantee it will be well worth the wait.
‘Legacy. What is a legacy?
It’s planting seeds in a garden you never get to see
I wrote some notes at the beginning of a song someone will sing for me
America, you great unfinished symphony, you sent for me
You let me make a difference
A place where even orphan immigrants
Can leave their fingerprints and rise up.’
(Alexander Hamilton, ‘The World Was Wide Enough’).