The subtitle for ‘Hamilton’ is ‘An American Musical’, but at this point, it should really be ‘America’s Musical’. Lin-Manuel Miranda’s smash hit Broadway show has won 11 Tony Awards, the Pulitzer Prize for Drama and a Grammy. It has become a cultural phenomenon in America, with tickets for its New York production at the Richard Rodgers Theatre notoriously expensive and elusive. The show itself was famously described by former First Lady Michelle Obama as ‘the best piece of art in any form I have ever seen in my life’. ‘Hamilton’ has now arrived at London’s Victoria Palace Theatre: there has arguably never been a West End show that has been met with such fevered anticipation.
‘Hamilton’ tells the improbable story of Alexander Hamilton, who was born out of wedlock on a remote Caribbean island and rose to become George Washington’s right-hand man and consequently one of the Founding Fathers of the United States. This story about dead white men is performed by a racially diverse cast and through the use of hip-hop and rap, reflecting the America of today as opposed to the America of the 18th century. It is the genius of ‘Hamilton’ to draw parallels between the title character’s life trajectory and those of hip-hop artists such as Jay-Z and Tupac Shakur; as Miranda says, ‘He’s a guy who writes about his struggle so well he transcends it’.
Miranda does not appear in the London production—after originating the title role on Broadway—but he is in every word, beat and syllable. Cabinet meetings are performed as rap battles with astonishing verbal dexterity, while ‘My Shot’ announces Hamilton in New York as a young man of voracious ambition in spite of his past: ‘I’m passionately smashin’ every expectation/every action’s an act of creation!/I’m laughin’ in the face of casualties and sorrow/for the first time, I’m thinkin’ past tomorrow’.
The lyrics are rich with wordplay and historical detail, while ‘It’s Quiet Uptown’ gracefully deals with grief, guilt and forgiveness in just a few devastatingly beautiful minutes. The staging of Hamilton’s duel with Giles Terera’s menacing political rival Aaron Burr in the last five minutes of the show is sublime, delivering emotional power without descending into schmaltz. The songs are musically diverse, paying tribute to R&B, hip-hop, classic showtunes and jazz. The fact that Lin-Manuel Miranda is the show’s sole composer, playwright and lyricist justifies every accolade bestowed upon him and those still to come.
Ash Hunter is affecting in the title role, while Rachelle Ann Go delivers a stand-out vocal performance as his loyal wife Eliza. Obioma Ugoala’s deep, commanding voice is perfect for the role of George Washington, while Michael Jibson’s fabulously camp, foppish King George III maximises his limited stage time. Jason Pennycooke as Lafayette/Thomas Jefferson is clearly an homage to Prince with his purple outfit, tight curls and white ruffles, while his song ‘What’d I Miss’ is a rock’n’roll number in the style of Little Richard.
If ‘Hamilton’ was the cultural event of the Obama era, it is also anathema to the Trump administration. The line ‘immigrants, we get the job done’ receives one of the biggest cheers of the whole show, and proves especially prescient given Trump’s travel ban last year and political tensions in the UK following the Brexit referendum. ‘Hamilton’ is a reminder of political turmoil on both sides of the Atlantic, but also that America still embodies the spirit of inclusivity that facilitated its birth as a nation.
When history comes to review the masterworks of the 21st century, ‘Hamilton’ may well appear among their number. Lin-Manuel Miranda’s conception of this show is unprecedented in its stunning originality—just like the Founding Fathers’ vision for their country.