If you’re looking for a review comparing and contrasting the West End opening of this phenomenon with the Broadway hit, then perhaps you should look elsewhere. For I am no Hamilton aficionado. I knew remarkably little about the show before I sat down in my seat in the Grand Circle. I didn’t even know a single song, let alone have the cast recording on repeat. But that’s not to say I wasn’t excited.
The anticipation had been building for months, what with the announcement of the show, the battle to get tickets… Then all the drama revisited itself again with the building delays cancelling a whole host of early previews, leaving my date perilously close to being struck through too. I guess, in some perverse way, it all added to the drama of the occasion.
But my date went ahead so, there I was, cramped in my seat up in the Gods, waiting for the show to start. Even before the curtain was raised, the audience was palpably excited. The buzz around the auditorium was electric – and those sitting in it notably far more diverse and inclusive an audience than the usual.
Then lights went down and, for the first time ever, I experienced Hamilton.
How was it?
Extraordinary. Blistering and bold. A tsunami of politics and rhythm. Quite simply, astounding.
Never in my life have I been so swept up in the drama of the American Revolutionary War, the establishment of the US constitution, the battle for legitimacy through the Federalist Papers, and the rise and fall of America’s first Treasury Secretary. And that’s coming from a woman with two politics degrees!
But, of course, Lin-Manuel Miranda isn’t just bringing to life a dry area of American politics, but taking a chunk of history and holding it up to us to understand its relevance for today. How this is an eternally relevant story. For Alexander Hamilton was an immigrant, born into poverty, who rose to extraordinary heights and, as the opening line kicks off, “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 that is the journey this electric musical takes us on, examining how the Revolutionary War wasn’t just a battle for freedom but also an opportunity for those on the bottom rungs of society’s ladder to climb up to the top. The war brought the chaos needed for a brief moment or meritocracy to flourish. And, so, it was Alexander and his friends, such as the extraordinary Frenchman, Lafeyette, who turned the War against the British in America’s favour. (“Immigrants – we get the job done” the most BITING of lines. And one that brought a cheer from the audience so loud it overwhelmed even the huge boom speakers being used to turn this musical into a concert.)
For it is the sound, the constant flip and turn of hip hop and R&B tunes, matched with lyrics, wordplay and flow so complex and brilliant that is the hallmark of Hamilton. And, just wow. WOW. The energy, the rhythm of this show is something else. Barely a word is spoken, Instead one tune flows into another. One rap segues into the next with almost no moment to breathe. No wonder there are over forty songs in this musical!
I felt as if I was holding my breath throughout. My eyes wide and in awe, my jaw slack. I was blown away with every single moment. One Shot is a masterpiece and, quite rightly, the anthem that has come to define this show. The influence of Eminem’s Lose Yourself is clear both in rhyme and emotion. But as much as this is a call to grab your one opportunity in life, the refrain floats through the musical, a warning of the one bullet that would halt Hamilton in his prime.
(For days afterwards, my brain refused to relinquish the chant “I am not throwing away my shot/ I am not throwing away my shot/ Yo, I’m just like my country/ I’m young, scrappy and hungry/ I am not throwing away my shot!” It’s a hook that grabs you and does not release its grip.)
But as much as One Shot is extraordinary, the breadth and variety of musical styles in the score is breath-taking. And, of course, interesting in its selection. It’s rap and hip-hop – the music of protest and the Black communities in the States – that is front and centre here. Not mainstream musical scores.
The antagonist of the show, Aaron Burr, has the heart-breaking, Wait For It – a blend of dancehall and the finest pop ballads. The aching jealousy of Burr as he watches Hamilton’s swift rise to success, bemused by the great man’s recklessness and bravery in speaking out about anything and everything; his own personal caution and over-thinking in stark contrast. It’s one for all of us who’ve seen others go past on the outside, on to great success, but ever-hopeful that some opportunity will one day come our way. It’s one for underdog who is afraid and insecure, rather than brave.
The lyrics, “Life doesn’t discriminate/ Between the sinners and the saints/ It takes and it takes and it takes/ And we keep living anyway/ We rise and we fall and we break/ And we make our mistakes/ And if there’s a reason/ I’m still alive/ When so many have died/ Then I’m willing to /Wait for it.” I mean, just wow. Beautiful.
Then compare this to the Destiny’s Child-esque R&B brilliance of the Schuyler Sister’s anthem – a yearning for rebellion, independence and love from the three daughters of a rich man, who would become the multiple love interests of our celebrated hero. (“You want a revolution?/ I want a revelation!”)
I was swinging in my seat as much as those around me who knew every word. And with that bass from the speakers, which could never be replicated in cast recordings, this is one of the most intoxicating, addictive performances I’ve seen. You simply cannot get enough.
I know many were hopeful that the cast from Broadway would transfer with the show but not me. I appreciate the talent in that cast, but I was thrilled to see a fresh cast, and opportunities being grabbed by new faces and new names. Giles Terera is sublime as Burr, Rachel John is the total bomb as the eldest Schuyler sister, Angelica. Jason Pennycooke has all the swagger and then some as Lafeyette and Jefferson.
Mike Gibson is fantastic as King George. I’m thinking that the American creatives are curious as to how a British audience will respond to irreverence to royalty and outright attacks on British imperialism. Well, we’re with you there, Lin-Manuel, so don’t worry too much. The audience were totally on Hamilton’s side. Sure, in Brexit-land, there’ll be those appalled at this (Jacob Rees-Mogg, I’m looking at you here) but, frankly, Hamilton is the wrong show for them anyway so, hey, who cares what they think?
But it’s Jamael Westman who, surely, has the hardest task of all. Not only an unknown cast in the most-desired role on the London stage, but he’s also stepping into pretty big shoes considering Lin-Manuel played Alexander Hamilton in Broadway. How did he do as the protagonist? Well, he seemed like a rabbit in the headlights at times in the first few tracks but, my, does this guy have talent… His flow is off the chain. Stunning. And he has swagger and looks. His Hamilton is sexy and tough, but with a huge hole of vulnerability right in the centre. He is excellent. That one is going to be a star. Hell, in this role he probably already is!
But it would be unfair not to draw attention to the full cast. The contemporary dance and movement that accompanies each track is edgy and fantastic. This is a musical on the front foot – relevant and assertive. This doesn’t just make other musicals seem dated and out of touch, it is a searing shot at the heart of an industry that remains a bastion of the White middle class. Hamilton is a game-changer, unquestionably. But it’s so damn good, I wonder how the hell any other show is even going to go toe-to-toe with it, let alone exceed it. What a challenge. What a throw down.
Of course, no review of Hamilton would be acceptable without commentary on the deliberate switch in casting. The tale of White men played out by actors of colour. It is a reclamation, but also shows the extent to which Lin-Manuel wants to draw comparison between Hamilton the man as a white immigrant, with the treatment and opportunities for immigrants today in New York and across the world.
This is, of course, the critical source of Hamilton’s power. Though, I have to admit a little disappointment that this production didn’t go a step further and play up a gender switch too, perhaps casting women in some of the male characters. (What I would have given for a female George Washington!). Maybe next time, with the cast change, yeah?
But what I found most interesting was the final message the show tries to leave its audience with. After Hamilton dies, there is a great wailing and earnest declarations that the world is big enough to entertain different points of view. We don’t need to extinguish our enemies. That this is the very basis of democracy. Of course, true. But surely this is tricky territory in 2017.
We are in a world now – post-Trump, post-Brexit, annihilation in Syria, a seeming genocide in Yemen and Palestine, and immigrants still drowning just to get to safe territory – that is full of darkness, where dangerous opinions are not just on the rise but holding the reins of power. I kind of wished this show had taken Hamilton’s willingness to fight for what he believes in as the main takeaway. Maybe that would mean more to its specific audience and demographic in the current climate.
But, look, don’t let these points detract from the fact that Hamilton is extraordinary. In every way. From the music to the message, from the cast to each element of its creation. Weaving passion with politics with both love and fury. I am in awe, I am a convert. I am looking to buy my next ticket already.
Note: I saw a preview performance. It wasn’t meant to be that way. I was a good girl – I bought my ticket specifically after the original press date but, what with all the cancellations, my performance became a preview and so, here we are. Forgive me.
Victoria Palace Theatre, London, to, Lord knows, probably forever.
All production images by Matthew Murphy.