The most talked-about show of the century about America’s Founding Fathers arrives in London in the shape of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton (Victoria Palace), but for once all the hype is justified for it not only made hip-hop part of the vocabulary of Broadway but turns out to be a musical masterpiece.
The title character is the charismatic Alexander Hamilton, born in poverty in the Caribbean and orphaned as a child. After moving to America, he becomes George Washington’s right-hand man, a key interpreter of the Constitution and first Secretary of the Treasury, laying the groundwork for America’s economic success. He marries well, overcomes a sex scandal and dies in a duel with his rival, Aaron Burr.
This story has often been sidelined in historical accounts and the show brings an inspired, ironic and timely twist to the archetypal American success story. And in the hands of a multi-racial cast, wearing 18th century costumes, but delivering a scintillating score that draws on blues, jazz, R&B, hip-hop and tender ballads, it has become the collective story of a nation, so that while Hamilton is the pivot of the narrative, he is also part of a musical that, like the nation itself, seems in perpetual motion.
Miranda’s music and lyrics combine two things that rarely go together: political passion and nimble wit, while Hamilton’s mastery of language is shared by the musical’s creator and brilliantly brought out in the densely packed, intricate lyrics. Hamilton early on tells us: “I’m just like my country. I’m young, scrappy and hungry and I’m not throwing away my shot!” These lines are echoed by the whole company in the exhilarating revolutionary anthem, Yorktown, in which the victorious American troops appropriate a 17th century British ballad The World Turned Upside Down. Indeed Miranda’s lyrics which include references to Shakespeare and WS Gilbert are full of verbal dexterity and social insight. Burr at one point tells us: “There’s nothng rich folks love more than goin’ downtown and slummin’ it with the poor!
The outstanding number, though, is Burr’s The Room Where It Happens. This deals with a politically complex subject: the secret deal, in which Hamilton accepted the idea of Washington DC as the nation’s capital, in exchange for federal control over the debts accrued by the separate states. Miranda turns it into a number of rapidly accelerating momentum about Burr’s desire to be in the room at the time of the deal, and about the enigma of history.
The red-bricked set by David Korins. with its moveable walkways, central revolve and a balcony overlooking the action, allows scene to flow effortlessly into scene with a minimum of fuss, while Andy Blankenbuehler’s choreography is equally unflashy and profoundly effective.
Director Thomas Kail extracts first-rate performances from his excellent ensemble. Tall and elegant, newcomer Jamael Westman invests Hamilton with immense authority, reminding us that words were always his strongest weapon and suggests a mixture of opportunist and visionary. As the ambitious Aaron Burr, Salieri to Westman’s Mozart, Giles Terera has a cool shrewdness but he’s also alive to the character’s pent-up longing and envy. Rachelle Ann Go displays a gorgeously rich voice as Hamilton’s earnest, long-suffering wife Eliza, while Rachel John brings wit and spark to her passionate sister Angelica. Obioma Ugoala makes a monumental, wistful Washington. Jason Pennycooke doubles effectively as the rapidly-rapping, florid Marquis de Lafayette and a preening Thomas Jefferson. Michael Jobson is an hilariously prim but volatile and psychopathic George III.
In short then, Miranda’s idea of relating history through the prism of America today is truly ingenious. Beg, steal or borrow a ticket to see this landmark musical–but don’t miss it!
Booking until Saturday 28 July 2018 at Victoria Palace Theatre
Box office: 0844 482 5138.
Images: Matthew MurphyLast modified: April 6, 2021