“History is entirely created by the person who tells the story.” (Lin-Manuel Miranda)
Given I know very little about American history, it is no surprise that I’d never heard of Alexander Hamilton. And yet somehow, this Caribbean immigrant appeared to have a whole musical dedicated to him. And I was desperate to see it. I may have dropped a hint or two. And yet I was still surprised and excited to unwrap tickets on Christmas Day. Mr Fletche gets full hubby points for that one.
I made a conscious decision not to learn too much about the story, or even to listen to the soundtrack beforehand. Actually, I did try once, but Spotify was on shuffle and the songs make no sense out of order and out of context. But a quick Alexander Hamilton 101 for you:
- Hamilton was one of the founding fathers of the United States, and his face appears on the US $10 note
- He was indeed “a bastard, orphan, son of a whore and a Scotsman”
- Hamilton was excellent at arguing, at writing and at commanding during battle, skills which brought him to the attention of General George Washington
- He was involved in a highly publicised sex scandal when he cheated on wife Eliza with scrupulous Maria Reynolds whose husband would extort money from Hamilton
- Hamilton was mortally wounded in a duel with former mentor and more latterly nemesis Aaron Burr
Does this scream “hit musical” to you? Maybe not. But luckily Lin-Manuel Miranda thought otherwise. Inspired by Ron Chernow’s biography of Hamilton, he penned first a rap, and then an entire full-length musical all about the controversial but largely unknown figure. He also took centre-stage and played the titular role. A bit like the Dennis Waterman character in Little Britain. After two hugely successful years on Broadway, it opened at the Victoria Palace in London in December 2017. And even now, available tickets are as rare as hen’s teeth and require taking out a small mortgage, even for the nosebleed seats. But I’d finally got hold of those tickets. Yes, in the nosebleed seats.
What’s your name man? Alexander Hamilton
And is it worth the wait? Absolutely. The show hits you in the gut almost straight away with a whirlwind of huge numbers – Alexander Hamilton, Aaron Burr (Sir) and My Shot. We watch as our hero meets the infinitely sensible and smooth Burr (“talk less, smile more”), and the revolutionaries Laurens, Lafayette and Mulligan. He falls in love with the beautiful Eliza Schuyler, whose sister Angelica also has her head turned by the scrappy Hamilton. The segue from Helpless to the “rewind” in Satisfied is beautifully done as we see the previous scene from Angelica’s point of view. (Can anyone confirm the point of Peggy though? Is it because all good girl groups have three members? Destiny’s Child. The Supremes. Wilson Philips.)
A pompous King George makes his first appearance – every good musical has it’s comedy character and this is he. We learn about the 10 Duel Commandments. Duels play an all too important part in Hamilton’s story. The audience whoops as Lafayette and Hamilton share the line “immigrants – we get the job done“. Act 1 finishes with the rousing Non-Stop, re-visiting strands and themes from earlier songs. I’m exhausted just watching. It’s a juggernaut of a first half.
No one really knows how the game is played, the art of the trade, how the sausage gets made
The second half is more about political manoeuvring and I admit to sometimes not being altogether sure what’s going on. I’m along for the ride though. Lafeyette has gone to France and comes back as Thomas Jefferson. Mulligan is now James Madison. The sadly deceased Laurens is now Hamilton’s 9 year old son Philip. Missing Schuyler sister Peggy becomes seductive Maria Reynolds. There are rap battles, complete with mic drop. Aaron Burr completes an impressive tablecloth sweep in The Room where it Happens. At this point I’m rooting for Burr. George Washington sings his resignation letter (One Last Time) and King George is back. Eliza starts a small fire in response to Hamilton’s betrayal and talks about “erasing myself from the narrative” in the heart-rending Burn. She writes herself back into the narrative a little later.
Most disputes die and no one shoots…..
There’s more political manoeuvring and Hamilton betrays yet another person when he endorses Jefferson over Burr as presidential candidate (“Jefferson has beliefs; Burr has none”). An enraged Burr challenges Hamilton to a duel by way of passive-aggressive letter-writing. Which seems like a sensible way of settling things. In a beautiful pause to the proceedings, Hamilton considers his legacy before succumbing to Burr’s fatal shot. And Eliza Hamilton goes on to tell her husband’s story, speak out against slavery and establish the first private orphanage in New York. Sounds like she needs her own musical about her.
And of course, it’s a sung-through musical, Or should I say, rapped-through? Some vocal performances are stronger than others, and in earlier scenes some of the lyrics are lost. Jason Pennycooke as Lafayette/ Thomas Jefferson has some of the fastest rap lyrics which he copes with admirably. I was excited to see Rachelle Ann Go playing Eliza after her spectacular turn as Gigi in Miss Saigon, but in this performance understudy Sharon Rose played the role and she blew me away. Allyson Ava Brown sang beautifully as Angelica conveying an internal struggle as she battles her love for Hamilton versus her love for her sister. And Jamael Westman, who stepped into the role fresh out of RADA, plays the title role perfectly, with charisma and passion.
What is a legacy? It’s planting seeds in a garden you never get to see.
It’s not just rap. There’s soul, R&B, jazz and hip-hop too, and the athletic choreography by Andy Blankenbuehler reflects the music perfectly. And the set is simple, with great use of the turntable to move the performers around seamlessly. There are no superfluous scenery changes to distract from the action.
I’m still to decide on my favourite songs, and one of the first things I did after the show was purchase and download the soundtrack. To play in order this time.
Is it worth the hype? The queue around the block to enter? The almost paranoia about ticket security? Absolutely.
Who lives, who dies, who tells your story?