It’s fun to reflect on which actor would be good looking or talented enough to play ourselves in an auto-biographical retelling of our lives. Alexander Hamilton, one of the founding fathers of America, most likely did not consider that his story would be retold in a musical, by an ethnically diverse cast and using various musical stylings from rock, hip-hop to rap.
He probably would also not have anticipated that the musical would receive an overwhelmingly positive response. It has won critical acclaim, numerous awards and has been viewed by a countless number of celebrities and public figures including Obama, Beyoncé, Kanye West and even Mike Pence. I would like to think that if he had the chance to see it, it’s a production he would not be too disappointed by.
The musical follows the life of Alexander Hamilton, a bastard son who immigrates to America at a young age. During the American Revolution, he rises to be George Washington’s Right Hand Man and is appointed as the first United States Secretary of the Treasury and lays the foundations of America’s current financial system. Tickets for the West End production of this show were one of the fastest selling for a musical in London’s History. I bought my tickets back in January 2017 and so had to wait 15 months, longer than the duration of your average pregnancy, to see it.
In short, I think the show is excellent. What fascinates me most is how Musical Theatre History is littered with flops. Shows of all budgets sizes and creativity levels can fail to connect with an audience. Many producers have tried most recently with film adaptations and jukebox musicals to follow a “winning formula” but even this does not guarantee success. But this story about a relatively unknown historical figure, set to music not typically heard on Broadway and with a fairly unknown cast has become such a sensation.
I think a critical contributor to its success is Lin-Manuel Miranda’s music, lyrics and book. Miranda has mentioned in interviews that he was inspired to write this show after reading Hamilton’s biography. He saw that this man’s rise to acclaim through the strength of his writing is a trajectory which is shared by many other Americans, particularly from immigrant backgrounds. He was then inspired to tell this story with performers with various ethnicities not only to convey the universality of Hamilton’s story, but also the relevance of this section in American History.
One of my favourite examples of the way in which Miranda does this is in the song “Ten Duel Commandments”. This number sets out the rules for how to engage in an eighteenth-century duel. For example,
“Number one. The challenge: demand satisfaction, if they apologise, no need for further action”.
The song was inspired by Notorious B.I.G’s “Ten Crack Commandments” which is a how-to-guide for illegal activity in the 90s. For example,
“Rule Number Uno, never let no one know how much dough you hold cause you know the cheddar breed jealousy”
The similarities between the two songs is meant to convey how the emotions and conflicts prevalent during Hamilton’s day and how they were managed were not too dissimilar from the tensions and the way in which gangs interact with one another in modern society. It’s not an obvious connection which most would have made, but the way in which this scene plays out demonstrates it so clearly.
But further to how thought-provoking the story-telling is, it is just brilliantly written. To compact 30 years of American History into a musical, weave in multiple and accurate historical references and develop the characters in the story is no easy task. I have so many favourite moments which I could delve into. But one which particularly caught my attention while seeing the show live was in the song ‘One Last Time’. A conversation between Hamilton and George Washington goes as follows:
[WASHINGTON] I need a favour
[HAMILTON] Whatever you say, sir, Jefferson will pay for his behaviour
[WASHINGTON] Shh. Talk less
[HAMILTON] I’ll use the press, I’ll write under a pseudonym, you’ll see what I can do to him—
[WASHINGTON] I need you to draft an address
[HAMILTON] Yes! He resigned. You can finally speak your mind—
In this short section, we see Hamilton’s eagerness and tendency to burst with ideas and how this contrasts with George Washington, who acts as a father figure to Hamilton. Despite Hamilton’s interruptions, the rhythm of the song is maintained and these unique rhymes (highlighted in colour) are also incorporated. This makes the scene livelier and allows the audience to get a sense of the bond that these two characters share. Miranda crafts this section in a way that is faithful to the characters but is also creative lyrically and demonstrates his careful attention to detail and how brilliant he is.
There are many other elements that I could praise in the production including the deliciously full orchestra, the costumes and dynamic choreography. I will say that the stand-out performers for me were George Washington played by Obioma Ugoala and Angelica Schuyler, Hamilton’s Sister-in-law played by Rachel John. Obioma Ugoala has a beautiful soulful voice and has this natural charisma to pull of a man of George Washington’s stature. Rachel John is also a leading lady and performs with such poise and elegance.
I think it is refreshing to see new theatre which is not geared to please tourists but actually has something interesting to say. However not everything about Hamilton is perfect. For example, the uncomfortable truth is that some of the characters would have owned and traded slaves. I was also slightly disappointed to see that the diversity in the cast was not reflected in the audience. But this is no surprise in the West End with the ticket prices being what they are. But all in all, I can say that seeing this show was well worth the 15 month wait and notable dent in my bank account.