Reflection: Hamilton – An American Musical

Hamilton 2

This is not a moment, it’s a movement

This is it: ‘The Room Where It Happens’. It’s here. ‘It is Hamilton, and after a fortnight of previews, the musical chronicling the finding, founding, and fight for American freedom through the life of founding father Alexander Hamilton, it’s finally open at the Victoria Palace Theatre in London’s West End. With so much hype and hysteria, just what is it about Hamilton that makes us all want to be in ‘The Room Where It Happens’?

Telling history through rap, hip-hop, and R&B, composer Lin-Manuel Miranda makes America’s past matter through contemporary music and a cast-of-colour who play the mostly white political players of the late-18th century. With characters and songs taking their cue both from the founding fathers who wrote America into existence and the rappers and musicians who use real-life experience to write their way to respect, Hamilton fuses the present, the past, and the future – the finale asks, ‘Who Lives, Who Dies, Who Tells Your Story?’ – into a harmonious whole with a heart that beats and breaks and aches. Hamilton tells not only a political history but a private one, with the story centring on the opposing views of Hamilton and his perpetual rival, Aaron Burr (Sir): one waits for it, the other works non-stop; one stands for nothing, the other rises up; one dies, the other survives.

Hamilton, like America, is ‘young, scrappy, and hungry’, a nobody who arrives in New York to be a new man, and Burr, his nemesis, is a waiter who will do anything to win but has much, much more to lose. Hamilton, and history, hangs in the balance between the two men. Giles Terera is a beguiling Burr, and thus makes a magnificent narrator and a heartbreakingly human antagonist, moving heroically between the rapped rhymes and his more soulful singing. The alternate Alexander Hamilton at matinees, Ash Hunter, plays the problematic protagonist as impulsive, with impeccable comic timing and an impressive clearness to his rapping, but is perhaps missing that splash of scrappiness that’s polished up in ‘My Shot’. Alternates, like America after Washington, are vital to allowing the show to outlive its founders, and although that’s wildly foreign to the monarchy and theatre-going milieu alike, it cements alternates as a meaningful, though oft-forgotten element of Hamilton‘s victory.

For such ‘An American Musical’, pre-transfer worries about how well the pride and patriotism would translate from Broadway to the West End were well-founded, but in practice – and performance – any fears are truly unfounded. Although, it’s not necessarily a bad thing for Britain to be seen as the bad guys with a tyrannical narcissist in charge (here, a royally ridiculous Michael Jibson as King George III, embroiled in a bitter break-up with America), as, historically, we have been. In Hamilton, the past comes at you fast in the form of rapped recitatives with all the bravura and braggadocio of a rap battle, but in counterpoint to the politics are the private moments, the intimacy of relationships, resentment, forgiveness, and regret, and they find voice in rhythm-and-blues, when history is muted and inner monologues can be heard.

The most intimate and moving of monologues is Hamilton’s wife Eliza’s: her arc haloes from helplessly in love to burned by betrayal to bearing her husband’s legacy, and her torch song is literal, sung as she ‘Burns’ her letters, and herself, out of the story. Rachelle Ann Go is sensitive but strong, dignified in the face of disrespect, and poised but powerful in her vocal performance, and in telling the most intimate tale and outliving the hero, it’s more herstory than Hamilton’s. Two other women make up the holy trinity of Hamilton’s admirers, and they are powerhouse performances: Rachel John is Eliza’s older, wiser, revelation-wanting sister, who though never ‘Satisfied’ is more than a satisfactory match for Hamilton in wit and wile, and his mistress Maria Reynolds is a wretched lady-in-red sung so sultrily by Christine Allado it’s almost impossible not to be seduced.

Allado is seductive as Maria in Act II but playful as Peggy, the other Schuyler sister, in Act I, and she’s one of many multi-rolling across the acts. Hamilton’s allies in Act I, Lafayette and Mulligan, are his enemies, Jefferson and Madison, in Act II, with Jason Pennycooke’s turn as the jubilant, jazz-handed Jefferson and Tarinn Callender’s unabashed, ‘brrrrap’-ing Mulligan absolute triumphs. As Laurens, Cleve September completes the circle of Hamilton’s closest companions, and the four of them birth revolution over beat-boxing, banter, and shots at the bar, with their bravado only reigned in by Obioma Ugoala’s respected, almost-regal Washington.

The score is exciting and stirring and cites many a musical master from the classic to the contemporary. The ‘all-skate’ Act I closer mixes canon, counterpoint, and character theme-and-variation in the same epic vein as ‘One Day More’ from Les Mis, and there are many allusions to modern-day rappers in the ‘another immigrant coming up from the bottom’ rhetoric that runs throughout. The classical meets the contemporary across the performance, from costume designer Paul Tazewell’s cream deconstructions of colonial dress, to the bare wooden bones of David Korins’s orbital set, to Andy Blankenbuehler’s choreography with flips and whips as well as waltzes, brought to life with colour and confidence by a vivacious company.

What Hamilton has is a humanity, a humility, that makes it inimitable. As for Alexander in his America, being in ‘The Room Where It Happens’ is to be at the heart of the revolution, to see a stage that reflects real-life voices, faces, and feelings, to find not theatrical perfection, but an unforgettable phenomenon. Let’s hope, as Hamilton says, that ‘this is not a moment, it’s a movement’.

Victoria Palace Theatre, London, 19th December 2017 matinee, cast: Ash Hunter, Rachelle Ann Go, Giles Terera, Rachel John, Obioma Ugoala & others, picture by Matthew Murphy, click for link to Hamilton: An American Musical 

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