Benet Catty Productions

Hamilton (WE 2018)

Jan 1, 2018

Victoria Palace Theatre

Every five years or so the musical theatre offers a monster hit. The last was Book of Mormon. Before that there was Wicked. Before that The Producers. But Hamilton is something else. Already an award-laden cultural icon, its first airing was in front of the Obamas at the White House and later, after the rise of Trump, the line “Immigrants, we get the job done” started getting nightly audience reactions which speak to the times.

Hamilton is a masterpiece. Its brilliance lies in the story which is rich, complicated and true. Alexander Hamilton was born with nothing and made his way to America with nothing but his wits. He became the right-hand man to George Washington, was key to winning independence from the British, became the treasury secretary and set up the first national bank, was the subject of the country’s first sex scandal and died in a duel. To most people he’s remembered as the face on the $10 note. Not anymore.

Lin Manuel Miranda (who wrote the music, lyrics and book) pitches Hamilton as “the story of America then told by America now”. The characters were old and white but the cast is young and multi-racial; the music is hip-hop with recitatives of rap and songs ranging from R&B to show-tunes. But it’s the lyrics that dazzle first. The first twenty seconds encompasses the first four chapters of Ron Chernow’s 832-page biography which the show is based on:

“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?
The ten dollar Founding Father without a father got a lot farther by working a lot harder, by being a lot smarter, by being a self-starter, by fourteen they’d put him in a charge of a trading charter.”

Hamilton is played thrillingly by recent graduate Jamael Westman. Paranoid by intimations of death (“I imagine death so much it feels more like a memory”) and a determination that “I’m not throwin’ away my shot”, his wit and vanity is underpinned by a sense of urgency which proves tragically well placed.

Aaron Burr (ever-terrific Giles Terera), Hamilton’s friend and nemesis, owes a lot to Judas in Jesus Christ Superstar, not least that the story is told from Burr’s point of view. Burr is Salieri to Hamilton’s Mozart and, as in Amadeus, the notional villain is as sympathetic as the hero.

Amongst the many well-crafted supporting roles, Obioma Ugoala is a powerful and nuanced George Washington and Michael Jibson does a great turn as King George III who makes three appearances in a huge crown (accompanied by harpsichord) to tartly tell America “You’ll be back”. Rachelle Ann Go delivers vocal power as Eliza, Hamilton’s wife, but it’s Rachel John as her sister, who sacrifices her own happiness for Eliza’s sake, who delivers the emotional heft. Only Jason Pennycooke as Thomas Jefferson comes up a little short for me, pushing the role too far towards scene-stealing, and without making his hyper-fast rapping seem natural.

Thomas Kail’s production is creditably no frills and low-tech. Like the writing itself, his staging on David Korin’s set owes a debt to Les Miserables in the economy with which it cleanly tells a complicated story. It lets movement (the almost constant high energy choreography is by Andy Blankenbuehler) and lighting (Howell Binkley) do the work, which they do with huge flair.

In the end, though, Lin Manuel Miranda is the hero of the evening as much as Alexander Hamilton. It is an unarguable masterpiece that adapts the work of the great musical theatre writers of the last century into something completely contemporary and original. The finger snaps and choreographic integration emulate Leonard Bernstein. The dexterity with language and sophistication of subject parallel Sondheim. He places melodies and reprises as well as anyone since Lloyd Webber. The best ballad, the sex scandal number Say No To This, uses a distinctive Kander and Ebb modulation. He even quotes Gilbert and Sullivan, Oscar Hammerstein Shakespeare and The West Wing along the way. And that’s before we talk about the stream of hip-hop references.

Hamilton is a dazzling, unmissable theatrical event. It plays in the sumptuously restored Victoria Palace, now perhaps the most beautiful theatre in London. You may not be able to get in for a while but don’t worry, the show’s not going anywhere for a few years.

Like the man himself, Hamilton is a musical which makes history

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