Sitting down to write a review of Tony award-winning (and worldwide phenomenon) Hamilton is perhaps as overwhelming as sitting through the production itself. I mean, when anyone has asked me what I’ve thought, I’ve reverted to the old cliché ‘I have no words’ every time. But I do, and I’m here to join the (still) ever-growing ranks of people ready to defend Hamilton as more than just the hype.
If for some reason, you’ve not heard the murmurings of Hamilton rattling around the internet or missed the various pop culture references on shows like Brooklyn 99, then I’ll layout a Hamilton 101 for you. Citing Alexander Hamilton as the embodiment of hip-hop, Lin-Manual Miranda re-imagines the life of the founding-father in a genre-blurring revival of the American revolution. His use of hip-hop to develop the life of Hamilton, is honestly the stuff that brilliance is made of.
In reinventing the story of Hamilton, Miranda has almost the entire cast played by people of colour, succinctly and powerfully questioning the white-washed history of America. By mythologising a ‘young, scrappy and hungry’ immigrant, Miranda uses the founding fathers to symbolise something more important than their original stories stood for. To look back at what America really values and rewrite a history that represents more than the rich, white male our histories so aggressively prioritise. What Hamilton is yet to have done, is to utilise the opportunity of gender-blind characters and have female identifying and gender-fluid actors playing roles like Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr. However, the potential is there, and my hope is that future productions will seize the opportunity and continue to dismantle the biases of representation that continually overwhelm our legacies and arts. But, for all of Hamilton’s politics, it’s also just a playful, punchy boiling pot of poetry commanded by amazing actors. I am going to attempt to veer away from too much Miranda appreciation, he’s a genius and won the Pulitzer prize to prove it, but if you need any more proof pull up the Hamilton soundtrack and reveal in the sheer delight of his arresting word play. Miranda’s punchy five-syllable rhyme scheme that is incorporated in more than a few places (a real life, how did he do that moment) is here to remind you that rhyme can be intense and exciting in equal measure. Right, we’ve got it he’s great.
Originating on Broadway and winning eleven Tony’s for its time spent there, Hamilton finally came to the West End at the close of 2017. With the Victoria Palace Theatre decked out for its extensive stay, the whole experience from collecting your tickets to seeing David Korins’ set design for the first time is magic and that’s all before the lights dim and you ricochet into Miranda’s opening song. My only fear as the first note kicked in, was how the actors were going to live up to my love for the Broadway originators. However, as much as a lot of my love was rooted in the otherworldly voices of originals like Pippa Soo, Leslie Odom Jr and Renee Elise Goldsberry, the West End cast were every bit as phenomenal and sometimes in surprising new ways. Stand out performances came from Rachel John who plays the formidable Angelica Schuyler, Obioma Ugoala who plays Washington and Jason Pennycooke who followed in the unbelievable footsteps of Daveed Diggs as Lafayette/Jefferson. Although singling out John, Ugoala and Pennycooke as stand out performers, songs like ‘Say No to This’ featuring Christine Allado and Rachelle Ann Go’s (Eliza Schuyler) solo ‘Burn’, emphasised the insane capabilities of all the cast members. Ann Go’s heart-breaking turn at ‘Burn’ has all the raw innocence of Soo’s performance, the stage encompassing the world that Ann Go’s voice sings out to, Eliza taking agency and erasing herself from the words Hamilton built.
However, the most interesting interpretation was Giles Terera’s Aaron Burr, who stands worlds away from how I imagined Leslie Odom Jr to play him. Terera’s Burr was definitely his own and it made the ending that bit more emotional for me. As Terera broke down the genuine interior of Burr, in the moment he reacts to his own deadly shot aimed at Hamilton, we see what Burr will finally fall for.
On the night I went, Hamilton was played by Ash Hunter who performed one of (many) standout moments in the play when he nailed the ‘I Imagine Death…’ monologue beyond anything I’d imagined it to be like. The monologue situated in heart wrenching tune ‘The World Was Wide Enough’ has always been one of my favourite moments of the score and is one of the reasons why I think Miranda has been hailed as a modern-day Shakespeare (yes, we’re going there with that comparison). However, watching the moments vulnerability and intensity come to life on stage is something I won’t easily forget, it isn’t often that you get to witness a well-developed fictitious encounter with death map itself across a stage in such intensity. I think I held my breath for its entire duration. Honestly.
Obviously missing from the soundtrack is how much the ensemble gives to the experience of watching Hamilton, bringing the narrative and sound to life through breathtakingly choreography. Andy Blankenbueler’s choreography perfectly matches Miranda’s lyricism, drawing out the moments where Miranda pushes the limits of rhythm and poetry. In an interview about the creative experience behind the choreography, Blankenbueler cited the ease with which the score lends to matching the rhythm of lyric with the rhythm of music. Matched by the incredible choreography was the use of the revolving stage, which centred around so many of the musicals key moments. Literally complimenting the shows pace, which barrels forward to match Hamilton’s obsessive need to write. The use of the stage and choreography stands out in songs like ‘Satisfied’ and ‘Yorktown’ where slow motion pushes against the movement of the stage, whirling round like the interior thoughts of the protagonist himself. David Korin’s set design, like the ensemble, compliments Miranda’s creation in every way and it is a reminder that Hamilton is bought to life by so many individuals.
As I reach the end of this review, I realise how many minute moments just can’t be expressed here. As much as Hamilton is known for its all-out bangers, it’s also incredibly intricate, small facial expressions and moments of intimacy play out across so much of this musical. I hope, and I think it will take many more viewings of Hamilton for me to ever begin to understand what Lin Manual-Miranda and everyone involved has given us. There’s something new that is expressed every time I listen to it, and I imagine the performance to be much the same.
It was only natural to end the show with a standing ovation, and as I looked round the theatre at awe-stricken faces, I wondered if any Hamilton performance has ever ended with anything but. To me, it seems unlikely.