My most-anticipated show of 2017 has finally arrived. After huge critical and popular acclaim on Broadway, Hamilton, the hip-hop musical about one of the founding fathers of the USA, has finally made it to London, opening at the newly-refurbished Victoria Palace Theatre. I was lucky enough to grab a ticket for a preview performance – though it seemed as polished and professional as if the cast had been doing it for months.
The show tells the story of Alexander Hamilton, previously most well known – to Americans – as the face on the ten-dollar bill and the founder of the first national bank. They might also have known that he was killed in a duel by the then-Vice President, Aaron Burr. To Brits, he probably wasn’t known at all. Creator Lin-Manuel Miranda read historian Ron Chernow’s biography while on holiday, and reflected that Hamilton’s story – an orphan immigrant working hard to get ahead – as well as his tragic death, was like the life of a modern day hip-hop star. Not to mention that Hamilton’s love of words – one of the central themes running through Hamilton is, “Why do you write like you’re running out of time?” – reflects the wordplay and richness of language within rap music.
Miranda is something of a musical genius – he wrote the music, book and lyrics to Hamilton, and he also starred in it during the show’s inaugural run in New York – I remain hopeful that he will take part in the London production at some point. The cast album was released last year – I normally make a point of not listening to musicals before I see them, but after the Hamilton hype I just couldn’t wait. Therefore I was already very familiar with the musical before seeing it. I’m still not sure whether this is the best thing to do or not – clearly there were many people in the audience who didn’t know what was going to happen, and I rather envied them that they were experiencing it for the first time. On the other hand, being familiar with the music meant that I could focus on the performances and the staging.
Hamilton follows Alexander as he arrives in New York, takes part in the American Revolution and rises to become George Washington’s right hand man. The second half focuses on the early years of government and Hamilton’s rise, fall and premature death. The music is like nothing else heard in musical theatre before: hip-hop and rap blended with showtunes, pop and R&B to create something completely new and fresh. Cabinet meetings become rap battles; the rules of duelling are listed in a song called “Ten Duel Commandments” which recalls The Notorious B.I.G.’s ‘Ten Crack Commandments’. The lyrics are a joy to listen to, hanging together like poetry, every hearing revealing something new. Miranda references Rogers and Hammerstein, Gilbert and Sullivan, Shakespeare, as well as hip-hop stars – there’s something for everyone.
I was worried that the West End cast wouldn’t live up to the original Broadway cast I know and love from the recording, but I needn’t have worried. As in America, the main characters (except for King George III) are played by people of colour – America in the eighteenth century played by America now. Newcomer Jamael Westman, in his first major role out of drama school, plays Hamilton with confidence and charm, raps superbly and sings brilliantly. Giles Terera portrays Aaron Burr, his rival, with suave appeal – his portrayal is very different from Leslie Odom Jr’s as I’ve experienced on the cast recording, so it took me a while to adjust, but he ended up being one of my favourites. His rendition of ‘Wait For It’, one of my favourite songs, was a high point for me.
The trio of Jason Pennycooke, Tarinn Callender and Cleve September have extremely difficult jobs as they each have to portray two characters. As Lafayette, Pennycooke is superb, delivering the super-fast rap of ‘Guns and Ships’ with impeccable timing, while his Jefferson is confident and highly amusing. The contrast between Callender’s forthright Hercules Mulligan and his quiet Madison is impressive, while September tugs the heartstrings as both Hamilton’s close friend John Laurens and his son, Philip.
Meanwhile, the trio of the Schuyler sisters couldn’t be better: Rachel John is in fine voice as the eldest, Angelica, while Rachelle Ann Go is sympathetic and determined as Eliza, who becomes Hamilton’s wife; her version of ‘Burn’ is hugely powerful. Christine Allado brings out the humour in ‘The Schuyler Sisters’ as her Peggy is overshadowed by her two older siblings. Allado also plays Maria Reynolds with rich sensuality in the second act.
Obioma Ugoala displays all the charisma and power you would expect from George Washington, while Michael Jibson is hilarious as King George III, who pops up every now and then to tell the Americans, ‘You’ll Be Back’. The ensemble are an integral part of the piece, with their beautiful harmonies and smooth dancing. Watching from the stalls, I had an appreciation for every part of the show, from the spare but effective set to the perfectly-designed lighting.
Hamilton is a masterpiece and is honestly deserving of every bit of the hype. It’s one of the best things I’ve ever seen and is simply magnificent. I already want to see it again, and I will be stalking the website to make sure this will happen.