The long wait is over. After two years and an ocean full of hype, Lin-Manuel Miranda‘s musical Hamilton has finally opened in the UK. If anything, it is slightly better than I thought it might be – a heart-breaking work of staggering genius that changes the form of musical theatre for ever.
You can feel the anticipation in the auditorium of the glamorously refurbished Victoria Palace Theatre. There’s a roar of delight as the first song, “Alexander Hamilton”, starts and announces its intention to tell the story of the man on the US ten dollar bill, the founding father who died in a duel, and whose legacy was almost forgotten until Miranda decided he might make the perfect subject for a musical.
The sheer audacity of that notion was compounded by his decision to compose in a style that mixes hip hop and rap with more familiar show tunes, and to get a multi-racial cast to play the all-white founding fathers. Even this far down the road, the vitality of the opening line – “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?” – still rings out loud as a statement of intent, full of potency and promise.
Though nudging three-hours in length, it unfolds fluently and fast, whirring us through the scenes of Hamilton’s incident-packed life, treating duels and debates about the merits of a centralised tax system with the same propulsive confidence. It shares its glories equally: principally narrated by Hamilton’s rival Aaron Burr, the man who eventually shoots him, it fills the stage with historical figures from George Washington to Thomas Jefferson to James Madison and gives them bustling life via its lyrics and melodies.
This much I might have expected, from listening to the soundtrack. But separated from the politics of America, you also notice other things. True, the line “Immigrants – we get the job done” gets the loudest cheer of the night, and King George III telling his former colony that they face an uncertain future – “You’ll be back, soon you’ll see/You’ll remember you belong to me” – raises rousing delighted support. But for British audiences this is not a founding myth.
So what I started to appreciate was the radical way Miranda has structured his show. The first half, when Hamilton is on the rise, leading armies in the War of Independence, has an exhilarating punch. But the second, when his life disintegrates, is arguably even better, doing the more difficult thing of tracing the political enmities that bring him down, while creating sympathy for Burr. Scenes of violent action and rap battles in cabinet are succeeded by moments of quiet reflection, love songs in the dark, agonised moments of grief.
It is one of those rare shows where each part clicks perfectly into every other. It has a justness to it. Thomas Kail’s powerful production honours the complexity of the writing, while keeping things direct and simple. There’s nothing extraneous.
The red-brick set by David Korins, with its moveable walkways, central revolve and a balcony overlooking the action, allows scene to flow effortlessly into scene with a minimum of fuss. Andy Blankenbuehler’s choreography is equally unflashy and profoundly effective. The ensemble – dressed by Paul Tazewell in stylised 18th century garments – create rapidly unfolding tableau that evoke a sense of constant flux. Some scenes – the battles with deep knee bends, sharp jumps and red coats – are fiercely acrobatic; but some are quietly poignant. When Hamilton is felled by grief by the death of his son, the silhouettes of dancers gently moving towards him, are like waves of compassion.
The choreography also recognises the value of stillness: Michael Jibson’s wonderfully waspish King George makes such an impact because he stands motionless as he unfurls his lines of urbane venom.
Jibson is just one of an entirely new British cast which rises to the occasion. As Hamilton, the unknown Jamael Westman seems slightly nervous about the task of stepping into Miranda’s own shoes, but he does so with grace and a lovely voice. He’s surrounded by a remarkable panoply of performances. As Burr, Giles Terera painstakingly reveals the way many moments of crushing dismissal trigger the resentment that fuels his anger. Obioma Ugoala is a rich-voiced, warm and charismatic Washington, Jason Pennycooke relishes the delicious double role of the fiery revolutionary Lafayette and the show-off Jefferson. And while I had the tiniest reservations about Rachelle Ann Go’s Eliza (she sings beautifully but without much emotional impact) Rachel John is sensational as Angelica, the Schuyler sister who doesn’t marry our hero.
Her song “Satisfied”, is my favourite moment. As she toasts Hamilton and her sister’s marriage, and sings of her regret at what might have been, the action around her unfolds backwards. It is eloquent, beautiful and moving. By the time the show had finished, I wanted to do the same thing – rewind to the very start and watch it all again.
Hamilton is booking at the Victoria Palace Theatre until 30 June 2018.