Not since My Fair Lady or, more recently, the overrated Book of Mormon has a Broadway musical carried such an overwhelming weight of hype and expectation as Hamilton. The equivalent of a theatrical second coning, the event has garnered the kind of reputation it is now impossible to justify. More column inches have been written about it than any other show I can recall, while the reverence, fervour and commitment it induces in its legion of worshippers is more characteristic of a rock concert or a Billy Graham-like revivalist meeting than a stage show.
Before a single note was sung, the dimming of the house lights cued a deafening ground swell of whoops and screams, turning the magnificently refurbished Victoria Palace into a shrine rather than a theatre. The audience had come to witness a miracle. What they got instead was a smart, exuberant, confident, informative (but flawed), game-changing birth of a notion about the birth of a nation.
As probably every infant in its crib knows by now, the musical’s eponymous hero, Alexander Hamilton (Jamael Westman), was “a bastard, orphan son of a whore and a Scotsman” born in 1857 out of wedlock in the West Indies and taken in by a wealthy merchant who, recognising his intelligence and ability, packed him off to New York to further his education. A college dropout, he played a major role in the American Revolutionary War and became America’s first secretary to the Treasury. Or as the show’s creator Lin-Manuel Miranda has him say, “Hey, yo, I’m just like my country/I’m young, scrappy and hungry/And I’m not throwing away my shot.” His “shot” also included becoming George Washington’s senior aide, practicing law and founding the Bank of New York.
Hamilton is not the first Broadway musical to be set in the 18th century. 1776, which premiered in 1969, dramatised the events leading up to the signing of America’s Declaration of Independence and also featured Thomas Jefferson. But where 1776 was a thoroughly conventional well-crafted show, it broke no new ground, and not surprisingly, its subject matter failed to find an audience when it transferred to the West End. Only time will tell if Hamilton, once its novelty value evaporates, will continue indefinitely to enthrall British audiences. Let’s face it, the Brits hardly emerge smelling of roses.
Right now, what makes Hamilton the unique experience it is, is the boldly invigorating way Miranda mirrors the fiery furnace of change in late 18th-century American politics with the heady, persistent beat of contemporary rap, hip-hop, rock opera and R&B, with occasional references to other Broadway musicals thrown in as an homage to a genre Miranda loves (and at the same time is redefining). And given America’s vast immigrant population, to which the show pays tribute, his predominantly multi-racial cast makes perfect sense.
The non-stop pace at which history evolves is further echoed in the perpetual motion of Thomas Kail’s direction and Andy Blankenbuehler’s choreography, whose use of a revolving stage, against the wooden, tavern-like backdrop of David Korins’ all-purpose set, is an apt metaphor for the giddy spin of the politics of the period.
It’s a great concept, to be sure, effectively juxtaposed with Miranda’s dizzyingly clever lyrics. Here’s a man, to paraphrase Will Rogers, who never met a rhyme he didn’t like. They’re witty and often ingenious but not always character driven. After a while, there’s a sameness to them, often turning characters such as the Marquis de Lafayette and Thomas Jefferson (both flamboyantly played by Jason Pennycooke) into caricatures. Especially falling into this category is King George III, who, in an unashamedly applause-milking performance by Michael Jibson, is the undoubted hit of the evening. His showstopper, "You’ll Be Back," a parody of a British pop song circa 1965, is in danger of raising the Victoria palace’s brand new roof.
Though it’s Hamilton who gives the musical its name, the central character (and the show’s narrator) is Aaron Burr, suavely played by Giles Terera. It’s Burr who initially befriends and advises Hamilton when he first arrives in New York (“talk less ... smile more”), and it is Burr who fatally shoots him in a duel. It’s what happens in between that provides the show with its narrative thrust, especially in the second half, which focuses on the political chasm that widens irreparably when in 1804 Hamilton refuses to endorse Burr as a potential governor of New York State.
Based on the massive 2004 biography of Hamilton by Ron Chernow, it is Miranda’s daunting task to condense a historically complex series of events with simplicity and clarity. He only partially succeeds. Act Two is particularly clotted and cluttered with exposition. Despite the dexterity of the lyrics, the spectre of the classroom looms large. Aware of this, he leavens the history lesson with adultery and blackmail involving Hamilton, a woman called Maria Reynolds (Christine Allado) and her husband James (Waylon Jacobs). But it’s all very sketchy and dramatically uninvolving. Neither Hamilton nor Burr is in any way endearing, and Hamilton’s relationships with his wife Eliza (Rachelle Ann Go) and her sister Angelica (Rachel John) are bafflingly ambiguous.
The show’s chief flaw for me was that Hamilton, as realised by Miranda, is difficult to like as a man. Nor does it emerge just how much of a mover and shaker he was as a politician, Federalist, legal brain, businessman and banker. Just being told about his achievements is not the same as witnessing them unfurl.
Much has been written about Rada graduate Westman’s West End debut as Hamilton. Yes, he looks good and is certainly personable. But he’s still a work in progress, lacking real presence, charisma, dynamism and the essential star quality this under-written role demands. He is upstaged by Terera’s Burr, whose gradual antagonism towards the man who morphs into his nemesis is subtly graded. Burr also fronts one of the show’s best songs, "The Room Where It Happens."
The rest of the cast members are all excellent and sing, dance and act with a purpose and commitment this ambitious musical experiment definitely merits. But it’s not a masterpiece, and all the hype in the universe won’t turn it into one.