Could a Broadway phenomenon whose subtitle, An American Musical, was part of its early calling card, find a home in London? Given the deserved brouhaha surrounding the pre-Christmas opening of Hamilton on the West End – the first posting for Lin-Manuel Miranda’s seismic success outside the United States – all early signs point to yes.
And while director Thomas Kail's staging at producer Cameron Mackintosh’s gorgeously revamped Victoria Palace looks much the same as the version unfolding presumably forever more at Broadway's (smaller) Richard Rodgers Theatre, it has a different sound and flavour for one overriding reason. For that, credit recent RADA graduate Jamael Westman in the title role. (Ash Hunter does the matinees.)
I’d seen Westman twice on stage before without realizing it, once in a new play at the Royal Court (Torn) and then in Webster’s Jacobean bloodbath The White Devil at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse at Shakespeare’s Globe. Those were both ensembles, and excellent ones, whereas Hamilton grants the classically trained thesp the leading role of the American founding father who, it was thought in advance, the Brits wouldn’t know or care about. To that argument, I would counter merely that most Americans surely had little clue who the treasury secretary on the $10 bill was either – until a multi-ethnic musical about nothing less than American self-identity and the unfolding mosaic of American life put him center-stage.
Having seen the first two Hamiltons in New York – Miranda first and then his duskier-sounding replacement, Javier Munoz – Westman cuts a different figure. Playing the eponymous “bastard orphan son of a whore,” Westman uses his considerable height as an immediate indicator of authority. This is no mere scrappy upstart struggling to find a toehold amid unfamiliar political and social climes but a cool cat who knows his worth and can move boldly towards claiming it. Westman also sings the part with an ease (and in what may well be a lower register) than did Miranda, who, judging from his deeply felt encomia on social media, would appear to be the London newcomer’s greatest fan.
The result is to make a show called Hamilton very squarely about Hamilton, whereas its potentially bifurcated nature was reflected in the Tony for Best Actor in a Musical going in 2016 to Leslie Odom Jr’s Aaron Burr. Giles Terera in the same part here brings a somewhat puzzling sibilant sound to the part – which I haven’t noticed in this splendid actor’s other American roles, from Avenue Q to the National’s magisterial Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, in which he played Slow Drag. But his comparatively diminutive nature (next to Westman, that is) suggests a physical inferiority that plays well across the evening, and Terera’s musicianship is unerring from first to last, including his biting way with The Room Where It Happens,” arguably the musical’s defining song.
The score gets richer with each public hearing, and one can absolutely feel Miranda vaulting happily between the hip-hop and rap realms that are hardly Broadway norms and the nods towards such disparate forbears as Gilbert and Sullivan, Rodgers and Hammerstein, The Beatles and Rent. At the risk of making what may seem an overwrought claim, one does actually sense a Shakespearean richness to the lyrics upon encountering them afresh in Shakespeare’s home country – the language, yes, but also the layering of it and its sense of freedom. I for one wouldn’t be the least bit surprised if this is the sort of work the Bard would be creating now if he walked among us – a history play melded to a love story, exercise in inclusion and social anthem.
Yes, some of the supporting players fail to dislodge the New York originators of those same roles from the memory (Renee Elise Goldsberry really is a matchless Angelica), though others bring a directly emotive appeal or brio or wit to the occasion. Rachelle Ann Go is a charming, beautifully sung Eliza, while Christine Allardo’s doubling of Peggy and Maria leaves you wanting more of her as each. Jason Pennycooke in the dual roles of the Marquis de Lafayette and Thomas Jefferson once again suggests himself as the West End's leading scamp. The man defines irrepressibility in every way.
And to get to the most important point: what does the London public make of a sneering, naughty King George hissing “You’ll Be Back” at various intervals? As played in full royal regalia, and the hauteur to match, by Michael Jibson, they eat him up. As playgoers at Hamilton by rights should be doing for some time to come.