Okay, here we go. The musical that swept the 2016 Tony Awards with an historic 16 nominations and 11 wins, including Best Musical. The musical that some have defined as an ‘historical piece of groundbreaking theatre’. The musical that won a Grammy for Best Musical Theatre Album. The musical that won the 2016 Pulitzer Prize for Drama. The musical that launched it’s creator, Lin Manuel Miranda, into the Broadway Hall of Fame. The musical that is…Hamilton.
So, does it live up to all its accolades and the fanboy hype?
For those who’ve had their head in the sand for the past two years or have never seen a Musical in their life, Hamilton is based on the biography of the founding father Alexander Hamilton by Ron Chernow. The shows writer, Lin Manuel Miranda, picked up Chernow’s book whilst holidaying in Mexico and likened Hamilton’s life to contemporary stories of immigrants trying to carve their own slice of success in America. The shows modern rap and hip hop style came from Miranda’s thoughts that the challenges Hamilton endured came out musically in the form of rappers such as Biggie, Eminem and Jay Z. Miranda, who already won acclaim for In the Heights (also winning Best Musical), harnesses his music in a way that Stephen Sondheim once described as “being the closest to a modern Shakespeare that we have”.
So the question still stands, how on earth do you make a captivating 2-hour musical (that is almost entirely sung through) about a man whose most famous for being on the American $10 bill, writing a bulk of the federalist papers and being killed in a duel?
I have to admit, when I first listened to Hamilton the first and second track had me a bit hesitant. Is this really my style of music? Who is this guy? These questions and more whirled in my head. Then came My Shot and from there on I was intrigued, then suddenly You’ll Be Back and I was hooked. Just like the protagonist, Miranda’s music and lyrics are Non-Stop.
One of the most intriguing (and arguably, radical) things that first came out about this musical was it’s casting. The characters in the show are all real life people, Thomas Jefferson, Aaron Burr, Angelica Schuyler and George Washington. Yet, the original cast (and the current cast who boast an insane amount of talent) are portrayed by a young, multiracial cast. Leslie Odom Jr. (the original Aaron Burr) summed this idea up when he said “It is quite literally taking the history that someone has tried to exclude us from and reclaiming it. We are saying we have the right to tell it too.” The show tries (and succeeds) in closing the gap between Red and Blue America. Something the country sorely needs at this time in its history.
That’s enough indulging in the shows background, on to the review!
In the current cast on Broadway, Javier Muñoz tackles the title role and offers up a Hamilton that is more downplayed and steadfast in his actions. It’s hard to not compare Muñoz to his predecessor, Miranda (who took on the title role when the show opened). Where Miranda presents a more flighty Hamilton, a man that could do anything at any moment, Muñoz plays the character with a subtle determination and his interactions with the Schuyler sisters ooze Hamilton’s charm and sexual charisma. It’s at the death of *SPOILERS* his son, Philip Hamilton, that Muñoz shows the severe weight that falls upon the titular character.
Now, it wasn’t until I’ve actually seen the production do I know understand how Aaron Burr can steal the show and become the rivaling lead. The Burr we had was played by understudy Gregory Treco and it was not until I actually went to find his name in the playbill did I realise he wasn’t the permanent lead actor for Burr because he most definitely should be! Treco portrayed Burr’s patience and inability to act as Hamilton does with a heavy frustration. The cracks in the character appeared as the show progressed, from Wait for it, the show stealing number The Room Where it Happens (where Burr finally let’s loose and we discover what he wants, Treco belts the music with a force that knocks you back in your seat) all the way until the final duel where *SPOILERS* he shoots Hamilton and immediately becomes the “villain” in America’s history. Bravo Gregory Treco, bravo.
As the Schuyler sisters, Angelica, Eliza…and Peggy, we had Mandy Gonzalez (the original Nina from In the Heights), Lexi Lawson…and Alysha Deslorieux. All three actresses hit the notes for each character without ever stealing scenes, they were always watchful eyes on Hamilton’s story. Gonzalez impressed with her rendition of Satisfied playing with the notes towards the end of the song and showing the regret and anguish that she could never have Hamilton for herself. Deslorieux was sensual as Maria Reynolds, it was clear how *SPOILERS* Hamilton was seduced to have the Reynolds affair. With Hamilton’s wife, Eliza (and the teller of his story after his death) I never believed the connection between Lawson and Muñoz. I personally preferred to picture Phillipa Soo as Eliza.
Tony Award Winner (and Genie) James Monroe Iglehart joined the cast to take on the role of Marquis de Lafayette/Thomas Jefferson. Iglehart just spouts charisma; he made it damn near impossible to not see the Genie peaking out from behind his characters. In saying this, Iglehart brings a force to each character, particularly Jefferson. A worthy adversary to take on and attempt to take down Hamilton. Iglehart’s rapping may not have been the best in the show but you wouldn’t see me being able to do that many words that fast, nor many other actors I believe!
My two personal favourite characters in this production were played by J. Quinton Johnson (as Hercules Mulligan/James Madison) and Anthony Lee Medina (John Laurens/Philip Hamilton). Both actors brought the energy required for the two halves of the show. The fire and determination to start a revolution in Act 1 and the solemn, struggling ambition to help build a country and follow the legacy of those before them in Act 2.
Oh! How could I forget about the one and only, King George III. The role is the comic relief of the musical and has almost become a revolving door role for celebrity actors or talented musical theatre aficionados to step into, with Euan Morton being the current King. The King’s music is perhaps the most “Musical Theatre” out of the bunch, singing repeated versions of You’ll Be Back each time he steps on stage, the whole moment is his and he has the audience in his grip. The whole character seems like a massive American in-joke to the Mother Country and the Monarchy that still exists. It’s good to laugh once in a while.
As for the production itself, the direction of Thomas Kail is phenomenally artistic. For the majority of the show we see the cast sweep in and out on the banisters of the set and just sitting within eyesight of the wings watching the story unfolding. It adds to the depth and reality that we are all watching Hamilton’s story play out in front of us. The ensemble movement of the show brings the idea that America needs to close the divide between left and right, red and blue and work in harmony to produce something magnificent.
Hamilton however, would be nothing without its dance ensemble and the choreography, designed by Andy Blankenbuehler; it is out-of-this-world. The ensemble feel as if they are one moving organism. Numbers such as My Shot, Yorktown and Satisfied leave the audience buzzing, to the point where I wanted to give a standing ovation there and then. In other parts, the dancers take on inanimate objects, such as the bullets firing out of pistols in a slow motion monologue or the flurrying of a letter from one side of the stage all the way to the other. It’s captivating and every number fits into the atmosphere of the show.
Finally, I feel I have to share my thoughts on the longevity of Hamilton. Does it have the requirements to be a Les Miserables or a Phantom of the Opera? In America, quite possibly. The rest of the world? I don’t believe so. After all, the show is titled Hamilton: An American Musical. The show itself is on its way to London’s West End, where I believe it will do very well given its hype and the fact that the West End is a thriving theatre scene. However, I don’t believe that Hamilton would last very long in places such as, lets say Australia, mainly due to its content. It would do well touring but I don’t believe it would stay for too long.
This is an American tale and and American history and as such would possibly not resonate with many other countries. The one thing that would resonate is the score, particularly in the younger generation. I for one don’t see my Mother (who loves Musical Theatre) belting out My Shot any time soon.
Stin’s Final Thought: I’d like to see other historical figures life stories set to a hip hop soundtrack. Imagine a rap/hip hop musical based on William Shakespeare’s life? “I am not throwing away my quill!”. Imagine rapping the whole of ‘To Be or Not To Be?” Challenge Accepted!
Hamilton is now playing on Broadway, Chicago and Los Angeles and will be arriving in the newly renovated Victoria Palace Theatre in London’s West End in November. See the links below for tickets and information.