Coming up to its second year in London and with five other productions all over the world, Lin-Manuel Miranda’s blockbuster show is a true theatrical phenomenon. It’s nice to agree with the hype – everything you’ve heard about how good it is is true. But originality is only half the story behind how great the show is – a mastery of technique and a thorough knowledge of musical theatre combine to make it an instant classic.
Yes, Hamilton is ground breaking. The decision to cast African-American performers as the founding fathers whose story we are told (apparently more startling to theatregoers in the States) is bold. Alongside the clear and powerful advocacy of immigration, the show makes important statements for our times. Miranda’s engagement with history – the way that he uses the past – powers the show. Not forgetting, of course, the fact that his historical characters rap.
Yet behind the new, it is traditional storytelling that Miranda excels at. It’s a skill shared by director Thomas Kail, who aids clarity without compromising subtlety. There’s a good deal going on in Hamilton – the birth of a nation as much as the eponymous character’s biography – and you’ll learn a lot. But quite simply this is a tale exquisitely told: a mix of the personal and political, with a complex plot and big ideas perfectly balanced.
Miranda makes his historical characters live and the cast excels as a result. The singing is excellent throughout but it is in fulfilling such rich depictions that the performers really impress. There’s a magnificent George Washington in Dom Hartley-Harris while Jason Pennycooke gives two rousing performances, first as Marquis de Lafayette and then Thomas Jefferson. Hamilton himself seems not just “young, scrappy and hungry” but a little callow – at first. The character’s development is a journey marvellously depicted by Jamael Westman, who takes the part. Like Gore Vidal, who wrote of the same events in his Narratives of Empire series, Miranda knows that Hamilton’s nemesis Aaron Burr is really the more interesting figure. Here is another life story that makes yet more political points, and a character who also narrates much of the show – the result is a breathtaking performance from Sifiso Mazibuko.
Miranda shares his talent for characterisation generously. This is a story about men but the women in the piece get their say. Even the most ardent fan of musicals has to admit this isn’t always the case and here it adds immeasurably to two love stories: Hamilton’s marriage and his unrequited romance with his sister-in-law. In the later role, Allyson Ava-Brown is stunning as she depicts a forceful woman very much of her time that we can still relate to. The role of Hamilton’s wife, Eliza, goes to Rachelle Ann Go and, as with the title role, carefully matures to reveal a steely will and independence.
Eliza has the most wonderful love theme, a tune that really melts the heart. Which illustrates how varied the music in Hamilton is. While the rapping hit the headlines – and is superb – Miranda’s score contains a dizzying variety of styles that continually excite. Again, it is the traditional skills of writing for musical theatre that form the foundation for the show. Each character has a strong leitmotif and how well each number tells a story is remarkable. Like the show as whole, the information and emotions in each number are prodigious: there isn’t a single song that isn’t superb, adding up to a show that’s close to perfection.
Photos by Matthew Murphy