Rosie Best recalls what it was like to be in the room where it happens
“It’s a hip-hop musical written by a Puerto-Rican guy called Lin-Manuel Miranda – have you heard of In the Heights? – with a cast of mostly BME actors. And it’s about one of America’s founding fathers. You know, the first secretary of the treasury…the guy on the ten-dollar bill…”
True, the various anachronisms of Hamilton make for a slightly convoluted, confusing description. But for those of us who have listened to the music, memorised the lyrics and followed the show’s growth to success, we know that it is because of Hamilton’s juxtapositions, not in spite of them, that the show doesn’t just work – it triumphs.
Today, however, such explanations of the show are rarely necessary and since its transferal to London’s newly-refurbished Victoria Palace audiences have been positively scrambling for seats – so much so that paperless ticketing has been introduced to prevent their extortionate resale.
So when I managed to get hold of some priority tickets (only £36.50 each!) for the front row of Hamilton West End back in January 2017, I was amazed. I’d been listening to the broadway cast recording for well over two years – ‘My Shot’ was the soundtrack to my final year at university – and I had converted a number of friends and family members to Hamilton-ism in this time. But a large part of me was also nervous – could a British cast capture the distinctive Americanness of the show? Could these new performers ever live up to the voices of Leslie Odom Jr., Lin Manuel Miranda and Phillipa Soo?
In short, yes.
On entering the newly refurbished Victoria Palace theatre, it was clear that Hamilton’s here for the long-haul: the walls were awash with the gold and black of the show’s posters, and signs pointed the way to the ‘Hamilton Shop’. The stage also mirrored the set used in the broadway production, complete with revolving centre and moving staircases that seem to exaggerate the constantly shifting, evolving state of the American nation at the time of the show’s setting.
Being so familiar with the musical and given the extensive public discourse surrounding it, it’s easy for fans to feel like they already have a good understanding of the figures depicted. Indeed, Miranda’s lyrics are carefully crafted to give each one a sense of personality and to establish a connection – be it sympathy or dislike – with an listener. However, seeing the musical live made me reevaluate my ideas about the characters I saw, particularly Aaron Burr.
Listening to the soundtrack, it’s not always clear that Burr is in fact the main narrator of the story but in the West End production Giles Terara regularly breaks the fourth wall, addressing the audience to provide context and information about the story of his lifelong frenemy. In this way, Burr becomes as much a main character as the eponymous Hamilton. Terara’s appeals to the audience – his palpable emotion – highlighted the regret and anxiety that the show’s lyrics only skim over, making Burr a relatable figure rather than just the whiney, jealous anti-Hamilton.
Witnessing Hamilton in person also emphasises the show’s in-depth understanding of not just its subject matter but its medium. In a letter to his sister-in-law, Hamilton writes “tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow creeps in this petty pace from day to day. I trust you’ll understand the reference to another Scottish tragedy without my having to name the play.” Miranda slips in the word “another” as a fleeting allusion to Hamilton’s Scottish heritage – a subtle marker of the extent of the writer’s research – while his reluctance to “name the play” demonstrates the musical’s awareness of its own genre and location. The line is a nod to audiences and its success depends upon our own acknowledgement that we’re in a theatre and that it would be bad luck to mention Macbeth by name. It tests how well we’re listening and we enjoy being in on the joke in a way that we cannot be when we’re listening to the soundtrack through headphones.
A universally slick cast makes it difficult to pinpoint stand out performances. Of course, Jamael Westman was an impressive Hamilton – particularly given that this is the twenty five year old’s first performance in a musical – and Rachelle Ann Go’s Eliza (previously star of Miss Saigon and Les Miserables) was exactly as I imagined her. For me though, an unanticipated favourite was Jason Pennycooke as Thomas Jefferson. Played with a generous helping of campness, Pennycooke put a new spin on a historical figure who is arguably much better-known than the show’s titular treasurer and the London audience laughed together at his eye-wateringly purple suit and his swaggering dance during ‘What’d I miss?’.
Rachel John as Angelica Schuyler (my personal favourite) was also especially memorable. A provocative character with several rousing solos, it was difficult not to chime in with her trademark “werk!” in ‘The Schuyler Sisters’ and her performance of the fast-paced ‘Satisfied’ was utterly engrossing.
Dubbed ‘An American Musical’, many of the topics Hamilton touches upon – immigration, gender equality, diversity in the theatre – are in fact international issues. Therefore, despite being such a wholeheartedly American show (“Britain keeps sh*tting on us endlessly”), watching Hamilton in the West End seems to highlight how small the world has become, rather than our cultural differences. I look forward to watching Hamilton again (if I can ever get more tickets). In the meantime, I’ll continue to blast the broadway recording during my daily commute.