Victoria Palace Theatre, London
“There’s nothing rich folks love more than goin’ downtown and slumming it with the poor,” sings Giles Terera as Aaron Burr in Lin-Manuel Miranda’s extraordinary retelling of the birth of America. And while spending the evening at the theatre (or, in my case, an afternoon – a single ticket to a Christmas week matinee was all I could get hold of) is hardly slumming it, “rich” people were much in evidence, not least the lady sitting next to me. Unable to lay her hands on a “golden ticket” at home in the US, she had flown half way around the world for the privilege of spending £3,500 on a ticket to see Hamilton at London’s Victoria Palace Theatre instead. Was it worth it? Well, yes – if, like her, you are paralysed by a morbid fear of missing out on the theatrical event of the century (so far).
Hamilton does not just recount the American Revolution. Hamilton is in itself a revolution. A hip-hop musical that deliberately uses a largely black (and, in London, British) cast to illuminate one of the lesser-known but utterly fascinating duels in American history. That between Hamilton, the “bastard, orphan, son-of-a-whore Scotsman” who left beggary in the Caribbean to become a constitutional expert and the first Secretary to the Treasury, and his nemesis Aaron Burr (the narrator of this story, whose own place in history was assured as Thomas Jefferson’s Vice-President). Burr eventually killed Hamilton in an actual duel. The fact that many in the audience seemed shocked by this denouement says more about the allure of musical theatre in general than it does about this particular show. It seems that any story can be retold, just as long as you tell it with the right degree of originality and gusto. And boy does Hamilton score highly on originality and gusto!
“Just like my country, I’m young, scrappy and hungry,” raps Jamael Weston as Hamilton, with unwavering credibility. There is something so perfect about using the stylised, invented vernacular of hip-hop sub-culture to describe the beginnings of a brand new country that you wonder why it has taken until now to do so. It also allows for some deliciously imperfect rhyming that would simply be too complex if sung traditionally. (Anarchy/panicky, Socrates/mediocrities). That’s not to say that Miranda doesn’t reference the traditions of Broadway when it suits him, just that the inclusion of occasional ballads, particularly at the finish, were the only moments when Hamilton ever so slightly lost sight of itself. Equally, as you wonder at the sheer audacity of casting black and Hispanic actors in the roles of old (and largely-forgotten) white men you are left wondering why politics (Hamilton never lets you forget the politics) lags so far behind popular culture in recognising the role we all have to play in shaping the future.
“Immigrants. We get the job done,” Hamilton and Lafayette (the hilarious Jason Pennycooke, who also nails the role of Jefferson) declare, as they exchange a high five, and this London audience roars its approval. Surprisingly for a just-opened musical, the audience seems to knows the words to pretty much every number, and has no hesitation in joining in. Part of me wishes they would all shut up, but this is real theatre, “a phe-nom-me-non”, so I allow myself to be swept up in madness, at the heart of which lies the message (at times slightly over-played) that immigrants not only built America, they are America.
In the salons of 18th century America, Burr is to Hamilton what Salieri was to Mozart, and the tension between the two immigrants, as they swim through the same shit is palpable. “Talk less, smile more,” Burr advises Hamilton, in a well-aimed dig at white folks.
Breathless syncopation combines with enough ribaldry – “Lock up ya daughters and horses, of course, It’s hard to have intercourse over four sets of corsets” – for a pantomime dame King George III to know the game is up. “Jesus Christ. This’ll be fun,” shrieks the king, as camp as Donald Trump, as he contemplates civil war in the colonies. In fact, it’s easy to see why, during the US presidential election, Mike Pence was booed at the theatre. Hamilton goes against everything that he and Trump stood for. It’s less easy to understand, given the reaction to this show, how on earth they managed to win.
In just three spell-binding minutes Giles Terera (as Burr) jive-raps his way through “The Room Where it Happens” – “No one really knows how the game is played/ The art of the trade / How the sausage gets made/ We just assume that it happens” – laying bare the political process in the time it takes many political playwrights to pick up a pen. His vocal dexterity is astonishing, as are the utterly fabulous (and multi-cultured) wealthy Schuyler sisters, less Andrews, more Kardashians with added class, (use your imagination!) who could easily have carried a musical of their own. As Hamilton himself, Jamael Westman, in his first leading role, plays a blinder, only occasionally troubled by the tightness of his britches, leading the whole cast in a musical that, for once, really does live up to the hype. As to whether this or any theatre show really is worth £3,500 a ticket (some reportedly pay considerably more) lest we forget Hamilton is about more than the founding of America. It’s about the birth of capitalism. And, in an unfettered free market, a theatre ticket, like any other commodity, is ultimately worth whatever someone is prepared to pay for it. In this case, it’s worth paying a little over the odds to spend three hours in “the room where it happens”.