THE TRANSATLANTIC MAGAZINE
By Lin Manuel Miranda
Victoria Palace Theatre, London
Reviewed by Peter Lawler
George Washington. Thomas Jefferson. John Adams and his brother (better known for his namesake's lager than his fundamental role in nation building). Heck even John Hancock's name gets penned more noticeably in History than Alexander Hamilton's, who normally ends up being an obscure note covered sometime in sophomore History class and attached with federalism, Jefferson and a duel with Aaron Burr.
No more, thanks to Lin Manuel Miranda's world famous revisionist smash hit, Hamilton, which has opened to eager London crowds in the Victoria Palace Theatre.
This show is a quintessentially American story about a brash, brave immigrant - Hamilton was an orphan, born in the Caribbean - come to a land of opportunity to reinvent himself and become a figure of importance and to pursue his measure of happiness. Key to Miranda's accomplishment in this story is turning this relatively staid small chapter in history into a hip, cool embodiment of the American Dream. Turning an intricate political story into an intensely personal one.
With incisively clever lyrics that turn the eponymous character into a metaphor for the nation - 'I'm young, scrappy and hungry/ just like my country' - and economic storytelling that fits the first half century of American history, from the revolution right through Thomas Jefferson's presidency, into a couple of hours on stage, this is not just Hamilton's story, but America's story too.
The use of hip hop, R& B and soft, jazzy melodies throughout are a gleefully contemporary upending of what we expect from our colonial forbears, with Obioma Uguala's charismatically baritone George Washington presiding over full scale rap battles in congress between Thomas Jefferson and Hamilton over the contentious fledgling constitution and financial aid to ally France in their war with England, with the audience swaying and popping from almost start to finish.
This show's intentional irreverence and subversion of the History books is both one of its greatest strengths and one of its potent messages. From the Founding Fathers' recurrent concern for posterity in songs like 'The Story of Tonight' to the casting of those near-deities of American History with black actors who sing or rap the show nearly in its entirety, Miranda takes our tendency to dogmatically 'place our trust in the founding fathers' and, as the chorus tells us after the battle of Yorktown, gives us 'a world turned upside down.'
Much like Homer in the Iliad sees gods as vindictive, petty characters embodying the worst of human qualities in their whimsical and destructive game playing, so Hamilton takes the towering figures of Jefferson, Burr, and Madison, rips them down from their towering statue-like positions looming over the spirit of America and injects those same flawed, beautifully human qualities back into them.
Relative newcomer Jamael Westman bursts onstage with a consistently righteous arrogance conveying the titular character's belief in the rightness of his mission to help America invent, establish and sustain a robust identity and integrity, very much parallel to his own career arc. His angsty, poetic heartfelt conflict draws our deepest sympathy even when we watch him fall from hot headed folly to infidelity and ignominy, only to rise later as the seasoned presidential kingmaker. Jason Pennycooke struts around gleefully as Lafayette, riding to a new nation's aid and helping it to victory, then utilises his nasal tones and Napoleonic demeanour to capture the pomposity of the aristocratic southerner Jefferson with camp, garish shine and humor, dressed in brilliantly regal burgundy breeches.
This is not a show without pathos, as Miranda subtly crafts the narration of the tragic and violent loss of Hamilton's young son Philip in a duel defending his father's honor. The richness and slow beauty with which Eliza and Alexander's grief is captured works slowly to a crescendo of heartbreaking sympathy as the last gently gliding notes of 'It's Quiet Uptown' drift gently past.
One of the most surprising and noteworthy feats here is the presentation of Eliza, played with subtle, sustained and deep power by Rachelle Anne Go, giving us ultimately a long suffering sense of conflict and yearning. Ultimately, as her husband's legatee, she is this story's most important player, organising and collecting his papers and diaries and later establishing New York City's first private orphanage. If anyone is responsible for preserving, or indeed creating Hamilton's legacy, it's Eliza.
Hamilton is an infectious, addictive history lesson turned upside down and around again. A celebration of the brashness, the splendid vulgarity, the unconventionality, and the newness so indelibly and vitally a part of the American character. It is a musical storytelling phenomenon that presents an unlikely underdog of an immigrant hero and a compellingly human story that leaves you feeling as though you will never see the words 'founding father' the same way again.