MUSIC OWL AWARDS: 1st – lyrics; 2nd – book or play; 3rd – performance (Jamael Westman); 2nd – direction (Thomas Kail); 4th – song (The Room Where It Happens)
When I went: 19 December 2017, 10 August 2018
Location: Victoria Palace Theatre, London
Performers: 2017: Jamael Westman (Alexander Hamilton), Rachelle Ann Go (Eliza Hamilton), Giles Terera (Aaron Burr), Rachel John (Angelica Schuyler), Obioma Ugoala (George Washington), Jason Pennycooke (Marquis de Lafayette / Thomas Jefferson), Tarinn Callender (Hercules Mulligan / James Madison), Cleve September (John Laurens / Philip Hamilton), Christine Allado (Peggy Schuyler / Maria Reynolds), Michael Jibson (King George), Waylon Jacobs (Philip Schuyler / James Reynolds / Doctor), Jack Butterworth (Samuel Seabury), Leslie Garcia Bowman (Charles Lee), Curtis Angus (George Eacker); 2018: same as above with Sifiso Mazibuko understudying Aaron Burr, Waylon Jacobs understudying King George, Barney Hudson as Philip Schuyler / James Reynolds / Doctor
Creative team: Lin-Manuel Miranda (book, music and lyrics), Ron Chernow (original inspiration book), Thomas Kail (director), Andy Blankenbuehler (choreography), Richard Beadle (musical director), David Korins (scenic design), Jeffrey Seller, Sander Jacobs, Jill Furman, The Public Theater, Cameron Mackintosh (producers)
Approximate price: £200
Special points: Lyrics, hip-hop music
Best bit: The Room Where It Happens
If I could change one thing: Stronger finale song
If you are a musical theatre fan, Hamilton almost needs no introduction. It won tons of Tony Awards after it opened on Broadway, and the London opening was so highly anticipated that it was one of those shows that necessitated pre-registration for notification of when tickets would be available, then constant panicked refreshing of the website on the day, then sitting in an interminable online queue, then payment of what some would call silly money for a good ticket.
The thing is, all this was more than worth it. When something is hyped as much as Hamilton has been, you might worry that it won’t, or can’t, live up to the hype. As soon as I started watching the opening song, any doubts I had along these lines just flew away. I had restrained myself from listening to the soundtrack or Mixtape album (or reading the books) before seeing the show as I prefer to see shows ‘fresh’, and that was a good decision – while you might get more out of some of the more intricate lyrics on the second time of listening, it was good to see the show for the first time and hear all the songs in context, and to be surprised by some of the events.
Lin-Manuel Miranda’s lyrics were sharp in In the Heights but are on another level here, and the songs are a lot more memorable. I really liked the way that lots of melodies and themes were reprised to great effect as the story developed, especially parts of the title song (mainly sung by Aaron Burr). There is also tons of humour and wit in this show to balance some of the sadder elements, as well as some ‘meta’ sections, for instance in King George’s appearances (the sweeping, memorable fragment of melody that permeates his song and reprises reminded me of the notes and ebullient attitude of ‘Easy Street’ in Annie).
Although the finale song is meaningful and clever lyrically, I didn’t think it was as strong musically as some of the others, although given how many gems there are within the musical numbers of this show (Alexander Hamilton, My Shot, The Room Where It Happens, Satisfied, and the Cabinet Rap Battles were some of the highlights for me) this isn’t a serious criticism.
The story has shades of the revolutionary spirit and male-character camaraderie found in Les Miserables (with the adversarial relationship between Valjean and Javert also partially mirrored in the Hamilton / Burr twists and turns), but is pacier. The show is sung-through (or rapped-through) and this helps to keep everything moving; although sometimes the characters actually tell the audience what is happening, this doesn’t come across as cheap because it is so concisely done. You can also tell that Lin-Manuel Miranda is a huge fan of other shows; as well as the Les Mis references, there are nods to My Fair Lady (‘just you wait’) and even Gilbert & Sullivan’s Pirates of Penzance (‘modern major general’).
I had previously seen Giles Terera (Aaron Burr) as Mafala Hatimbi in The Book of Mormon and Rachelle Ann Go (Eliza) as Fantine in Les Mis; both shone here, with Giles Terera especially good in his performance of The Room Where It Happens. Rachel John was brilliant as Angelica, singing and rapping with ease. Michael Jibson was very well-loved as King George, with the audience enthusiastically applauding each of his entrances, and had great comic timing.
Some actors took on two parts – for instance, Jason Pennycooke played Lafayette (sympathetically) in Act I and Jefferson (acerbically) in Act II. This actually worked quite nicely as the cast is already fairly big and there was always some thematic connection between characters that were played by the same actor.
Unlike many of the cast, Jamael Westman hasn’t got many previous theatre credits, but in a way this makes his casting even more exciting, and he is exceptional in the title role. He played off Giles Terera’s moodier Burr beautifully and their scenes together are magical.
The energy didn’t drop at all from beginning to end, and knowing the ultimate ending from the first number lends a fatalistic air to the climax of Act II. A rotating stage helped to literally move characters centre stage and move things along, reflecting some of the statements about running out of time and wanting to leave a legacy that are threaded through some of Hamilton’s lyrics (this concept also felt a little autobiographical, given Lin-Manuel Miranda’s own packed, almost frantic writing style).
There was even more wit from Jamael Westman as Hamilton in this performance, and a stellar Room Where It Happens performance from Sifiso Mazibuko, who brought a slightly lighter energy to the part of Aaron Burr which melted into cold fury by the perceived betrayal leading up to Your Obedient Servant, and worked well against Westman’s generally effervescent Hamilton.
I’ve seen a lot of shows (my spreadsheet tells me this is the 93rd I’ve reviewed on this website) and there aren’t many I would recommend unreservedly and would immediately make plans to see again, but this is one of them. Like Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, this show feels seminal. You can also keep enjoying it outside the performances of the show itself – there is the original book by Ron Chernow that inspired Lin’s work, Lin’s book ‘Hamilton: The Revolution’ with Jeremy McCarter, the soundtrack (from the Broadway version) and a Mixtape album featuring pop artists. Not that I’ve had the soundtrack on repeat and played/sung through the songbook almost every day since leaving the theatre, or anything.