It can be difficult to live up to expectations. But the most anticipated show of the year turns out to be astonishingly good. Lin-Manuel Miranda’s musical (he is responsible for the book, music AND lyrics) takes American (and British) 18th-century history and turns it into ground-breaking musical theatre.
Miranda’s subject is Alexander Hamilton, the Caribbean-born “bastard, orphan son of a whore”, as he is called, who became perhaps the least remembered of America’s founding fathers. The story charts Hamilton’s arrival as a 19-year-old “young, scrappy and hungry” immigrant in New York and his progress through the ranks of those rebelling against British rule. He eventually became George Washington’s “right-hand man” and the newly founded country’s first Secretary of the Treasury.
We’re used to period musicals such as Les Miserables or Phantom. We expect orchestrations that swell and swoon with romanticism. What we get here is the percussive punch of hip hop. And even though this thrilling score has been written about incessantly since Miranda’s award-laden show premiered at New York’s Public Theatre in 2015, when you get a cast in tailcoats and carrying muskets delivering the sound of 21st-century urban anger, it’s still a shock. In a good way.
Those who know what they like, like what they know and are sure that hip hop isn’t their thing will only have themselves to blame for missing a show that feels as if it has moved the musical form on and up a notch or two. On the other hand if you like Eminem, you’re gong to love this.
In the title role the superb and hitherto almost unknown British performer Jamael Westman smoulders with the anger of an undervalued inner-city kid before breaking into My Shot, which lyrically and musically has the seize-the-day spirit of Eminem’s Lose Yourself.
The other surprise of Thomas Kail’s production is just how good his British cast are. With only a couple of weeks in previews, the show is as drilled as the Queen’s Guard. Michael Jibson’s cameo as a bejewelled King George is an utter delight. What makes him so mesmerising is how this embodiment of British tyranny becomes a worldly and ironic commentator on the demands of being a ruler. Giles Terera as Hamilton’s contemporary, peer and eventual killer delivers the role of narrator with a charisma of Sammy Davis Jr proportions. Jason Pennycooke as Lafayette, the French, formidable foe of the British, is a brilliantly realised twinkle-toed dandy.
Most of these performers have done conspicuous good work on the British stage. But in this show, and under Kail’s direction and Andy Blankenbuehler’s choreography, they must surely feel as if they’ve been driven to new heights. Rachel John as Hamilton’s sister-in-law is one such, and has that rare quality of being able to act a song as superbly as she sings it.
So where are this show’s weaknesses? They chiefly lie in its second-act obsession with the minutiae of American politics. We are introduced to such parochial (for non-American audiences) political milestones as the negotiations between Hamilton and his opponents Madison (Tarinn Callender) and Jefferson (Pennycooke again) on the question of financial policy. But the songwriting is of such quality that you’re swept along by the sheer irresistible bravado of the music.
Even if the second half can feel like American navel-gazing, the first half, which charts the War of Independence, resonates unexpectedly with Britain’s own current attempt at going it alone. The wittiest and jauntiest number, You’ll Be Back, sung by a baleful George III, might well be Jean-Claude Junker’s favourite song in show.