Stage Door Review

London, GBR: Hamilton

Friday, November 15, 2019

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music, lyrics & book by Lin-Manuel Miranda, directed by Thomas Kail

Jeffrey Seller, Sander Jacobs, Jill Furman, The Public Theater & Cameron Mackintosh, Victoria Palace Theatre, London, GBR

December 22, 2017-booking to March 28, 2020

Chorus: “Who lives, who dies, who tells your story”

There’s no need to tell anyone that Hamilton is a landmark musical. This news has been shouted from rooftops since the musical opened in 2015. Hamilton tells an epic story, it highlights a new form of popular music, it has daring casting specifications and it is unashamedly political. It received the 2016 Tony Award for Best Musical, the 2018 Olivier Award for Best Musical and the 2016 Pulitzer Prize for Drama. The cast of the London production has no weak link and, best of all, there are some tickets available for every performance which sell for less in each category than they do in New York or Toronto. I left with great admiration for the performers but felt I had seen a vibrant but emotionally unengaging spectacle.

One reason for feeling distanced from the work derives from the very ambition of Hamilton’s creator Lin-Manuel Miranda. His inspiration for the musical came from Ron Chernow’s 2004 biography of Alexander Hamilton (c.1755-1804). Miranda seeks to distill the 818 pages of Chernow’s biography into a musical of two hours and 45 minutes. One could point out that Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schönberg distilled the 656 pages of Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables (1862) into a two hour 50 minute-long musical. But Hugo’s work is fiction and has a built-in through-line. In covering thirty years in Hamilton’s life, Miranda seems to want to cram in as many details as possible about the man and the American Revolutionary War in which he was involved, but in his double focus on Hamilton and Aaron Burr, the man who killed him in a duel, we get to know Burr much better than Hamilton.

One of Miranda’s innovations is the extensive use of rap throughout the show. As people will know rap songs consist of long passages of rhymically spoken words to a background beat. Miranda uses almost exclusively rhymed couplets of paeonic tetrameter no matter what the speed of the beat. Only in the refrains is the voice allowed to hold extended notes and to sing. In a musical it is these sung refrains where we get a sense of the character’s voice, literally and figuratively. Unlike typical rap songs where the rap portion expresses the anger of the speaker, Miranda uses these portions to convey historical background. This is especially true of the first three songs where you find you are listening so closely to the lyrics for information that you get little sense of the character who is rapping them. This unfortunately includes Hamilton’s key song “My Shot” where Hamilton explains “I’m not going to waste my shot” when he goes to the New York City to make it big.

Like Judas in Jesus Christ Superstar (1971), the nominal villain of the piece Aaron Burr (1756-1836), who introduces himself as the man who shot Hamilton, is also the narrator of the story. The question this poses is how two men who were once friends and fought for American independence should later fall out to such a point that they would fight a duel. From the beginning Miranda makes clear that the two have opposite views on how to get ahead. Burr’s is to smile and keep quiet. Hamilton’s is to say whatever he thinks is true no matter what the consequences. Burr is thus perplexed to see Hamilton rise so quickly in both social and political spheres.

You might think that having Burr as narrator would keep the focus only on what is essential in Hamilton’s story, but this is not what happens. While Hamilton meets and later marries Elizabeth Schuyler, as much time is spent on how Elizabeth’s sister Angelica has had to suppress her feelings for Hamilton. The show features a duel between John Laurens and Charles Lee. Hamilton acts as Laurens’s second but otherwise the episode is only used to introduce the subject of duelling in general. There are two scenes of “Cabinet Battles” – one about finance, one about neutrality – the whole point of which is to demonstrate what we already know that Burr and others have become Hamilton’s political enemies.

In general, Miranda seems to use Act 1 entirely for exposition mostly because with Hamilton’s public life and the Revolutionary War as subjects he has so much background to explain. Only in Act 2 does Miranda have time to explore Hamilton’s private life. Yet, even then, Miranda has so many events to relate that he gives us little sense of Hamilton as a person except that he is a man of contradictions – dedicated to honour yet unable to stop himself from having an affair.

The fact that Hamilton includes so much historical detail is both to the show’s advantage and disadvantage. On the one hand, the musical has a scope far grander than the vast majority of recent musicals that have either musicalized a recent film or have focussed only on problems within modern families. The American musical that previously attempted such a wide historical sweep was Ragtime (1996) by Stephen Flaherty and Lynn Ahrens, but early 20th-century America is no match for the American Revolution as a background.

On the other hand, there is sometimes so much information conveyed to us that we have to sort out what is or is not relevant to the story and, in some cases, what is or is not true. As the programme notes: “In Hamilton, Miranda takes artistic licence with facts while retaining historical integrity”.  This self-contradictory statement should make us wonder question how Miranda uses historical source material. Miranda makes much of Angelica’s suppressed feelings for Hamilton, but there is no historical evidence that she ever had such feelings. Miranda portrays Hamilton as an early abolitionist (which is not true), but later in the musical has him support Thomas Jefferson for president (which is true) even though Jefferson was a known slave-owner. Hamilton did not serve as Laurens’s second in a duel, and the reason that prompts the duel between Hamilton and Burr in the musical is not the one that did so in history. Setting up Burr and Hamilton as competitors from the very start is not based on history but is Miranda’s way of lending continuity and inevitability to what in reality is an episodic story.

What really makes Hamilton stand out besides its use of rap and wide historical scope is its stipulation that People of Colour be cast in roles of historical characters who were White. Some might say this is just an example of positive discrimination. Yet, it gives the work a contemporary resonance it would not otherwise have. The only major White historical figure who is played by a White actor is King George III. The fact that the colonists and Founding Fathers played by POC are fighting against his rule turns the War of Independence into a metaphor for the struggle for independence of contemporary POC from White dominance and White prejudice. The final song of the musical, “Who Lives, Who Dies, Who Tells Your Story?” expands the specific questions of Hamilton’s history to the questions of history in general. The musical itself is an embodiment of of its own philosophy. The musical has allowed people to tell this story who in earlier times would not have been allowed to tell it. This forces us to see that even if the founding of the United States was the product primarily of Dead White Men is it also, necessarily, a story that belongs to all Americans of whatever colour or gender.

It is perhaps for that reason that director Thomas Kail has staged the show in a non-naturalistic manner. David Korins’ set keeps the entire stage area open and clads the surrounding walls with wooden planks as if all the action took place inside an 18th-century warehouse. Paul Tazewell’s costumes keep to period design for the principals with all the dancers, male and female, dressed in white hose, vests and jabots but with sleeveless shirts as the one non-period detail. Minimal furniture is carried on and off but it is the wide range Howell Binkley’s lighting effects that do the most to set each scene.

The main feature of the stage floor is that it contains a double donut revolve, meaning there are two concentric rings that revolve around a central disc which itself can rotate. Kail and choreographer Andy Blankenbuehler keep the rings in constant motion, sometimes with characters standing on different rings passing each other in opposite directions, sometimes with Burr on one side of the outer ring and Hamilton on the other as if they were two moving electrons that can never meet. Blankenbuehler’s choreography itself, easily sliding from b-boying to jazz to ballroom, men and women given exactly the same moves, enhances every song, especially the rapped tunes where it provides a visual component to the torrent of words.

The London cast all have strong voices and a strong presence. They work so much like a team that the show seems more like an ensemble piece rather than a star vehicle. Initially, I thought the personality of Jamael Westman’s Hamilton* was too vague to pin down until I realized that that was the point. Westman makes Hamilton an enigmatic figure. Hamilton’s rise is so rapid that we, like Burr, think there may be something suspicious about it, and Westman’s sometimes smirking demeanour suggests that he knows more than anyone around him. While he can rap naturally and clearly, perhaps his best songs “Say No To This” where he tries to restrain himself from having an affair with Maria Reynolds and “Hurricane” where in soaring tones he decides to publicize the affair to save his honour.

Sifiso Mazibuko’s Aaron Burr constantly reminded me of Lloyd Webber’s Judas, a character telling a tale in which he knows he is forever remembered as the villain. He also seemed very much like Salieri in Peter Shaffer’s Amadeus (1979), a man nonplussed and increasingly envious of a talent he does not posses. Of all the character’s it is Burr’s mind we know best as he charts step by step his rival’s success and eventual estrangement from him. Mazibuko gives an exemplary performance throughout but he really raises the entire musical to higher level of self-awareness with his pain-filled account of “The World Was Wide Enough”, a lament for the escalation of their enmity to the point of duelling and, more importantly, a statement that the world should be wide enough for two contrasting points of view to exist. This is the strongest evidence in the musical that it is inclusivity that is important not political correctness.

As one might expect in an American musical, King George III is portrayed as an aristocratic twit, but Gavin Spokes renders his clever Beatlesesque song “You’ll Be Back” with such a mixture of disdain and looniness that the crowd loved it. In contrast, it is surprising that Miranda has decided to characterize Thomas Jefferson as such a self-satisfied dandy. Waylon Jacobs, who plays the Marquis de Lafayette in Act 1, makes Jefferson just a more extreme version of the Frenchman. His big song “What’d I Miss” is written and performed with panache like a Las Vegas show tune, but Miranda’s view of the future third president of the US will strike most people as bizarre.

Allyson Ava-Brown comes on so strong as Angelica Schuyler, we’re surprised that Hamilton should choose her shier sister Eliza over her. Still this gives Ava-Brown the chance triumphantly to sing “Satisfied”, perhaps the most excerptable if also most complex songs in the show. Rachelle Ann Go makes a fine Eliza Schuyler Hamilton and delivers her R&B-style song “Helpless” with finesse. When Eliza learns of Hamilton’s infidelity, Miranda gives her the song “Burn” in which Eliza expresses her rage. The problem with this is that from what we’ve seen of Eliza’s personality and from what we know of the mores of the 18th century, sorrow more than rage seems the more likely response for Eliza. The finest moment for Go and Westman together is their tender reconciliation ballad “It’s Quiet Uptown”.

Hamilton provides a reassuring example that a musical need not be based on a movie or on the back catalogue of a pop group to be a success. It’s comforting to know that people are willing to celebrate a musical filled with complex characters and complex ideas that integrates new musical forms and that questions the ownership of historical events. If the musical is not also emotionally engaging, it may not intend to be. Many great musicals from Weill’s The Threepenny Opera (1928) to Sondheim’s Assassins (1990) are not. When Hamilton, an immigrant to New York from the Caribbean, declares, “Immigrants, we get the job done” and the audience cheers despite all the anti-immigration rhetoric circulating in the UK, US and elsewhere, you feel glad Miranda is not afraid to hide his politics. He sees the past as a key to understanding the present and demonstrates it in a musical that indissolubly unites the two.

Christopher Hoile

*From November 18, 2019, the cast will be Karl Queensborough (Alexander Hamilton),  Emilie Louise Israel (Peggy Schuyler/Maria Reynolds), Trevor Dion Nichola (George Washington), Simon-Anthony Rhoden (Aaron Burr), Sharon Rose (Eliza Hamilton), Emile Ruddock (Hercules Mulligan/James Madison), Carl Spencer (John Laurens/Philip Hamilton) and from 4 November Gavin Spokes (King George). Jason Pennycooke will continue his role of Marquis de Lafayette/Thomas Jefferson, and Allyson Ava-Brown will continue to play Angelica Schuyler.

Note: This review is a Stage Door exclusive. 

Photos: (from top) Jamael Westman as Alexander Hamilton with the ensemble; Sifiso Mazibuko as Aaron Burr with the ensemble; Rachelle Ann Go as Eliza Hamilton and Jamael Westman as Alexander Hamilton; Jason Pennycooke as Thomas Jefferson, Dom Hartey-Harris as George Washington and Jamael Westman as Alexander Hamilton; Michael Jibson as King George III. © 2018 Matthew Murphy. 

For tickets, visit hamiltonmusical.com.