How does a fairly obscure Founding Father end up as the subject of the biggest Broadway phenomenon since Cats? Here’s a little contemporary history lesson; in 2008 a talented young playwright, musician and lyricist named Lin-Manuel Miranda was riding the wave of success of his first Broadway musical, a modern drama called In The Heights. It was time for a break, after the musical climbed from its debut in Connecticut, to Off-Broadway and then to soaring success on Broadway, so Miranda took a much deserved holiday, bringing with him a hefty biography of Alexander Hamilton by Ron Chernow. A few chapters in, he began to envision the life of Hamilton as a musical, and so set about composing numbers for a performance art piece he called The Hamilton Mixtape, which eventually became the musical Hamilton.
Miranda performed an early version of the opening number for the musical in front of Barrack and Michelle Obama at The White House in 2009, to titters and giggles from the audience. They just couldn’t take it seriously; Miranda’s vision for the musical was a hip-hop opera, with rap, soul and R&B thrown in for good measure, and a cast made up mostly by minority races. The opening number is largely rap-based, the lyrics outlining Hamilton’s life as a sort of overture, and the surprise of how it was rendered seems to have made much of the audience uncomfortable, resulting in the disrespectful display of refusing to take it seriously. But Miranda was the last one laughing when the musical was completed and staged by his team he calls The Cabinet consisting of himself, the director Thomas Kail, musical director, orchestrator and co-arranger Alex Lacamoire and choreographer Andy Blankenbuehler. An instant phenomenon, Hamilton appealed to its audience with its entirely unique blend of ingredients.
But still. Lacamoire has said “Have you ever tried to explain Hamilton to someone who doesn’t know anything about the show? You know how they look at you when you say to them that it’s about Founding Father Alexander Hamilton but it’s mostly hip-hop? Their minds can’t quite picture how those things fit together.” That’s exactly the reaction I had when the musical was first introduced to me about two years ago, and the reaction I faced when explaining my excitement about securing tickets to see the show transplanted to the West End. Those tickets were purchased, by a combination of foresight (my boyfriend signed up for the early release tickets as soon as we got wind that the musical was coming to London) and sheer luck. That, my friends, was in January 2017, and the performance we went to see was last January 11th, 2018 (which just so happened to be Hamilton’s birthday!).
A trip to London was planned, around which Hamilton was the epicentre. We caught up with friends and family, which was lovely, and poked around a few museums, which was great, but the main event was the show. Basically the entire train full of people getting off the tube at Victoria Station were making their way to the Victoria Palace theatre, which still bears the scaffolding signalling ongoing renovations which actually pushed our tickets from November to January, when the building wasn’t complete in time. We joined the bustling crowd, and while we had anticipated a queue we hadn’t expected it to sweep right around the left side of the building, round the corner and double back again. Despite this we had come at a good time, when the doors had opened and the very efficient staff got everyone through in no time.
A lottery selection of tickets (and a budget) meant we found ourselves in the grand circle, amongst the gods. The Victoria Palace theatre is designed in such a way that even if you’re in the heavens you will be able to see, and although steep, and rather snug, we had an excellent vantage point. The set was there in all its glory, designed by David Korins using ships and docks of the era as inspiration, and incorporating a large turntable off-centre in order to effectively move the cast around while also acknowledging the hip-hop element. The costumes (by Paul Tazwell) are of the time, with the ensemble and swing players in stripped back versions, all in white, and the main cast sticking to personalised colour schemes.
What can I say other than the show was, is, a triumph in every way. I’ll leave you to search out that YouTube video of Lin-Manuel Miranda bravely debuting The Hamilton Mixtape in the White House, and to find the sound-track on Spotify. Find images on Google and testimonials on Twitter. Experiencing it in its entirety is magical, and emotional, and worth the trip. A musical based on the guy on the ten dollar bill? Yes, really.
- First published in The Tuam Herald on Wednesday, 31st January 2018