If the world is looking to Australia to lead its primary theatre markets into the future, then it need look no further than Hamilton, which has opened to rapturous applause and an extended standing ovation from a masked, Covid-safe audience at the Sydney Lyric.
Hamilton in Australia might not seem like a natural success. The show’s often too-earnest reverence of its colonial founding mythology is at odds with our longstanding refusal to deify our politicians. We certainly don’t study these figureheads and their adventures and misadventures in our schools (it’s a rightful gap – our unwillingness to look beyond our own colonisers and educate our children on Australian Indigenous history, languages and cultures less so). Plus, the local musical theatre sector has a troubling habit of prioritising whiteness when programming and casting shows.
Still, its arrival was inevitable because, before the global pandemic shut down countless stages, Hamilton reigned. It was the jewel of Broadway, a West End hit, a US touring juggernaut. When a show seizes the collective consciousness – when it pierces the mainstream, hits the Billboard charts, and makes celebrities of its creators (the name of Lin-Manuel Miranda, who wrote the music, book, and lyrics is well known here) – Australia generally follows. We were to be a new but smaller part of the Hamilton experience.
Now there is only Australia. The only Alexander Hamilton is Jason Arrow, a roiling, prideful peacock with a quick mind and quicker mouth. Now his worthy adversary Aaron Burr is only – could only – be Lyndon Watts in a star-making turn, an arch and conspiratorial performer who is droll one minute and devastating the next. They fill the roles like telling this story is as necessary as breathing. The story unspools from their centre, hurtling towards its inevitably tragic end.
But they can’t get there alone. Chloé Zuel plays Hamilton’s wife Eliza with gorgeous vulnerability that hides a spine of steel, a trait she shares so clearly in this production with her sister Angelica (Akina Edmonds), our conscience and our gravity. Elandrah Eramiha completes the Schuyler trio while playing double-duty as Maria Reynolds, whose affair with Hamilton proves disastrous; she could light up the entire city, and when she’s onstage, it’s nearly impossible to look at anyone else.
The nature of the show and its revolutionary timeframe means that its men get more words and showier moments, and luckily here they make that oversaturation of moments worth it. Marty Alix brings smartly judged pathos as John Laurens and Hamilton’s young son; Victory Ndukwe takes on Marquis de Lafayette and Thomas Jefferson with deceptive ease. It’s Shaka Cook, however, who is the secret weapon of this band of brothers; as Hercules Mulligan, and later James Madison, he elevates the writing with winning timing and a welcome archness.
There are 36 cast members on board and each of them showcase the hallmarks of Australian musical theatre: a triple-threat ensemble, a natural and shared comic shorthand that turns one-liners into singular events, and a heart-first openness that allows musical numbers to soar. Under the watchful eyes of resident director Amy Campbell, the company is so confident with time and timing that the Australian production has its own unique heartbeat, its rhythm strong and proud.
It’s something Hamilton needs.
The hype for this show, like that of most cultural phenomena, is both entirely warranted and deeply complicated. It’s a feat of writing and skilfully arranged (Laura Tipoki’s musical direction is clear, if not yet assured, but it’s on its way; it will be settled and secure after a few more performances). But the material has problems.
Nearly six years from its opening its optimistic representation-first approach to casting and character-building barely conceals issues that could and should be grappled with; the show’s omission of these rag-tag loveable founding fathers’ active engagement with and participation in slavery feels glaring as the show itself redeems their images (Jefferson’s flippant order to “Sally” feels glaringly cruel); Miranda’s handling of Hamilton’s affair is heavy-handed and simplistic in its treatment of Maria Reynolds in particular. (Much of the musical’s gestures of feminism are shallow at best.)
Even Hamilton’s best feature – those 27,000 or so words, dense in reference and homage and literary device – have hamstrung the production. In its attempt to keep us listening above all, the show sacrifices staging, blocking and scene-setting. Australia’s production, a replica of the original Broadway production directed by Thomas Kail, is still as frequently repetitive and overreliant on choreography. Similarly, its colour palette is muted, bordering on drab; its lights, excepting one memorable moment when in interplay with King George (a charming Brent Hill), lack wit.
The show is a restlessly brilliant contradiction, and the Australian production has the gift of its cast and the benefit of distance. It doesn’t buckle under the weight of its own importance. It shows the best of the Australian theatre industry; it invites critical thinking and reflection; it shines the brightest spotlight anyone could ever imagine on a cast that deserves to be seen and seen again; it offers hope that our return can be stronger than our past ever was.
• Hamilton is playing at the Lyric Theatre at The Star in Sydney, with tickets available up to September 2021