Hamilton review – a delicious treat for heart and head

Victoria Palace, London
Lin-Manuel Miranda’s smash Broadway musical about one of America’s founding fathers now breaks new ground in the West End

Yes it is. Worth the wait. Yes it does. Speak powerfully to British audiences. Yes it has. Changed, expanded, given new wings to musical theatre. But no you can’t. Get a ticket before a mooted next booking period opens. Unless you win the daily lottery. Keep trying.

Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton – and it’s his all the way through, book, lyrics and music – is made up of revolution and firsts. As befits a show about one of America’s founding fathers: Alexander Hamilton, as suddenly everyone knows, was the first Secretary of the Treasury, the man on the 10 dollar bill. The hype has been so overwhelming that audiences go in groaning with knowledge about its breakthroughs. About the seizing of the stage by street music – rap and hip-hop alongside R&B, soul, Britpop and rock opera. About the unlikeliness of Hamilton, hitherto a relatively uncelebrated statesman, as musical hero. About the beautiful elision of America past and present, with the white founding fathers – and mothers – played by mostly black and brown actors.

Above all, they know the words. Which is another departure. This must be the first time that people have gone into a new show – as opposed to a jukebox musical, where the point is familiarity – having got the lyrics by heart. The test used to be that you came out able to hum a tune. Hamilton proves that agile words can be a major motor. Just as words drove Hamilton, himself (played by impressive recent Rada graduate Jamael Westman), one of the most nimble of speakers. His ally-turned-antagonist Aaron Burr (powerful Giles Terera) constantly advises him to “talk less, smile more” .

Hamilton expands your heart and concentrates your brain by deliciously stretching your ears. By the sheer surprise of a vocabulary which jumps from “diuretics” to “two-party system” to Macbeth’s “tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow”. By the comic spikiness of its rhymes: squalor and scholar, anarchy and panicky, “Can we confer, Burr?”. By the way it forces you to listen questioningly, as it drills into and splits apart words – “phe-nom-e-non”. The inspiration may be the making of America and the drafting of its constitution, but the effect is universal. One of the guaranteed huge responses is to Hamilton and Lafayette high-fiving as they declare: “Immigrants! We get the job done!”

‘Petulant’: Michael Jibson as King George.
‘Petulant’: Michael Jibson as King George. Photograph: Matthew Murphy

Is there anything wrong with Miranda’s show and Thomas Kail’s direction? Well, it is perhaps out of character to end on a relatively orthodox ballad. I’m not keen on the vulva-revealing tight jodphurs (worn with corsets and boots). Andy Blankenbuehler’s muscular choreography sends characters seamlessly from civilian to military life but is not transporting.

Still, nothing can detract from this marvellous mashing of political and musical history. Michael Jibson’s petulant King George, a nursery-rhyme monarch with crosspatch face and plush crown, stamps his foot as he tunefully, Elton John-ishly, accuses unfaithful America. Christine Allado, Rachelle Ann Go and Rachel John belt out, full-throttle, the destiny of America’s women – in the manner of Destiny’s Child. Wrangles between Jason Pennycooke’s Jefferson (deftly doubling as Lafayette) are recounted in battle rap.

Hamilton is “the room where it happens”. Miranda’s show asks “who lives, who dies, who tells your story?” – and answers the query not with a who, but a what: a musical of infinite dexterity.

It leaves two questions for Brits. Could we ever come up with something as original and necessary? And will we ever have a government – just look at the Obama hosting of Miranda at the White House – who would take time out to look at it, or recognise the talent if they did?

Hamilton is at the Victoria Palace, London, until 28 July

Contributor

Susannah Clapp

The GuardianTramp

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