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Kiran Gupta reviews the production of Hamilton he saw in London in 2019 before looking ahead to the upcoming 2021 tour of Australia.
The rich harmonies of “One Day More” from Les Miserables have captivated audiences of musical theatre fanatics and casual fans alike for many decades now. But the tide has changed and now, the poignancy of Alexander Hamilton, the right-hand man of George Washington rapping that he will “not giv[e] away [his] shot” sends a shiver up the spine. It is no longer the traditional megamusical that draws in the attention. That is now reserved for one musical only. Hamilton
The news that the musical phenomenon Hamilton will arrive in Sydney in 2021 (although this might change now due to COVID-19) has shaken up musical theatre circles and arts fans all over the country. But before it comes down under, it has been entertaining audiences on the West End in London. Despite not being a “Hamilton fanatic” like so many (I hadn’t even listened to the soundtrack in full), last year, I decided that I had to see what the hype was all about. In a sense, I was almost expecting a let-down, but I was proved so very wrong with what was a tight performance of an incredible musical.
One of the most frequently made points regarding Hamilton is the innovation with which it was composed. This is certainly true in the sense that the balance between rapping and singing is expertly handled, with the spoken word used to advance the story quickly in a more engaging way than simply dialogue. However, what makes the musical so accessible in spite of this difference is the fact that it adheres to all the other common tropes of a “megamusical.” It is entirely sung-through (if you count rap as singing), has a show-stopping cameo character, centres around the plight/story of a hero and after the war, ends on an emotional death. It actually bears a lot of resemblance to Les Miserables in this regard, simply updated for the times.
This meant that there was less singing than in a traditional musical as the main plot of the story was expressed through rap. Creator Lin-Manuel Miranda used this medium as he thought it was an apt way of communicating the struggle that influenced the story so greatly. I saw a new musical called Madiba at the State theatre last year where this was a distinct problem. Rapping was used to substitute for poor songs and was quite frankly, bizarre. There was no feeling like this here. The two interacted symbiotically in a way that felt very natural. I would have liked to hear a little more singing at times but that said, the balance was pretty good.
The cast was one of the most talented I have ever seen on a musical theatre stage. My excitement for the show only grew when I discovered that Rachelle Ann Go (of Miss Saigon fame) would be starring as Eliza Hamilton. The power and sheer beauty of her voice resonated through the theatre, delivering her trademark sound with grace. A vocalist with a tone so pure truly does lift the standard of any production. However, I have the feeling that our King George might have been an understudy performing his first show to the paying audience. Singing the iconic “You’ll Be Back”, he looked visibly nervous, stumbling over his lyrics in the chorus. Whilst this is a surprisingly common thing to occur when performing the flagship song in the musical (I’ve seen it happen many times on the professional stage and have done it myself), the visible nerves and the lack of conviction in the performance were not exceptionally professional. The nerves led to a lack of support on the top notes which meant they often cracked or were unsupported. Although this may sound minor, in a song of such repute and such a hyped show, these things certainly do not go unnoticed.
The standout though was the lead Alexander Hamilton. The power with which he sung and rapped “My Shot” set the tone for the whole show and the dramatic energy carried throughout. The ability to sing, rap, dance and act simultaneously on the part of Hamilton was quite extraordinary and something to be marvelled at.
Whilst I admit that I probably do not know enough about American history, the musical was adept in walking the audience through the story so as to not confuse. The plot follows the right hand man of George Washington, Alexander Hamilton, including his meeting with Aaron Burr and of course, George Washington before meeting the love of his life, Eliza Hamilton. Especially for a UK audience, this was certainly important as it provided context to an audience unaware of the story’s influence on American history and the birth of the contemporary capitalist system.. The costuming was also vivid and memorable. The choreography was tight and mostly seamless throughout as well. Whilst the set was modest, it was elaborate enough to not detract from the performance, and honestly, with such a strong company, the set did not really need to draw attention in the first place.
Also worth a strong mention was the racial diversity of the cast. Most expectations of traditional casting were subverted through the casting of African-American males as George Washington and Alexander Hamilton. Hamilton’s wife, Eliza Hamilton was played as previously mentioned by Rachelle Ann Go, a Filipino theatre performer. By normalising racial equality in such a popular musical, the building blocks are formed towards the creation of substantive opposition to forms of racial discrimination traditionally seen in musical theatre casting. Indeed, the 1988 article in The New York Times, “NONTRADITIONAL CASTING; When Race and Sex Don’t Matter” outlines that “Non-traditional casting is actually realistic casting; minorities participate in all aspects of life. The stage is the Actor’s workplace.” Through the creation of an inclusive workplace, the equality that most theatre-goers want to see reflected is adequately addressed.
Overall, even though I had to sink 200GBP for a ticket, the spectacle was well worth the price of admission. With the Australian tour set for 2021 in Sydney, we can only hope that casting for Australian show proves to be just as inspired as the UK production as this is a truly remarkable and unique show that should appease regular theatre-goers and casual fans alike.
Image: Kiran Gupta