The hoop-la surrounding the London staging of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton is almost as interesting as the musical itself. The ticket-tout-defeating instructions for admission to the Victoria Palace Theatre that came with my pair of house seats were more elaborate and demanding than those for our recent night out at Buckingham Palace. In the event, though, we were whisked past the velvet rope into the theatre and handed our tickets in an instant. Sir Cameron Mackintosh has recently redone this 1910 Frank Matcham music hall, much loved for its good sightlines from every seat, especially to house this production; and it is pretty splendid. However, though our seats in row K of the stalls had amazing legroom – enough for people to pass in front of us without us standing – the seats were puzzlingly narrow. Surely any six-footer, whose legs are so nicely accommodated by the additional space, will measure accordingly across the beam. How will s/he manage to get her/his bum on the seat? And one other question: As they had to redo the entire interior, even the elaborate plasterwork, why do they still have last-century lighting rigs in the auditorium and over the stage? In the 21st century – one would think – it must be possible to conceal the lighting, or build it into the overhang, so that the audience can see and appreciate the interior décor, for which Sir Cameron lavishes such praise upon its designer, Clare Ferraby.
The sightlines remain near-perfect, and despite the Hamilton-hysteria of the mostly young audience surrounding us, we could see, hear and enjoy all the effects the astonishing author Lin-Manuel Miranda, director Thomas Kail and choreographer Andy Blankenbuehler achieve in their hip-hop/rap musical about the author of most of the Federalist Papers.
No one reading this will be unfamiliar with the Hamilton phenomenon, of the New York musical that has stunned even the most rebarbative theatre critics into submission, and for which tickets need to be booked a year in advance. Demand is so high that, for the first time in my long career as a performing arts critic, I was denied theatre press tickets; but I was allowed the privilege (no sarcasm intended) of being allowed to buy house seats. I noted other members of the audience, their plastic bags full of memorabilia from the Hamilton shop, through which you must pass on your way to the loos (clever planning, that), and was touched and impressed by the hoops through which they had jumped to obtain tickets. Full marks, too, to Sir Cameron and crew for tackling the ticket touts. The box office does not issue hard tickets until you enter the theatre, and present a copy of the email confirming your booking and a photo ID proving you are the person who booked the tickets – and it seems to have worked: there are no London Hamilton tickets being advertised on eBay at the time of writing.
Lin-Manuel Miranda deserves his 2015 MacArthur “genius” award. Who else would have read a highbrow book, such as Ron Chernow’s biography of Alexander Hamilton, and thought of making a play, let alone a musical, based on it? And who else would have imagined the brilliant solution to presenting the life of one of the great intellectuals in American history – rap?
With period sets, and knee-britches and tailcoat costumes, we might have been disconcerted by the rapping, and by the hip-hop, high-kicking, break-dance choreography (with remarkably few dad-dancing lapses). But the anachronisms passed unnoticed. The reason – pointed out to me by my companion, my younger daughter – is that, as in Hamilton’s life, most of the “action” is actually debate. The doggerel of rap, the sometimes-rhymes, but rigid rhythms, is the perfect solution to the problem of presenting (or, if you prefer, sneaking in) arguments, assertions and challenges, without boring the pants off the audience. Rap does things that cannot be done in dialogue, and, in a sung-through piece, it’s superior to much operatic recitative.
I admit to being alarmed by the first minute or so, but then I found I was following the words more closely than usual – my attention was caught by the plight of the immigrant Hamilton, born out of wedlock on the British Caribbean island of Nevis, and emigrated to the American Colonies from St Croix just in time to join the Revolution); by his pleas to George Washington, whose aide-de-camp he was, to let him have a military command; by his rivalry with Aaron Burr; by his negotiations with James Madison and Thomas Jefferson, which moved the capital to the South, and founded the country’s financial system; and by the constitutional arguments. Without exception, the (mostly black) actors playing America’s earliest (and best) statesmen, gave splendid performances, as did the several women, and the gloriously camp trio of King George, the Marquis de Lafayette and Jefferson (the last two doubled by the same riotous actor). Most of the sung numbers were ballads, but Miranda availed himself of other musical forms; and while I didn’t leave the theatre humming any of them, they were bright, tuneful, followed the conventions of good musicals, and were occasionally sophisticated – particularly “My Shot,” the much-reprised “Ten Duel Commandments” and “The Room Where It Happens.”
The piece has the added frisson of being implicitly anti-Trump: the line that got the greatest applause was about immigrants getting the job done; and the entire play emphasises that the single most important aim of the Founding Fathers was to create a form of government in which a would-be tyrant and mentally unstable person, such as the Donald, could not be elected to high office.
Not despite – but because of – the ability of its rap-trappings to convey debate and argument, Hamilton is probably the most intelligent musical ever produced.