The irony of seeing Lin-Manuel Miranda’s hit musical, Hamilton, at the Victoria Palace in London.
Here is a Founding Father of the United States, celebrated six nights a week in the country he revolted against, while King George III is treated as comic relief in the country he reigned over. Within this theater, the predominantly British crowd is rooting for the American revolutionary to take his shot. And if you’re one of the handful Americans seeing the show in London—like me and the couple from Arizona seated to my right—you passed up Broadway, Chicago, and the National Tour to see the show in the territory that was once the mother country.
To be fair, it’s probably more cost effective for an American to see the show in London than to see it in New York, the capital of Hamilton’s United States. When the low end of Broadway’s prices hover around $300 for Rear Mezzanine and the max at the West End is £200 (about $280) for a premium seat, might as well make an overseas adventure of it. That’s the boat my Arizona neighbors and I found ourselves in.
I should note that I went into Hamilton blindly. I didn’t listen to the original Broadway cast recording because I had no idea whose voice belonged to which character. I was skeptical at the love showered on the musical in light of the thousands of dollars people were willing to pay for a seat on Broadway. But my curiosity—and the casting of Rachelle Ann Go in a lead role as Eliza Hamilton—persuaded me to dive in anyway when the production released a last batch of tickets for February performances.
By the end of the opening number, “Alexander Hamilton,” I understood the hype from a storytelling perspective. (The hip hop entertained me, but I’m too square/uncool to evaluate the quality of the lyrics from an artistic standpoint.)
The storytelling through the spoken word and hip hop is in your face, especially in the first act covering revolutionary America, and paces through Hamilton’s lifetime at a frenetic pace. Sounds like modern America, right? The London company of Hamilton also projected a confidence—bordering on cockiness—in how they attacked the lyrics and choreography to each musical number in those swanky colonial costumes. (The choreography for “Satisfied” and Ten Duel Commandments” are especially outstanding from a visual storytelling perspective.) It’s fitting that Jamael Westman, barely over a year out of drama school, won the role of the young Founding Father who quickly rose to be George Washington’s right hand man. Westman delivers the lyrics that Miranda wrote with that youthful tinge of fury in his voice and in his eyes that you’d expect from the ambitious individual that Hamilton lived his life as.
Ultimately, the core of Hamilton’s life is the classic underdog story. And that’s why the way Miranda delivered Hamilton’s story—rising from orphan in the West Indies to prominent statesman on the back of hard work, talent, and the help of those who spotted those traits—is important in today’s polarized atmosphere.
This is the dramatized biography of a white Founding Father presented as a hip hop musical, expanding the appeal of this story to a mainstream audience. This novel approach to a historical figure engages audiences and hopefully encourages them to go down the Alexander Hamilton rabbit hole on Google or Wikipedia on their own time. Yet the musical also gave the spotlight to his contemporaries that the high school history textbooks glossed over. I thought “John Lawrence” through the first act until I read the program during the interval and saw that he was John Laurens, and I also had no idea who Hercules Mulligan and Maria Reynolds were until last week.
The multiethnic cast fulfilling the roles of these white historical figuresis the other obvious appeal of the musical. Westman is of Irish and Jamaican descent, Giles Terera (Aaron Burr) is Black British, and Go and Christine Allado (Peggy Schuyler/Maria Reynolds) are Filipina, among everyone else in the company. It was visceral to see Terera, knowing that he portrays Burr, step onto the stage as the first lead in the opening number and yet accept this revised interpretation of Burr’s appearance without a second thought. These portrayals highlight the universality of the underdog story found in Hamilton’s life—and the ideal of an America that we’re still working to perfect today, more than 200 years after the Declaration of Independence was signed.
It’ll take a lot of work and time to break down the cultural, institutional, and systemic barriers that continue to push marginalized peoples to the fringes. But in celebrating Hamilton’s life, the musical is optimistic for an America where everyone, regardless of their background and ethnicity, has access to the opportunity—their shot—to prove themselves like Hamilton did. Even the Brits in attendance that night were rooting for us to get there.
The show had to pause for a brief moment for loudest ovation of the performance, when Hamilton and Marquis de Lafayette proclaimed “Immigrants: we get the job done.”