There are West End openings and then there are West End openings.
When tickets for Lin-Manuel Miranda’s musical about Founding Father Alexander Hamilton went on sale last January, they sold out almost instantly. Earlier this month, resale sites were advertising them for up to £6,000 (if you haven’t bagged one yet, you’d be better off entering the daily lottery for £10 tickets).
Since its off-Broadway debut in 2015, the show has become something of a theatrical phenomenon. As well as garnering glowing reviews from the likes of Michelle Obama, it scooped a record 11 Tonys and a Grammy, while Miranda was awarded the 2016 Pulitzer prize for drama.
18 months on, it’s still New York’s hottest musical, pushing ticket prices up to eye-watering levels. I recently heard of a couple who found it cheaper to fly to London to see the show, rather than pay full-price for seats on Broadway.
That level of adulation and buzz means the show’s reputation storms before it, and it would take a brave critic to put their head above the barricade and find fault. I’m not that man.
Not that I’m jumping on any bandwagons here, but the show is undeniably packed with epic performances and features a score that is a compelling fusion of rap, hip-hop, soul and traditional show tunes — even if none of those genres are your thing, trust me, it works superbly well.
There are lots of shows with good songs. Hamilton is much more than that: it’s a game-changer. It’s a vital, revolutionary work that raises the musical theatre bar in the way Show Boat and West Side Story did in their day. Not least because it boasts a multi-racial cast, which feels especially significant in its London home — Victoria Palace Theatre, where The Black and White Minstrel Show once reigned supreme for 10 years.
Based on Ron Chernow’s biography of Hamilton (Jamael Westman), the show charts his extraordinary life, which begins on a Caribbean island: he’s born out of wedlock, abandoned by his father and loses his mother aged just 12. His arduous formative years, however, instill a strength and tenacious approach to life.
By the late 1700s he has made his way to New York, where the crackle of revolution is the air, and joined forces with Aaron Burr (Giles Terera) and other idealistic opponents of British rule.
When the revolution comes, George Washington (Obioma Ugoala) recognises Hamilton’s abilities and offers him the job of his right-hand man. But Hamilton’s life will see both heartbreak as well as triumph; he finds love but becomes embroiled in scandal, political manoeuvring and betrayal.
It’s a complex, multi-layered story and it’s worth researching the history before you go. You’ll find themes that resonate in the current political climate.
Along with the rich and detailed narrative comes a complex score, but Miranda and director Thomas Kail have assembled a cast that is more than up to the task and soar to breathtaking heights.
Westman brings a nuanced gravitas to the title role, while also revealing a sly humour when the part demands it. The same goes for Terera as Burr, who has a fractious relationship with Hamilton.
There are superb performances from Rachelle Ann Go as Hamilton’s wife Eliza; Jason Pennycooke in the dual roles of Marquis de Lafayette and Thomas Jefferson; plus a delightfully funny cameo by Michael Jibson as King George. In a show full of outstanding voices, it’s Rachel John who steals the singing honours as Angelica, Hamilton’s sister-in-law and confidante.
No one puts a foot wrong, right down to every member of a wonderful ensemble.
Lin-Manuel Miranda, choreographer Andy Blankenbuehler and director Thomas Kail have forged theatrical alchemy with Hamilton and served up a show that lives up to every expectation.
Faultless. Believe the hype.