The Guardian: Hamilton review – revolutionary musical a thrilling salute to America’s immigrants

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A review by Michael Billington for London’s Guardian.

Our thanks to Peter Jordens for bringing this item to our attention.

Hollywood mogul, offered a musical about America’s founding fathers, once said: “People don’t want a show with wigs.” One of the many joys of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s much-heralded musical is that it offers us history de-wigged: it’s a rollercoaster of a show in which a bare-headed, largely non-white cast capture the fervour and excitement of revolution while reminding us how much America’s identity was shaped by a buccaneering immigrant, Alexander Hamilton.

What is astonishing is how well the form fits the subject: Miranda’s use of rap, hip-hop and R&B becomes the ideal vehicle for exploring the birth of a nation.

Hamilton, as we’re told from the outset, is “a bastard, orphan, son of a whore and a Scotsman” who leaves the Caribbean to become George Washington’s right-hand man, a key interpreter of the constitution and secretary of the treasury. He marries well, overcomes a sex scandal and dies in a duel with his rival Aaron Burr who is his nemesis and the show’s narrator. But, while Hamilton is the story’s pivot, he is also part of a musical that, like the nation itself, seems in perpetual motion.

Miranda’s music and lyrics combine two things that rarely go together: political passion and nimble wit. Hamilton early on tells us: “I’m just like my country. I’m young, scrappy and hungry, and I’m not throwing away my shot.” These lines are echoed by the whole ensemble in a terrific revolutionary anthem, Yorktown, in which the victorious American troops appropriate a traditional British ballad, The World Turned Upside Down.

Miranda’s lyrics, which include references to Shakespeare and WS Gilbert, are full of verbal dexterity. Burr, surveying the nostalgie de la boue of the Schuyler sisters, tells us: “There’s nothing rich folks love more than goin’ downtown and slummin’ it with the poor.” In a show that glories in language, “Boston” is rhymed with “cost n’” and “lost n’”. Two numbers, particularly, symbolise Miranda’s superb mental agility. George III – played by Michael Jibson as a figure of ineffable absurdity – surveys the political infighting after Washington’s resignation with unholy relish. Crying: “Jesus Christ, this will be fun,” he jigs as if, under all the royal regalia, he were a closeted rocker.

The Schuyler sisters … Rachelle Ann Go (Eliza), Rachel John (Angelica) and Christine Allado (Peggy).

The outstanding number, however, is Burr’s The Room Where It Happens. This takes a politically complex subject: the secret deal in which Hamilton accepted the idea of Washington DC as the nation’s capital in exchange for federal control over the debts accrued by the separate states. Miranda turns it into a number of rapidly accelerating momentum about Burr’s desire to be in the room at the time of the deal – and about the mystery of history. The song, referencing Someone in a Tree from Sondheim’s Pacific Overtures, shows Miranda’s deep roots in America’s musical past.

There are times in the second half when the show’s virtuosity becomes a little taxing. I’m also not sure that Miranda, who acknowledges the influence of Ron Chernow’s biography, ever fully establishes the difference between Jefferson’s vision of America as an agrarian paradise and Hamilton’s as one of urban entrepreneurship. But this is a show that, in Thomas Kail’s production and in Andy Blankenbuehler’s choreography, moves with intoxicating speed and combines historical sweep with attention to detail: one tiny example is the way the coveted letter that gives Hamilton command of a battalion in the fight with the Brits passes from hand to hand like an electrified baton.

Salieri to Hamilton’s Mozart … Giles Terera (Aaron Burr) with the West End cast of Hamilton.

The performances also match the variety and energy of the music. Jamael Westman, not long out of drama school, invests Hamilton with immense authority, reminding us that words were always his most effective weapon and suggests a mixture of opportunist and visionary.

Giles Terera plays Burr with an envious gleam as if he were Salieri to Hamilton’s Mozart and always slightly in awe of his rival’s whirlwind success. Obioma Ugoala’s Washington, Hamilton’s surrogate father, has great gravitas, Rachelle Ann Go lends Hamilton’s wife the poignancy of the neglected and Rachel John is impressive as his adoring sister-in-law. But the funniest performances, aside from Jibson’s English king, come from Jason Pennycooke who doubles as a patriotic Lafayette and a spring-heeled Jefferson in a maroon maxi who jives and jumps with glee as Hamilton’s fortunes fade.

In the end, however, the power of Hamilton lies in its ability to make the past seem vividly present. It suggests its subject was an Icarus who flew too close to the sun.

But it also shows that he was an outsider who believed in strong central government and an enlightened capitalism. Above all, Miranda has created an invigorating and original musical that, at a time of national crisis, celebrates America’s overwhelming debt to the immigrant.

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