Sometimes there is a show that you don’t have to be a huge theatre fan to have heard of and in recent years the same thing happens every time I tell someone new that my hobby is seeing shows. The first sentence that comes out of them is always ‘Oh, have you seen Hamilton’ or something along those lines, and for what feels like ages all I have been able to say in response is ‘No, not yet’, before quickly changing the subject or muttering something about it being too expensive to see live. But, if I am being completely honest, the price of the tickets to see the West End production wasn’t the only thing putting me off. In all honesty, I was never really all that fussed…
Sorry, but that’s the truth…
I have never been a fan of hip/hop or rap music, and that’s the main reason that I wasn’t really that interested in seeing Hamilton, a sung through hip hop musical. It’s just not my style, that and I tend to lose interest in a show slightly if it has a tonne of hype surrounding it because I always think that it cannot possibly live up to that hype. I told you I was being honest, and really that’s going to set the tone for this entire review. But before we begin, let me please say that I can completely understand the reasoning behind so many people love this show, as it is a masterpiece in its own right for many reasons but I am going to begin this by saying that Hamilton was never going to be my type of show.
We heard the news that the broadway production of Lin Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton had been filmed for release quite some time ago, and never really expected to see it so soon. We all expected to see the film adaptation of In The Heights first. But due to the film release being delayed thanks to the dreaded covid, we were instead treated to Hamilton premiering much earlier than expected thanks to a deal done with Disney Plus. So considering that I was already paying for this streaming service anyway, there was no reason for me not to watch the show that now came with the service. So, I thought, why not let’s give this a go…
First things first, there is something wonderfully genius about the way in which Hamilton is staged. The set is simplistic, with stair cases and walk ways forming the base, allowing for a multi way revolve to take centre stage. A true example of how less can be more when it comes to a set, with this great revolve working wonders with the flow of the action throughout and allowing for some clever rewind moments. And also, the less cluttered a set is, the more you can focus on the action, the story and the characters.
I won’t go into detail about historical accuracies and artistic licenses, as I am not that educated when it comes to American founding fathers and all that, but I must say that this is a very good way of getting people interested in it all. Setting historical facts and figures to music has always been a good way to learn after all (I’m talking about you, Horrible Histories). But now, on to the story. We are introduced to many characters throughout this musical, and get to know many of them very well. The action, of course, focuses around the life and work of Alexander Hamilton (played here by the show’s creator Lin Manuel Miranda) as he rose from seemingly nothing to one of modern America’s founding fathers through writing, fighting and teaching. We see into his life with Eliza Schuyler (Phillipa Soo), the competition between her and her sister Angelica (Renee Elise Goldsberry) to win the young revolutionaries heart, and his constant drive to climb further and higher into the ranks of scholars and politicians.
We are also introduced to his fellow fighters John Laurens (Anthony Ramos), Hercules Mulligan (Okieriete Onaodowan), and Marquis De Lafayette (Daveed Diggs) and his main enemy for everything he tries to do in his life Aaron Burr (Leslie Odam Jr), along with a variety of different characters including King George (Jonathan Groff). In a way, it’s great to meet so many characters of history all in one production, but with so many characters, it can be a little hard to keep up, especially when many performers play many characters with some playing completely new characters such as Thomas Jefferson (Diggs) and Phillip Hamilton (Ramos) in the second act.
Lin Manuel Miranda has this commanding presence over the stage, perfect for a character that demanded for his entire life that people paid him the attention that he believed he deserved. He is on stage for the vast majority of the show, rattling out lyrics at a ridiculous speed and gliding with scene to scene with an apparent ease. You cannot deny the talent of such a performer, to not only create such a piece of art as Hamilton is and to perform as the title role. I can imagine that there was a reasonable amount of pressure on his shoulders to not only please the audience but meet his own standards. Phillipa Soo is both charming and effortlessly as Eliza Schuyler, one of the only characters who doesn’t rap everything she sings (much to my relief). She’s a complex character, clever and passionate about making the world a better place. Renee Elise Goldsberry impresses as Angelica Schuyler throughout, with a wonderful stage presence that simply draws your eye to her whenever she is on stage/on the screen
Diggs, Ramos and Onaodowen make for a comical trio as Lafayette, Laurens and Mulligan respectively, full of energy and fun as they plan and fight for revolution. It’s an enjoyable dynamic, with ‘Story of Tonight’ providing a touching highlight. And I have to give Digg’s credit for his incredibly fast rapping in ‘Guns and Ships’. In Act 2, Digg’s becomes Thomas Jefferson and brings even more energy to the stage. I am normally all for performers doubling up on characters, and in most cases in Hamilton it works. But I have to admit that I did find Ramos’ transition from Laurens to Alexander and Eliza’s first born son Phillip a little bit tricky. The power of imagination will only go so far, and pretending an adult is a nine year old is a step too far for me. It was fine when he was playing the teenage Phillip but trying to believe that he was a small child begging for his fathers attention was near impossible.
Hamilton is one of those strange shows, I feel, where you are experiencing something both as an observer and as someone taking part. There is a few instances of breaking the fourth wall, with characters sharing a knowing glance with the audience or directly addressing them. The character of King George (Jonathan Groff) is one that does this a lot, and he’s only on stage for a few short scenes. He’s a comical character, and an obvious favourite with the audience, but his character appears clownish and over the top. It’s hard to take the character seriously when he is in fact quite important to parts of the story. And seeing that much spit spray coming out of Groff’s mouth in HD on a TV screen was a little bit gross, I’m not going to lie. Also, whilst I can understand that hand held mics are used to replicate modern rap battles in certain scenes, for me it broke the illusion of watching a story unfold and suddenly brought me back to a modern reality.
I have to talk about the music, as it is one of the things that has made Hamilton so popular and helped the show to jump from theatre land into mainstream media. It is incredibly clever, very intricate and amazingly performed by the shows talented cast, but it is very very fast. In fact, I had to watch it a second time with the subtitles on to be able to understand what was being said… The slower songs such as ‘Burn’, ‘You’ll Be Back’, ‘That would be enough’ and ‘Dear Theodosia’ suit me far more than the perhaps more famous faster songs such as ‘Satisfied’, ‘My Shot’ and ‘Non-Stop’. I like to watch a show and instantly feel a connection with them as they pull me deeper into their story and their world, and with Hamilton I just feel that I was unable to form that connection with the characters because I was struggling so much to keep up with their words. The only character I found myself being able to feel anything for was Eliza, as her character flows and in a way lives at a much slower pace.
To conclude, as a piece of theatre and a piece of art I can completely agree with the masses and state that Hamilton is a modern masterpiece of theatre making. It’s slick, with an incredible ensemble keeping the action flowing effortlessly. To put it simply, it is all very clever. It’s a wonderful way to bring history to life, and I can completely see why it is as popular as it is. It is a new type of musical, it may be telling an old story but with the use of hip hop, dynamic lighting, dance and rap, it is all incredibly modern. It’s a crowd pleaser, especially with younger fans who like that type of music anyway. It’s following is huge, and I can safely assume that it is only going to go from strength to strength. And I can safely assume that the Disney Plus film version will only boost ticket sales when the theatres reopen as fans rush to see it in the flesh.
So is Hamilton a masterpiece? In its own right, yes. Is Hamilton as good as people said it is? Sort of, I did enjoy it but may have enjoyed it more had it been slowed down a bit or perhaps not been completely sung through. Is Hamilton worthy of the response and critical acclaim it has received? If it is your type of thing, yes. Did Hamilton live up to the hype? In my opinion, no. Will I be rushing to see it live? In all honesty, I enjoyed it enough to watch at home, but it’s just not my type of show, so no.