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I knew three basic facts about Hamilton as I arrived at the doors of the West End’s newest hit musical. One: It tells the story of Alexander Hamilton, one of the Founding Fathers of the United States. Two: It’s set to a hip-hop soundtrack. Three: The hype has been unprecedented, and unavoidable. Since the news broke that it would be making its way to London, Hamilton fever had swiftly become an epidemic.
Despite that buzz, I’d not heard a single song. Nor had I seen a clip of the Broadway phenomenon. I’d seen no live performance, televised or otherwise. For all intents and purposes, I was a complete Hamilton novice. It’s not that I wasn’t interested; the opportunity simply never presented itself. To me, in the build up, consuming Hamilton in parts seemed pointless anyway. The vague decision had been made months before: I’d see the show in full, only if the opportunity presented itself.
Yet my interest in Hamilton had grown rapidly as the refurbishment of London’s Victoria Palace Theatre took shape, and as those in the know began to bubble with excitement. With so many people shouting about it, I realised it must be worth something. There’s no smoke without fire, after all.
As the show opened in the West End, I made my way down to the Victoria Palace Theatre, entirely in the dark on what was to come.
“History and rap? The track record wasn’t strong.”
A hip-hop musical about American history; it was here where my (admittedly unfounded) reservations lay as I arrived. Art that catapults history into the modern day doesn’t always succeed. Unwanted images of rapping teachers swirled around my head. History and rap? The track record wasn’t strong.
Yet to my surprise, and ultimately impassioned delight, Hamilton broke the cycle with ease. That international superstars and hip-hop pioneers such as The Roots, Busta Rhymes and Nas added their art to the Hamilton Mixtape, a release I have continuously enjoyed since seeing the musical, should have been an early giveaway. There’s a refreshing credibility to the soundtrack, one that walks the line between musical theatre and hip-hop; a line that arguably didn’t exist before Hamilton.
In a way, the refurbished Victoria Palace Theatre perfectly mirrored the production. I got lost in its balance of old and new, a traditional décor matched with modern facilities which sat against Hamilton’s contemporary interpretation of history. More so, it matched the musical’s attitude to theatrical convention. Both the building and the show offered subtle nods to tradition, but look forward far more than back.
Above all else, Hamilton felt fresh and accessible, even for an uninitiated audience such as myself. There was absolutely no pretention in its two-plus hours running time. The cast managed to achieve the exact opposite. It poked fun at itself (see a somewhat unconventional rap-battle or the comedic portrayal of King George by a brilliantly funny Michael Jibson), but took itself seriously at all the right moments. It was emotionally charged and incredibly moving, resulting in me – an otherwise solid supporter of emotional numbness – both laughing until I cry and genuinely crying. It was also perfectly poignant in both its tale of power struggle and humility, and in its understated racial commentary.
It’s here where Hamilton found its broad appeal, and achieves success for both the die-hard and casual theatregoer. It is also here where I found myself fully invested. Although the trimmings might tie in closer to traditional musical theatre, the message was current and important. The story was a warning against complacency, arrogance and jealousy. It struck a vital chord within me, perhaps more than ever in our current turbulent political climate.
“There are no explosions, no wires, and no dramatic set changes.”
Having been effortlessly won over by the soundtrack, the setting and the story, the production itself was similarly spectacular. We’re not talking on-stage gimmicks here. There were no explosions, no wires, and no dramatic set changes. In fact, there were absolutely zero set changes. Instead, the cast delivered all of the visual brilliance.
At one particularly moment, time stopped on stage… as did my breath. Another saw the cast repeatedly rewind the scene with pinpoint accuracy. I challenge a theatre novice not to drop their jaw at some of the show’s atmospheric lighting and dramatic movement. It was simply groundbreaking.
It’s easy to see the complexities behind Hamilton, even without understanding the technical side. The cast, largely new to the West End, were brilliant. The music was exciting, energetic and powerful. The story was remarkably current despite its historic tale.
As I left the Victoria Palace Theatre all of my reservations are forgotten. That I may have missed the opportunity to see the production all of a sudden seemed tragic.
And I now knew a fourth basic fact about Hamilton: It really is very, very special.
Tickets for Hamilton at London’s Victoria Palace Theatre are available through Ticketmaster.co.uk.