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Bringing History to the 21st Century: Hamilton: An American Musical

Written by Ashleigh Dean

The figurative storm that hit New York City in the shape of a Broadway show had been building since 2009, when a certain Lin-Manuel Miranda performed the opening number at the White House in front of former president Barak Obama. Flash forward six years and the man in question reached his goal of giving us all a history lesson about the founding fathers of America with a hip hop musical.

The release of the cast recording after the Broadway debut allowed musical theatre fans who were unable to see the show finally get to see what all the fuss was about, whilst also leaving them wanting more. That being said, where there’s Broadway, there’s also the West End so UK fans were thrilled when it opened there in 2017 and has since been running at The Victoria Palace Theatre.

Seeing what you hear on the Broadway Cast Recording transferred to the stage is an interesting experience. The intricate set and costumes transport you to the 1700s while the hip hop musical numbers add an intriguing modern twist. The show itself follows the life of Alexander Hamilton, as told by both friend and foe Aaron Burr. The musical also features other favourite founding fathers such as the no-nonsense George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, whose character is primarily used for comic relief. Hamilton has always been known for its racially diverse and talented cast, which puts a fascinating 21st century spin on what traditionally would have been a very “white” America in the 18th century. This aspect was flawlessly transferred within the UK version.

“Hamilton has always been known for its racially diverse and talented cast, which puts a fascinating 21st century spin on what traditionally would have been a very “white” America in the 18th century.”

A show isn’t a show without a great cast, and Hamilton at the Victoria Palace Theatre is no exception. Lin-Manuel Miranda set the bar incredibly high with the portrayal of Alexander Hamilton in his own adaptation so future actors, naturally, have a lot to live up to. Jamael Westman is the talented actor who took on the role for the current West End version and, according to the program, the man has a grand total of two theatre credits. Imagine that. Imagine training at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts, taking part in two productions and, suddenly, you’ve been given the biggest shoes to fill. From his performance it’s clear that he took it with a pinch of salt as if he was simply born to play the iconic role. Westman played alongside Sifiso Mazibuko as Aaron Burr and the on-stage connection was outstanding, the two bouncing off each other in order to tell the story. With the powerful line in Wait For It expressing how “we rise and we fall” it’s clear to see that the modern musical is really a story about the rise and fall of Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr.

The supporting characters in the show shine just as brightly as the main stars and the revolutionary trio of Act 1, John Laurens (Cleve September), Hercules Mulligan (Tarinn Callender) and Marquis de Lafayette (Jason Pennycooke), show real chemistry and the actors let true talent shine through as the three of them played entirely different characters and brought Philip Hamilton, James Madison and Thomas Jefferson to life on stage in Act 2.

The musical numbers in this show are nothing short of iconic and it’s no surprise that it took Miranda well over six to write the entire musical. All those years ago, the genius behind the Broadway and West End show got the idea for it by reading a biography about Alexander Hamilton and the difficulties in his life, later stating

“that’s hip-hop. It’s writing about your struggles so well that you transcend your struggle.”

Lin Manuel Miranda

Known for other works of a similar genre (In the Heights, Bring It On: The Musical and 21 Chump Street), it’s not entirely shocking that the composer was able to cram nearly 30 years of history into 2 hours and 45 minutes of theatre.

Hamilton: An American Musical is a show where, not only cabinet meetings take the form of rap battles but also where 18th Century women don’t hesitate to fight the patriarchy. Kicking off her introduction by figuratively shooting down Aaron Burr in The Schuyler Sisters, Angelica Schuyler (Allyson Ava-Brown), is not shy to fight about equality for women. With enough wit, will-power and intelligence to rival Hamilton himself, Lin-Manuel Miranda has been able to earn himself even more respect upon writing and adapting the historical figures in this way. Along with this, the UK cast have done a remarkable job of portraying these historical figures, just like the original Broadway cast. It wasn’t thought possible that someone would be able to play King George III as well as Jonathan Groff but Jon Robyns was a brilliant choice for the overly obnoxious King of England.

Final comments about the show revolve around Elizabeth Schuyler, or rather, Eliza Hamilton. Played beautifully by Rachelle Ann Go, Eliza is a character that makes you wonder if the Hamilton in the title is actually about Alexander himself or the Hamilton family as a whole. With her singing frequently about the narrative, it’s clear that she is a very crucial figure in history. Eliza went through many struggles, much like her husband but went to extreme lengths to keep the legacy alive. She told Alexander’s story and Lin-Manuel Miranda and the theatre industry told hers, leaving the audience with the important question: who lives, who dies, who tells your story?

Overall, Hamilton: An American Musical is a moving show about, not only the history of America, but the importance of history in general. With everything from an outstanding cast, smooth choreography and some good old-fashioned beatboxing, the production truly is a memorable experience.