The foyers and bars in theatres always have a certain buzz to them – these are spaces where the pre-show atmosphere is thick with anticipation. People huddle in groups clutching mindbogglingly overpriced gin and tonics and bags full of show merchandise, their conversations full of expectation and excitement. As a regular on London’s theatre scene I’m used to this buzz and I definitely could not escape the tummy tingling feeling that came with finally being in ‘the room where it happens’: the Victoria Palace Theatre and the West End home of Hamilton. The show, which first opened at The Public Theatre in 2015, is a hip-hop/rap musical with the music, lyrics, and book all by creator Lin-Manuel Miranda. Hamilton tells the life story of ‘bastard, orphan, son of a whore/And a Scotsman’ Alexander Hamilton, who immigrated to America in his youth and went on to become one of the most important figures in American history.
It was a strange feeling, I will admit, being only minutes away from watching Lin-Manuel Miranda’s universally acclaimed musical. I had the tickets booked for twelve months prior to our February 7th show date, I know the soundtrack off by heart and I had already seen every dodgy, bootlegged clip available on YouTube. But actually seeing the show was a different matter altogether, as someone who has studied theatre I know nothing can compare to the liveliness of performance.
It is perhaps then this liveliness, which is brought into existence by the sheer magnetic energy of the cast, that exhilarated me the most. As I say, having listened to the soundtrack so much it is strange to not just hear the lyrics but see them being performed as part of a wider complicated production. Seeing the show in this way with all the elements of performance put together it is hard not to be struck by Miranda’s phenomenal creative feat. Miranda’s dexterous lyrics combined with Andy Blankenbuehler’s choreography and Thomas Kail’s direction makes for a visually stunning show. In my opinion it is the battle scenes that are the best examples of how when all the pieces come together something quite wonderful can happen on stage. In both ‘Guns and Ships’ and ‘Yorktown (The World Turned Upside Down)’ the entire ensemble is involved in creating battle scenes from the American War of Independence. However, like the rest of the show these scenes are done in such a way that is completely original, something that could only be described as aesthetically Hamilton. In ‘Yorktown’ as the ensemble dance their way around the space the stage literally pulsates with unbridled energy, their uniformity tight-knit without feeling controlled. This then combined with Miranda’s clever lyrics where George Washington’s introspective introduction, Hamilton’s narrative and Hercules Mulligan’s explosive rap guide us through the epic scene leaves your mouth open and goose bumps on your skin.
The true magic of theatre, however, is the fact that the scene that I just described will never be performed in the exact same way. While of course the actors will hit the same markers and choreography, music and lyrics will be same, as they are in Hamilton’s current other productions in New York and Chicago. The fact stands that every day is a new day with different challenges, for instance cast members may change which means a song or moment will now have a completely new spin. Each performance, therefore, becoming completely unique. I know this is the case with Hamilton as much as any other show as my friend whom I watched it with had already seen it once before, afterwards she ran me through all of the moments she noticed which we slightly different in one way or another. Mostly though, it sounded as though the cast were just having fun playing with their performances, seeing how and what they could tweak each time. Personally, I noted quite a difference in the way Maria Reynolds sung her part in ‘Say No To This’, originally performed on Broadway by Jasmine Cephas Jones I was naturally going to compare any performance to hers as it is the one from the soundtrack. However, I felt incredibly surprised that I preferred Christine Allado’s as I watched the show, not because it was necessarily better than Jones’ but perhaps because it was inherently different.
On the other hand, while each performance is individual there are some traditions that transcend performance and, apparently, international borders. In ‘Yorktown’ the social and cultural reach of Miranda’s words is palpable as the crowd whoops and cheers to a certain very famous, poignant line. The defiant ‘Immigrants: we get the job done’ possessing an ever more relevant meaning in a heightened time of refugee crisis, islamophobia and Trumpism than it may have done when Hamilton premiered in 2015. The diversity of the cast in every sense of gender, race and nationality is the living, breathing testament of a show that celebrates ‘A place where even orphan immigrants/Can leave their fingerprints’.
Before I know it we are suddenly somehow breathlessly, heart-stoppingly near the conclusion. I can feel my stomach freeze as the penultimate scene reaches its dramatic, terrifying climax in the duel between Burr and Hamilton. It’s a scene I have listened to countless times but as I watched it in live action I felt myself willing it not end how I know it will. But that, I realise in retrospect is what makes for great theatre. Even though I knew Hamilton inside and out before even stepping inside the theatre building I was still made to suspend my disbelief, to lose myself in the story and feel as though I was looking through a window into another world – not onto a stage. If you can come away and feel that: feel as though have been back in time, in world where rap is the melody of change and it doesn’t matter where you come from or what you look like just where you are going, then you’ve done Hamilton right.