AT LAST! After two years of waiting and several cancellations because of COVID, I finally got to see the UK version of Hamilton at the Victoria Theatre in September 2021. Any worries I may have had that a Brit cast might struggle were unfounded. Some were as equal to the task as their American counterparts and, in some cases, they excelled!
I have to say (as I do below) that Hamilton is stupendously good! Watching live, rather than the Disney stage production, makes me appreciate even more the choreography of the ensemble which allows the music, words and the striking figures of the cast – largely BAME actors in period dress – to take centre-stage. Understated but quite perfect. Of course. King George III was ramped up a little for an English audience (such a delicious part to play).
Whether or not ‘Hamilton’ is the best musical of our generation – it clearly is – it’s been a hit for the only reason anything is a hit: because it is a great work of entertainment. And the standing ovation at the end just goes to show that excellent musical theatre is appreciated whatever the theme.
If you’re one of the few who haven’t watched it yet – you really need to do so. Perhaps my review from July 2020, below, might just be the motivation you need.
Isn’t it amazing, when you’ve spent a life time playing music, listening to music, attending hundred’s of gigs and live theatre, something comes along and blows you away? That’s my experience of ‘Hamilton: An American Musical.’
The show is based on the life of Alexander Hamilton (1757-1804) and the remarkable events of the early American Republic.
I realise I’m a little late to the party here, given that Hamilton first played Broadway in 2015 and has been in the West End since 2017. However, I was so persuaded by the hype surrounding the premier of the film (recorded live on Broadway) on Disney+, that I simply had to watch it. NB. It’s worth taking out one month’s subscription on Disney+ just to watch this! Honestly!
Since its 2015 debut, the hip-hop Broadway show ‘Hamilton: An American Musical’, has exploded into a cultural phenomenon unlike any musical before it.
It has political intrigue, personal tragedy, a sex scandal and lightning changes of mood that sweep us along at speed. Best of all is the wit that sits neatly alongside its politics: “Immigrants, we get the job done”, sing Hamilton and Lafayette, and the audience laughs knowingly.
What really worked for me was the way in which Hamilton’s story corresponds with several important social issues of our time including race and gender equality, immigration and diversity and especially #BLM in the wake of the killing of George Floyd. I could go on writing about ‘Hamilton’ as a sociological phenomenon for days – but I won’t!
Hamilton has won every theatrical prize, broken all box office records, been heralded as a ground-breaking and innovative show that you simply must see. Audiences have raved about the show – even describing it as a life changing experience. Questlove, iconic hip-hop drummer, and leader of Jimmy Fallon’s house band The Roots, says:
It sucker-punches everybody that’s ever seen it.
This is not a feature film — that may yet happen — but an edited version of two performances captured live at the Richard Rodgers Theatre on Broadway in 2016. I later found out this was filmed in the last week that Lin-Manuel played the lead part, along with other leading members of the cast.
And yes, I could say, that watching Hamilton was a ‘life changing experience!’ I can’t recommend it highly enough. Michelle Obama agrees when she described Hamilton as:
… the best piece of art, in any form, I’ve ever seen in my life.
Alexander Hamilton spent over two centuries as a forgotten Founding Father, a mere footnote in American history. But that changed after the composer and playwright Lin-Manuel Miranda picked up a copy of a biography of Hamilton in 2008 and was immediately inspired to bring this historical figure to life on the stage.
The book in question is ‘Alexander Hamilton (Great Lives)’ by Ron Chernow (this is currently available for 99p on Amazon Kindle!). Interestingly, Miranda asked Chernow to act as a consultant to ensure the historical accuracy of the musical.
Whilst I knew something of the Founding Fathers of America: Washington, Jefferson, Franklin, Adams et al. Unsurprisingly, I knew nothing of the story/history of Alexander Hamilton or the part he played, both as a war hero but, more especially, as America’s first Secretary of the Treasury, uniting the 13 Colonies of the American Republic and creating the financial structure of the financial powerhouse of a United States which lasts to this day. As Jefferson sings:
I’ll give him this: his financial system is a work of genius … I couldn’t undo it if I tried. And I tried.
And, whilst I’ve visited the USA on a number of occasions, I couldn’t have told you his picture was on the 10 Dollar Bill!
I ended up watching ‘Hamilton: An American Musical’ twice in three days (at full volume and with sub-titles so I wouldn’t miss any of the lyrics which, at times, are delivered at breath taking speed) and have since viewed several documentaries, listened to the soundtrack multiple times and read a number of articles on all things Hamilton. I’m no expert but, after all what I’ve seen, read and absorbed, I think I’ve picked up something along the way.
The Music Of Ambition
My attention was grabbed immediately by the opening lines of the opening song:
How does a bastard, orphan, son of a whore
And a Scotsman, dropped in the middle of a forgotten spot
In the Caribbean by providence impoverished
In squalor, grow up to be a hero and a scholar?
As Burr wistfully reflects on his duel with Hamilton:
I’m the damn fool that shot him.
It’s unprecedented for a Broadway musical to include hip-hop in the way that Hamilton does. Jeremy McCarter, who co-authored ‘Hamilton, The Revolution’ with Miranda, describes it as:
… the music of ambition, the soundtrack of defiance …
Suggesting it is the perfect genre for a musical about the American Revolution and the life of Hamilton. Black and minority ethnic actors play the roles of the Founding Fathers, a casting decision that turns audience expectations upside down as soon as the musical starts.
There’s no doubt that Lin-Manuel Miranda is an inspiring figure he is a musical and lyrical genius. I can think of no other word. “You have no idea how lyrically amazing this show is from a rap perspective,” gushes performance artist Lemon Anderson. The songs resonate with audiences long after the curtain closes. The original recording became the first Broadway cast album to reach number one on the Rap Album chart and this was because so many young people bought into it, even though they couldn’t get tickets to see the ‘hottest show in town.’ It was also awarded ‘Best Musical Theatre Album’ at the 2016 Grammys.
Whether or not ‘Hamilton’ is the best musical of our generation – it clearly is – it’s been a hit for the only reason anything is a hit: because it is a great work of entertainment.
Don’t be put off by the hip-hop / rap style of the music, though. There are a number of traditional musical theatre ballads to make something old and new, familiar and surprising. And, in true musical theatre style, there are several recurring melodies. There is also the ‘love to hate’ figure in the shape of an OTT George III. Quite fun. Though Aaron Burr comes a close second!
Will They Tell Your Story?
Stories have the power to change the way we see the world and live our lives and they inspire us to be the people God created us to be (Read The Power Of Stories). In the Finale, the cast sing:
Who lives, who dies, who tells your story? Will they tell your story?
This is Hamilton’s story.
He grew up in poverty on the island of Nevis in the West Indies. He had been an orphan since the age of eleven. His father had abandoned their family and his mother died when he was young. He managed to scrape together enough money to attend university in America, where he arrived during the birth of the American Revolution.
For the next several years, he displayed an uncanny ability to find himself at the centre of major events. He caught the attention of George Washington and served on his staff throughout the war. His command of the decisive battle against the British at Yorktown earned him a hero’s reputation.
As the new American government took shape, Washington invited Hamilton into his cabinet as the Secretary of the Treasury, giving him a unique opportunity to shape the new nation.
Whether it was wartime letters whilst on George Washington’s staff, government or financial papers as Secretary of the Treasury, or love letters to his wife Eliza, Hamilton’s life is marked by an extraordinary amount of writing.
Why Do you write like you’re running out of time?
In his personal life, Hamilton experienced both remarkable accomplishments and heart-breaking failure. Yet this poor, orphan kid from the Caribbean became one of the most powerful men in the new nation. As Washington sings to Hamilton:
History has its eyes on you.
Hamilton married Eliza Schuyler, a woman from a wealthy and prominent family. But a decade later, Hamilton had an affair, paying the cheated husband blackmail money in order to keep him quiet. It didn’t work, and America’s first government sex scandal came to pass.
Not all of the tragedy that Hamilton experienced was self-inflicted. His son, Philip, was shot and killed in a duel defending his father’s honour, resulting in Hamilton’s daughter suffering a mental breakdown. Hamilton himself died at the age of 47, also in a duel with former friend turned political enemy and Vice President, Aaron Burr.
During his teenage years Hamilton also wrote various hymns, including ‘The soul ascending into bliss’ (though it’s said he lost his faith in later life):
Hark! Hark! A voice from yonder sky,
Methinks I hear my Saviour cry,
Come gentle spirit come away,
Come to thy Lord without delay;
For thee the gates of bliss unbar’d
Thy constant virtue to reward.
I come oh Lord! I mount, I fly,
On rapid wings I cleave the sky;
Stretch out thine arm and aid my flight;
For oh! I long to gain that height,
Where all celestial beings sing
Eternal praises to their king.
O Lamb of God! Thrice gracious Lord
Now, now I feel how true thy word;
Translated to this happy place,
This blessed vision of thy face;
My soul shall all thy steps attend
In songs of triumph without end.
A Religious Experience
For those of you who know me, know I’m always looking for theological themes in music, films and theatre (such as Les Misérables: A Story of Law and Grace, Noah: The End Of The World … Is Just The Beginning, Ben-Hur: A Tale Of The Christ etc.) and I simply had to dig deeper to see what I could find.
Interestingly, when Burr sings: “My grandfather was a fire and brimstone preacher” he’s referring to none other than Jonathan Edwards, one of the founders of the American evangelical movement. I have a number of his books and one of the most visited pages on this website is The 70 Resolutions of Jonathan Edwards.
After seeing Hamilton more than 15 times, the actress Rosie O’Donnell described it as:
A religious experience, a spiritual cleansing … Hamilton is medicine that I need for my soul. It is vital to me; it feels like going to church.
When writing my M.A. Dissertation a few years ago I came across the research of anthropologist Victor Turner, and his use of the word Communitas – something which is created as a consequence of a profound communal experience which unites many people together in an unusual way. Usually a religious experience. There’s no doubt that Hamilton unites people in an unusual way and I can fully understand why O’Donnell refers to her experience ‘… like going to church.’
There’s no doubt this musical has several moments of spiritual significance – where a powerful scene occurs and the atmosphere changes (I can’t imagine what it will be like in theatre (definitely something I need to do when theatres re-open after lockdown).
An Act Of Grace
Hamilton’s story begins with an act of grace. Businessmen in the Caribbean generously give him money to travel to America to receive an education. Hamilton’s character sings about this experience, reflecting on how this grace changed the direction of his life.
Everything that Hamilton became, every opportunity that came his way in America, was made possible by this generous gift. Hamilton built his life on a foundation of grace.
Forgiveness, Can You Imagine?
The second act highlights one of Hamilton’s greatest personal failures – his affair with Maria Reynolds. Hamilton’s wife, Eliza, was obviously devastated. In an act that revealed her hurt and anger, she burned the letters she had written to Alexander over the years. The letters must have been one of Alexander’s most treasured possessions, and this act displays the intense level of betrayal Eliza felt.
But as the story moves on, the Hamilton’s slowly try to restore their marriage. They move uptown and, in one of the most powerful songs in the entire musical ‘It’s Quiet Uptown’ Hamilton sings to his wife, imploring her to give him another chance.
As Hamilton sings to Eliza, her body language is still cold and distant. She flinches when he reaches out to touch her. But as the song continues, Eliza softens. Finally, she takes her husband’s hand and sings with him again. She has found it in her heart to forgive. The entire chorus, in a spine-tingling moment, sings out:
Forgiveness, can you imagine?
This moment continues to inspire and challenge. Will I offer forgiveness to those who hurt me? When I feel betrayed, do I hold a grudge, seek revenge or punish my offender? Or do I allow Eliza’s example to resonate deeply, asking God to transform my life and lead me into a life of forgiveness?
The final scene of Hamilton offers one of the most moving moments of the production. Hamilton has been shot and killed in his duel with Aaron Burr – his first friend who became his enemy.
Burr describes the four unstoppable forces of his universe: ‘Love, Life, Death and Hamilton’ as he sings:
Death doesn’t discriminate
Between the sinners and the saints
It takes and it takes and it takes
And we keep living anyway.
We rise and we fall and we break
And we make our mistakes.
And if there’s a reason I’m still alive
When everyone who loves me has died
I’m willing to wait for it.
A Call From God
Eliza, devastated and heartbroken, must figure out how to live the rest of her life. After a period of overwhelming grief, she receives a call from God to establish an orphanage in New York City.
Hamilton’s orphan status surely was one of his greatest sources of pain and sorrow. But Eliza takes that greatest source of brokenness from Alexander’s life, and makes it beautiful. She gives herself to the taxing and overwhelming work of this orphanage, and in the process, brings hope to children. In the musical, she sings about how she sees her husband in each of these orphans that she cares for.
Eliza gives the rest of her life to bring healing and redemption wherever she sees hurt, pain or suffering. In the book of Revelation, Jesus, who sits on the throne, declares, “See, I am making all things new” (NRSV).
Before each performance, Chris Jackson, who played George Washington in the original Broadway cast, led the Hamilton team in a prayer circle.
He viewed each performance as a deeply spiritual, and potentially transformative, experience. Jackson says:
Theatre has an inherent spirituality to it. To so many people, theatre is their church. It’s an opportunity to feel something with other folks … I can’t think of many things that facilitate that kind of gathering and communal experience. There’s a lot of mention of God … That’s why I don’t take it lightly.
Jeremy McCarter describes Jackson’s hopes as he leads the cast in prayer:
He closes with the hope that everybody – in the audience, on the stage, and in the orchestra pit – will leave the theatre a better person than they walked in.
This, without question, describes my experience of watching the film and the experience of countless others who have seen the show live. So, why does ‘Hamilton: An American Musical’ connect with audiences so deeply? Is it because Hamilton serves as a modern day parable, offering audiences a potentially transformative, spiritual experience?
Perhaps ‘Hamilton: An American Musical’ is a religious experience after all!
This brilliant parody came out in December 2020