Holy grail Hamilton

Hamilton

Richard Rodgers Theatre, New York City

From July 12, 2015

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The holy grail of recent theatre, “Hamilton” bursts forth on its Broadway stage with its well-known titular number, and also then ‘My Shot’. It is a highly-memorable start to the sung-and-rapped through musical that tells the story of American founding father Alexander Hamilton (an assured Austin Scott). And what a story it is, of an ambitious immigrant orphan of uncertain parentage who aimed for the political heights, who had the good fortune to meet the heiress Schuyler sisters, marrying younger sister Eliza (Denee Benton) despite sister Angelica’s (Mandy Gonzalez) love for him, and who quickly became the right-hand man to George Washington (Nicolas Christopher) in a war for independence against King George III (an entertaining Euan Morton) before fuelling animosity by endorsing Thomas Jefferson (James Monroe Iglehard) in the 1800 presidential election. It is a narrative full of the emotions that come with ambition, rivalry and pain … all the ingredients of a great story, making it perfect fodder for the musical stage.

The high-speed hit musical with music lyrics and book by the astonishing talented Lin-Manuel Miranda (inspired by the 2004 biography “Alexander Hamilton” by historian Ron Chernnow) is very much a New York show, beyond just its catchy early number ‘The Schuyler Sisters’ and while non-Americans may be alienated to some degree not knowing all of its history, there is easy recognition of its character’s names, even just for their namesake locations around the city.

Often a big sung-through musical can come with criticism of too much busyness, however, this is not the case with “Hamilton” which has no B plot. The focus on one thread makes it highly cohesive, even if it is very much a musical of two halves. While Act One focuses on the war towards independence, Act Two, although informed by this, has a political perspective in its outline of the cabinet battles over whether the United States should assist France in its conflict with Britain, with the song cycle about the life and death of Alexander Hamilton featuring across the entirety.

Clever lyrics and rhymes make for a thrilling soundtrack. Musical motifs are revisited in lyrics and melody; more than just using motif for character, the intricate score uses music to illustrate character. And the variety of musical sensibilities certainly showcases the talent of the musicians under Conductor Kurt Crowley. There are lots of light and shade moments, such as the pop-ish musical number ‘Helpless’ in which Alexander and Eliza share the rapture of their new love at first sight the makes the sky the limit, and the rollicking company (led by the ‘young, scrappy and hungry’ Alexander) number ‘Yorktown (The World Turned Upside Down)’, complete with a hint of Eminem in its recap of the The Battle of Yorktown.

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Regally resplendent in red and gold and weighed down by a jewel encrusted crown and ermine cape, Euan Morton brings welcome moments of comic relief whenever he appears as self-aggrandising monarch King George III, particularly in his delightfully petulant songs such as ‘What Comes Next’ in which, soon after the victory at Yorktown, he asks the rebels how they will succeed in governing on their own. And ‘In The Room Where It Happens’, by the ‘damned fool’ who killed Hamilton, lawyer and politician Aaron Burr (Deon’te Goodman), although bitter in its envious tone of reflection upon Hamilton’s sway with the government, is a quirky but catchy standout due to its exciting swirl of jazzy sounds. With vigorous hip-hop movements as punchy as Miranda’s lyrics one minute and seductive Fosse-esque moves the next, there is a lot going on dance-wise also, which only finesses experience of the show to another level of excellence.

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There are no weak links in energetic portrayal of the almost 20 characters (with lots of doubles) in its story. James Monroe Iglehard is wonderful, particularly as rock star Thomas Jefferson, just returned from France, drawing the audience in with his playful manner. Alongside him, as the stopped-down and sickly James Maidson, Wallace Smith plays the delicate role with glee, while Nicholas Christopher conveys the stature of George Washington as a born leader and a genuine hero, soaring his final number ‘One Last Time’ to a fitting, show-stopping character farewell, with his honeyed vocals.

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Alexander Hamilton himself is portrayed sympathetically, but not overly sentimentally, with Austin Scott capturing the fine balance in a measured performance. It is Denee Benton, however, that serves as the show’s standout. As Alexander’s wife Eliza, she showcases a beautiful voice (Eliza doesn’t rap; her songs offer something different), especially in the heartbreaking ‘Burn’ in which, while destroying the letters that represent their relationship, she sings of Alexander’s betrayal by admitting to an extramarital affair in a public pamphlet in the hope of salvaging his professional legacy. She holds the audience in the palm of her hand with her agency and also in the show’s final number ‘Who Lives, Who Dies, Who Tells Your Story’ reflection on historical memory, showing how Eliza put herself back in the narrative to keep Hamilton’s legacy alive. There are many audience tears as atop lovely ensemble harmonies she reflects on how although this founding father’s story won’t necessarily be told, she has a legacy of her own worthy of celebration.

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Just as the read letters that feature in the show are verbatim from real pieces of history, there are specific and nuanced details to the staging, based on research. Even Hamilton’s desk is a faithful reproduction of the founding father’s writing table. This also includes its literal reflection of the metaphoric scaffolding of the foundation of the USA as the America we know today (its back wall literally grows along with the country). The all-purpose setting suggests a Colonial-era building under construction, with a whirlwind set of large rotating turntables taking centre stage, which facilitates the cyclical relationship between Burr and Hamilton and allows for fluent scene transitions to show passages of time. The muted palate of the show’s staging and ensemble costumes serves not only as a visual metaphor of the parchment paper that Hamilton creates his life from, but also heightens the dynamism of Hamilton and Jefferson’s opulently costumed rap battles. Indeed, the modern twists on period looks are stunning.

Beyond being a classic story of the American dream, the story of the founding father without credit is interesting in and of itself in its exploration of politics, partisanship, rebellion, revolution and the power of words. With the addition of its unique, boundary-breaking, landmark quintessentially hip-hop score, it is easy to appreciate Michelle Obama’s comment on it being the best piece of art in any form that she has seen in her life. “Hamilton” is a show as good as its hype that has certainly changed how musical theatre is regarded, making it not only an immediate hit, but must-see theatre.