Book/Music/Lyrics: Lin-Manuel Miranda
Writer: Ron Chernow
Director: Thomas Kail
The show that everyone was talking about, from pretty much day one when it opened off-Broadway in 2015, followed by Broadway, Chicago and London runs, finally begins a UK tour. Opening in Manchester, it’s clearly a long-awaited moment, judging by the reception it gets on opening night at the Palace Theatre. A large number of the audience seem completely familiar with the show (the original cast soundtrack and 2020 filmed version, released on Disney+ during the pandemic have both been popular), but there’s also a contingent clearly baffled by a story that is unfamiliar to many people in the UK
Even in the US, a biographical rap musical based on the life of Alexander Hamilton, founding father of the United States of America may have seemed a fanciful pitch when Lin-Manuel Miranda first came up with it, but his star was already rising with his earlier Broadway musical In the Heights. Starting in 2009, Manuel began releasing songs from what he called The Hamilton Mix-Tape, songs that would form the backbone of the musical four years later when he teamed up with Director Thomas Kail and recruited a cast of non-white performers.
While taking some artistic licence with the story, Manuel researched the history in some detail, starting with a biography by Ron Chernow, and uses direct text from documents and letters in the songs. This authenticity, coupled with his clever word-play makes for a musical like no other. While hip hop and soul don’t automatically come to mind when thinking about the lives of 18th century US politicians, Manuel makes it all work brilliantly.
Hamilton is really an almost flawless piece of theatre. From the very start its pacy live score, stunning direction, choreography (Andy Blankenbuehler) and lighting (Howell Binkley) come together to create something you can’t take your eyes off. It’s an assault on the senses, and while the first half of the show is actually pretty long, it demands your full attention. Every song seems like a classic, even when you don’t really know them, and the Manchester audience cheer every one as though it’s the show finale. The cast only really stop to let the applause die away before launching into the next bit of the show. We’re quickly introduced to the story’s main characters, given Alexander’s back-story, and made wholly aware of his ambition. The politics are handled with a light touch, balanced with Hamilton’s romantic and domestic life (it’s complicated!) and a good dose of humour. The latter is particularly displayed by the foppish King George (Daniel Boys) and the brilliant duo of Jefferson (Billy Nevers) and James Madison (KM Drew Boateng).
David Korin’s seemingly simple dual-level set transforms from scene to scene, every inch of it inhabited comfortably by the cast. The revolving stage is used effortlessly for seamless set changes, and by the dancers, adding a whole other level to the choreography.
The second half of the show suffers from a slight dip halfway through as a catalogue of unfortunate events befall Hamilton and his family, calling for a more traditional ballad approach. While the pace change initially feels like a good disruption to the relentlessness of it all, it’s rather too long an interlude, making the second half lack the sparkle of the first. It’s also in these stripped-down scenes that you realise how much the ensemble bring to the show with their brilliantly choreographed dance routines, constant movement and energy. There are, though, still some tremendous moments. Sam Oladeinde (as Aaron Burr) delivers a spectacular rendition of The Room Where it Happens, and Shaq Taylor (Alexander) and Maya Britto (Eliza) mark the couple’s reconciliation with It’s Quiet Uptown following the death of their son
While it tells a 230-year-old story, Hamilton is a very 21st century musical, and one that will run and run. This UK tour alone stretches off into late 2025 and there’s no sign of it closing any time soon on Broadway or in the West End. It really is a theatrical treat.
Runs until 24 Feb 2024