By Barry Neenan
Musical theatre, huh? It sure is… well, expensive. The West End is certainly more accessible to us Irish than Broadway is, but adding travel expenses to the already exorbitant ticket prices does not make things very approachable. But some shows are definitely worth the hassle.
I went to Hamilton and god it’s really good I love it.
Hamilton, if you’ve managed to get this far without hearing of it, is a rap musical detailing the life of the United States’ first Secretary of the Treasury. Yes, that sounds insane. And it is insane. Insanely dope yooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooo
Hamilton’s life is so riddled with achievements that many historically relevant facts, such as how he created the US Coast Guard or founded the New York Post, are afforded only a passing mention in this two and a half hour musical. The story carries through the major beats of the Revolutionary War through to the tumultuous politics of America’s early years, all through the lens of a man who was brilliant, brave, unstoppable, and frequently horny. Truly an ideal musical theatre protagonist.
The current West End production of Hamilton doesn’t stray far from Lin-Manuel Miranda’s original recording. If you’re familiar with the studio album, you won’t be in for any huge surprises. This is unlike, say, the West End version of Disney’s Aladdin, where you go in thinking ‘Oh, will they do the monkey like they do animals in The Lion King?’ No. They won’t. Abu just isn’t in this version, they wholesale replace him with three human men. What the heck? Aladdin is joined by fellow street urchins Kassim, Omar, and I’m pretty sure the third one was named Bobcat. They’re nothing to write home about in terms of scintillating characterisation, with Kassim being the snarky leader, Bakbak as the big guy who loves food, and Omar as easily startled and possibly gay. But they have some good moments in Act 2, and also when Omar’s actor addressed the audience after the show he had an amazingly thick Irish accent so that was great.
The set design of Hamilton closely mirrors any footage you may have seen of the Broadway version; two-tiered, with an impressive spinning mechanism built into the floor. (It’s revolutionary! Get it?) The wooden architecture brings a certain rustic charm to proceedings, and good use is made of the balconies. With the exception of the aforementioned floor mechanism, which is generally saved for big moments, the show works well with a less-is-more approach. This is unlike, say, Aladdin, which must compensate for the move away from the limitless possibilities of animation with as much pageantry as possible. Every costume drowns in sequins, and the show utilizes not only an intricate and powerful lighting scheme, not only what seemed very much to be actual goddamn fireworks set off indoors, but also huge strands of streamers fired directly into the audience. I still have a handful.
Hamilton is ‘based on a true story’, and perhaps its smartest attribute – aside from the frankly flawless lyricism – is that this is an actual theme of the work. Miranda was cognisant that he wasn’t just playing around with his own fictional characters, but representing the lives and beliefs and failures of very real people.
The show can’t escape various inaccuracies, mostly in service to a tighter and more understandable narrative. But many of its finest beats come from Aaron Burr, Hamilton’s long-suffering rival, and his metatextual knowledge as the narrator that he’s “the villain in your history”. The portrayal of Burr as a three-dimensional man believably brought into conflict with Hamilton keeps the work from ever veering into one-sided propaganda.
This is unlike, say, Aladdin, where Jafar and Iago are if anything more villainous than their counterparts from the literal cartoon version. The duo frequently and explicitly enjoy breaking out into evil laughter. They call it that. This approach fits the comedic tone well and Iago in particular has some very funny lines.
Ultimately, Hamilton holds the acclaim it’s garnered for good reason. Here is a show that is historical, emotional, hilarious, searingly clever, and packed end to end with absolutely amazing music and lyrics. Experiencing it first-hand is expensive, but utterly worthwhile. Because of its towering success, tickets are booked out months in advance – mine were booked in February – so if you’re interested, perhaps start researching now. Do not throw away your shot!
Bonus review: Aladdin
While I was over there I also got last-minute tickets to see Aladdin. The Genie was very good and funny. At one point he dabbed and then later Aladdin said “You’re from the lamp?” and the Genie said “Nah man I just work in the lamp, I’m from Wakanda” and did the Wakanda salute and everyone clapped and cheered, including me. I enjoyed it and had fun but other than that I don’t have much to say about it