It’s tough growing up as the only boy with three sisters. (Tough for them, they might say). We had a tradition where, usually at Christmas or other large dinner occasions, we kids would be tasked with doing a huge amount of washing up and drying. One would wash, three would dry, usually standing around impatiently waiting for the washer to do a single glass or knife or fork. The tradition became that to get through the tedium we would listen to some music, often very loud, from my dad’s Hi-Fi. The most popular choices tended to be Take That, or Hanson (with a vote of three to one).
At these times, there was part of me which enjoyed the music. But of course, I would never let that part show – and in fact, their level of enthusiasm would directly correlate to my (outward) disgust. And so it was, to some extent, with Hamilton.
Perhaps it’s an introvert thing, but the quickest way to put me off doing something is to rave about how amazing it is, and no more is this true than with the theatre. If everyone tells me it is awesome, incredible, can’t-be-missed… I want nothing to do with it. I can’t help it! I can’t even say that I’ve been burned by high expectations that weren’t met in the past. I’m just a stubborn miserable old git I guess.
So you can imagine my reaction when I was dragged along to watch Hamilton at the Victoria Palace Theatre in London. It only took thirty seconds or so of the show for me to realise with embarrassment what a stubborn ass I had been in not wanting to watch this show, and I knew I’d shamefacedly have my tail between my legs by the end of it!
The show follows the story of Alexander Hamilton, an upstart immigrant orphan finding his way in America — he has a seemingly unstoppable desire to Get Things Done. He swaggers across the stage, initially with the confidence of a young man who doesn’t know better and will fight anyone to get where he wants to go, but later with the bravado of someone who knows that everything they touch turns to gold.
He’s brash and outspoken, making both friends and enemies everywhere he goes. He becomes a close friend of George Washington, who sees himself as a father figure to Alexander (which makes the young and feisty Hamilton very angry, shouting at his friend and general, ‘don’t call me son!’). Early in the show, he makes friends with Aaron Burr, who Alexander knows graduated very quickly: it’s an easy jump to think that perhaps Hamilton sought Burr out for his own selfish gain, to find out exactly how he jumped to the top so fast. Everything about the interaction reveals how Hamilton sees his role in the world as central;
You’re an orphan. Of course! I’m an orphan
God, I wish there was a war!
Then we could prove that we’re worth more
Than anyone bargained for…
Of course, he gets his wish, and actually, it does turn out roughly how he hoped. But war leaves no-one unscathed, and Hamilton is haunted by the thought of men and friends he has lost during the civil war.
As the show continues, the brashness of Hamilton’s ego and his thirst for the position of power and fame he is rewarded with progresses towards a fairly predictable conclusion: adultery.
Hamilton is good. Very good in fact. Not least of all because of its timing — truly resonating with our time and in particular with modern American culture and its challenges. Or, its part history lesson, part guilty-pleasure-trashy-novel storyline. Or the music that combines historic and modern Black American expressions like rap to create something poetic and profound, which somehow came as a complete surprise to me (I’d managed to avoid even listening to the soundtrack before watching it). Or the ‘colour-blind casting’, all of whom act several parts, sing insane harmonies and effortlessly dance their way through each scene.
But, the thing that clinches it for me is the realisation that the Hamilton that the musical primarily focuses on, isn’t the one who is truly honourable, gracious and kind. It is, in fact, Alexander’s wife: Elizabeth ‘Eliza’ Hamilton.
Even though she had to endure a cheating husband, losing her son and then her husband, mother, father and two siblings in close succession, she showed only love to the world and genuinely attempted to make the world a better place for 50 years after Alexander died. This part of the show does perhaps feels a little rushed (the second half lags in places after the energy, pace and originality of the first half wears off), but the final moment is well crafted and very moving.
Hamilton is a show that entertains whilst teaching us valuable lessons for our time. It’s really tough to get tickets, but it’s worth the effort. If, like me, you’re stubbornly opposed to enjoying things that other people rave about, do yourself a favour: suck it up and give it a go. You can always blame me if you hate it.