Points – 129
Votes – 16
Firsts – 6
I taught Hamilton to a year eleven class once. I started by giving them a history lesson about the founding fathers of America. You have never seen a more bored group of teenagers (I have, in many, many of my other lessons). I showed them some portraits of these founding fathers then put some photos of the cast members of the Broadway production and asked them what the difference was between them. It took a full five minutes for someone to pluck up the courage to point out to me the startling obvious difference that they were black. I am not sure if that was an unknown sensitivity that does not see skin colour first, my unapproachability as a teacher, or if my students are just stupid, but I don’t think many of them were expecting that. But once I played them the opening song of the show to them their faces lit up and one particularly bright spark said with a dawning realisation “That’s the same story you just told us, but much less boring!”
Which is a summary of Hamilton in a nutshell. I don’t think anyone had expected the story of the formation of the United States of America to become the biggest musical theatrical sensation of modern times (particularly poor Peter Stone whose late sixties attempt with the musical 1776 did respectably with a Tony win and a couple of revivals, yet failed to make the impact of its successor in many ways including, most disappointingly I am sure, failing to gain a single point in this poll). But by blending modern music stylings with current issues and America’s favourite topic of discussion – America – modern musical polymath Lin Manuel Miranda managed to create a sensation that absolutely blew up on Broadway.
It is easy to believe the hype with the next big thing to come over from New York, but when it arrived here it was easy to see why it has the cult following that it does. Not only is the music incredible, but the staging is amazing, and the performances sublime. The whole show is full of references to other shows that are beautifully worked into a brand new style. Not to over-pepper this write up with personal stories (he says before launching into another one), but when Frank joined the society he told me he didn’t know much about musicals, but instead listened mainly to hip-hop. I told him to check Hamilton out, and he came to see me next week bursting with excitement at how there were references to mainstays and originators of the hip-hop genre throughout. This points to Manuel’s incredible skill. I personally love the way that he takes a genuine everyday occurrence such as a disagreement at a cabinet meeting, and uses a modern hip-hop trope – the rap battle – to present it. The musical genius in this show is myriad, and as well as the insanely popular, famous and well worth a read HamilTome (I will review it here when I manage to get through it) there have been several other books, essays and academic papers covering everything from its artistic merit to its historical accuracy.
As a note on that, there are some liberties taken with real life (there has to be – everyone recognises that – even if it does now mean I am momentarily confused when I see a portrait of George Washington portrayed as a white man) but they are by no means as severe as so many of the other shows that I have written about over the course of this list. Alexander and Angelica were close, but the idea of an affair happening is considerably less likely than portrayed. Burr was not present at as many of the early events of Hamilton’s life, such as the duel with Charles Lee, as the show allows. But when you get to discrepancies being suggested that include a problem with Philip’s line that he ‘has a little sister but he wants a little brother’ when the real life Philip had two younger brothers by that point, you realise that actually the liberties are not as great as they may seem. This all seems worth it to paint a picture of a character from American history in vivid colour – and indeed one that boosted his popularity such that he narrowly avoided being removed from their money so as to stop him being the ‘ten dollar founding father’.
The acclaim for the show has been huge. Sixteen Tony Award nominations – a record – and eleven wins – with only two of those losses being to shows other than Hamilton itself – and the reviews were fantastic, with epithets such as ‘ground breaking’, ‘revolutionary’ and ‘very good’ being regularly used. Not everyone was so impressed – writer Ishmael Reed produced a show in response called ‘The Haunting of Lin-Manuel Miranda’ loosely based on Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol about the corniness of Hamilton and the less savoury parts of the lead character’s history that he left out.
I think it fair to say that this is not a show we are likely to be performing at DAODS for some time – although I would pay good money to see some of our regular leads try and manage some of these raps and still look cool – but nonetheless it is impressive how quickly this show has had an impact on the hearts and minds of many of its members. I mentioned in my write up for Rent how this generation is still waiting for its important rock opera. Maybe it is already here, but it now comes in the form of hip-hop.
Alex’s Song Choice – So many to choose from, but most probably “Wait For It”. As a small aside, it is worth mentioning that there is a chance to see this number and all of the others from the show on Disney+ starting next month, as the filmed version of the stage show is going on early release.
Lockdown Pick – “It’s Quiet Uptown” – At least until the shops, bars, restaurants and theatres open.