Hamilton audiences are split into two camps. Either you know the whole soundtrack word by word, and wait with baited breaths for your favourite part whilst mouthing along to the most rousing melodies, or you’ve sworn religiously not to listen to a single bar until you can see the whole thing put together on stage. The combination of the two creates one of the most electrifying audience experiences I’ve ever been a part of, as all 1550 people in the Victoria Palace theatre sit on the edge of their seat and wait for the curtain to rise. This is, after all, the show which openly addressed Mike Pence in November 2016: Brandon Dixon who plays anti-hero Aaron Burr spoke out for “the diverse Americans who are alarmed and anxious that your new administration will not protect us, our planet, our children, our parents.” Watching Hamilton is inseparable from the politics of its makers and its story: and the loud cheers from the audience which consistently follow a particularly memorable line “Immigrants, we get the job done” are performative as much as they are heartfelt.
As any soundtrack devotees will know, the Hamilton music (should that be rap, or opera, liberetto, or “words”? – the genre debate continues) is so involved and self-referential, nodding towards cultural references from Biggie Smalls to Shakespeare, that it takes multiple listens to even grasp how much more there might be to discover. The stage production, directed both on and off Broadway by Thomas Kail, layers up the words and music with a visually teeming selection of flamboyant yet psychologically rounded characters, who move precisely around understated scenery designed by David Korins by means of Andy Blankenbuehler’s stunning choreography. There’s so much going on that you’d need about twenty pairs of eyes to keep track: you could watch Hamilton time and time again and keep uncovering more, so long as you can get the tickets.
Part of the show’s success lies in its cultural straddling of past and present and everything in between. Based on Ron Chernow’s historically meticulous biography of Alexander Hamilton, Lin-Manuel Miranda’s soundtrack takes enough historical liberties to create a tragedy narrative perfectly encapsulated within the two halves of this show, which comes in at a relatively lengthy 2 hours 45 minutes. Hamilton rises, and then he falls, and the short interval between in which we eat ice cream and buy drinks adds to the powerful trajectory in which the young founding father teeters at the top of his career and then falls because of his pride, ambition and an arresting dollop of naivety. The protagonist himself is played with incredible talent and stage presence by twenty five year old Jamael Westman, whose slender credits (The White Devil at Shakespeare’s Globe and Torn at Royal Court) are in stark contrast to the star-studded pasts of his fellow company, including Michael Jibson who plays King George, and Rachelle Ann Go who plays Hamilton’s wife Eliza Hamilton (née Schuyler). Westman is in one sense the perfect actor for the part: Hamilton tells the story of a prodigiously talented young man who shoots to fame from determination, talent, charm and a pinch of luck at a young age, a story which mirrors the young Westman’s promotion the part fresh out of RADA. Watching Westman highlights how much of a physically demanding, exhausting, and immersive part Hamilton is. He barely leaves the stage for a moment only leaving the room “where it happens” for others to shine in songs including the heart-rendering and understated “Burn” (featuring Eliza Hamilton), and “I Know Him” (King George). I’m reminded of Shakespeare’s star actor Richard Burbage who was called on to deliver up to a third of the lines in the play and enabled the production of his tragic heroes including Macbeth, Hamlet and King Lear. Evidently Westman was brought into a ready-made production and followed in the footstep of Lin-Manuel Miranda himself and Javier Muñoz, but his essential “rightness” for the West End role lives up to the almost impossible standards of thousands of hyped up audience members.
Even if you’re not able to keep tabs on the shifting political relationships between at least six male historical figures (since when did the West End ask so much of our brains?) there’s enough to look at here to keep anyone entertained. Hamilton plunges us into a sexy eighteenth century of tight velvet clothes, seductive candles and a revolving floor: the backing dancers who weave in and out of the protagonists in white corsets and black boots bear an uncanny resemblance to something you might see at the back of the stage at the X-Factor, but we forgive them because if nothing else this profound production remains self-consciously playful to its tragic end. Battles are conveyed through lighting and sound with obvious technical skill, but there are also plenty of dance battles (if you kneel on the floor raise your arms as though holding a gun, and shout “BOOM!”, you will have mastered one of the most recurrent moves) which appear deceptively easy and frankly great fun. The dancers remain on stage even in the eerily still moment of Hamilton’s final duel (no spoiler alerts needed, true to its tragic elements we know Hamilton is going to be shot from the very first song), interweaving between the guns and the frozen actors to evoke the rush of thoughts that run through the dying man’s head. Just as they never stop moving, this cast never stop singing, and the interaction between the ensemble and the characters is seamless and only adds to rather than detracting from the exhilarating yet ominous progression of the plot. The brilliantly scored “Satisfied” which replays the previous song, “Helpless” from Eliza’s sister Angelica Schuyler’s point of view is a musical, choreographical and emotional triumph. Jason Pennycook lept onto a table to deliver Lafayette’s 319 words in 2 minutes 7 seconds without a hiccup, and when Jefferson drops the mike at the end of the Cabinet (rap) Battle between him and Hamilton, we’re somehow applauding despite his loggerhead opposition to the protagonist and his politically dubious outlook.
Alexander Hamilton is a story of a young man, and whilst the racial diversity of the cast is often spoken about (and seems especially important in today’s political climate), the women are significantly given the rounded – empathetic-but-flawed – character traits which are too often smoothed over by stereotypes, especially in musicals. Eliza Hamilton’s “Burn”, delivered with an undercurrent of reined-in emotion, articulates her agency in the historical narrative; significantly it is her, not Hamilton who as the holds the last moment of the entire show. When Christine Allado enters as Maria Reynolds essentially to seduce Hamilton, her presence as an incredibly talented actor and singer fills the stage so that even the towering Westman fades momentarily into the background. What’s more, it is Hamilton and Burr who as new parents sing the moving “Dear Theodosia” to their newly-born children. The two men sit unmoving and facing the audience in what is the first genuinely poignant song from a father to their child I recall seeing staged (I’m thinking of “The Letter” in Billy Elliot, “My Child” in Blood Brothers and “Come to Me” in Les Misérables in which women are given their starring moment and framed as most emotionally affective in their role as parents rather than individuals on their own trajectory). That’s not to say that Eliza and Alexander together don’t claim a few more tears, “Quiet Uptown” as a song is enough to bring on more than a vague wish for a Kleenex, and on stage the unimaginable death of a son by these two is heart-renderingly enacted as evident in the hastily-stifled sniffles at the end of the song. In one of the many small but meaningful moments of the production, Alexander reaches for his wife’s hand over their son’s dead body only to be rejected: he has, after all, recently written a pamphlet articulating exactly how and why he had a torrid affair whilst his wife was away. Eliza may be small, but she won’t be pacified.
In an administrative continuation of the egalitarian values of the play, Hamilton has almost entirely beaten would-be ticket touters with a new paperless ticketing system to prevent fraud (although prices still reach a hefty £200 in the stalls). Whilst this is to be applauded, if you don’t have tickets for the near future I’m sorry to report that you won’t be getting them on the black market, should that be your kind of thing. Go and buy the soundtrack until you know the whole thing word for word, and bank on getting tickets in the next five years. Or close your ears to the noise and see the show fresh for the first time. The choice is yours.
 Ron Chernow, Alexander Hamilton (New York: Penguin Press, 2004)