Wednesday 13 February 2019

Review: Hamilton at the Victoria Palace Theatre

It may come as a surprise, but I am a big musical fan. It’s not something I get to discuss on this blog very often as so few musicals have even a tangential link to the eighteenth-century but generally, if I’m going to the theatre, I’m seeing a musical. This is especially true at the beginning of the year, something to do with the dark nights, tickets received for Christmas and the availability of reduced tickets in winter, but the first few months of the year are full of musicals. Over the last fortnight I’ve seen three and one of them was the hot ticket of the moment, ‘Hamilton’.

It was a present from my sister, who hogged the phone-lines from March till July to get me tickets in January. ‘Hamilton’ really intrigued me as it had an eighteenth century connection, was so very hard to get hold of and has been lauded by everyone I’ve heard. I was still a little unsure though, the notion of a hip-hop musical about the man who set up the American Reserve Bank seemed an odd choice for flavour of the year, I couldn’t wait to see how that rather weak premise had been turned into a smash hit.

We sat in a box, with plenty of leg room and no people to distract us and took a deep breath as the lights went down. The first half of the play deals with Hamilton as a smart but down-on-his-luck immigrant into New York. He finds a group of friends and is sucked in the American Revolution, largely dealing with logistics but finally getting a command of his own. He also got married to the sister of someone who loved him more. The second half dealt with his essaying career, his establishment of a bank as Secretary of the Treasury, his run-in with Thomas Jefferson, his ruin through a sex scandal, his son’s death by duel and later his own.

The whole play was full of energy with no dialogue scenes. Each scene was a song of its own, with the emotional heart of it sung, the exposition dealt in quick scenes of patter (I won’t call it rap) and a little dialogue in the middle of the songs. Many of the songs had extremely catchy hooks (I can’t get the phrase ‘room where it happens’ out of my head) and the cast threw themselves into everything with verve. When the lights came up after the show had ended, I felt a little… flat. I still couldn’t see where the hype was coming from and now I had seen it, I couldn’t really see the point. That would have been the end of my engagement (or relative lack thereof) if I hadn’t seen a few other musicals shortly after.

Six days after ‘Hamilton’, my sister and I went to see ‘Six’. In many ways it is a completely different beast to ‘Hamilton’, performed in a far smaller theatre, with a far smaller cast and no costume or set changes. In another way it was very similar, retelling history using modern musical tropes. The scenario for ‘Six’ is that Henry VIII’s wives have formed a girl-group and are having a song competition to establish who got the worst deal and deserves to be lead singer. It’s a pretty naff idea but it came together beautifully.

I had experienced problems with the history in ‘Hamilton’. I’ve visited Disney, I’ve seen the Hall of Presidents, I have a strong stomach for ‘Merican Yeah! sentiments. I already knew I’d have trouble with the revolution sections as I don’t really see the War of Independence as some great fight for freedom so much as a struggle for tax-dodging. I honestly don’t think the British government was unfair for trying to get the colonies to pay one tax for the upkeep of the navy that had protected them during the Seven Year’s War. I thought this was especially fair as the home country was paying a myriad of taxes including window tax and brick tax - I think one for tea isn’t excessive. Of course, according to the musical, Britain taxed them 'relentlessly'... one

There was also the fact that ‘Hamilton’ seemed to expect that we were American. George Washington was introduced as “the father of our nation” and New York was described as “the greatest city in the World.” Aside from the fact I was sitting in London (obviously the greatest city in the World, we have Speaker’s Corner) but at the time the play was set, New York wasn’t even the greatest city in America compared to places like Philadelphia. 

‘Six’, as unsubtle and brash as it was, revealed two faults with ‘Hamilton’s’ approach to its history, it didn’t have fun with it and it didn’t question it.

Each of the wives in ‘Six’ had a song where they got to expand their character beyond the ‘divorced, beheaded, died, divorced, beheaded, survived’ clichĂ©. Each one was a pastiche of a musical style designed to fit with the gist of the woman’s story. Catherine of Aragon got a BeyoncĂ©-esque ‘angry woman scorned’ song, Anne Boleyn had a ditzy Katy Perry number, Jane Seymour had an Adele torch ballad.. &c. Not only did the musical have fun matching musical style with character, but they bantered and bickered, the beheaded wives ganging up on the non-beheaded ones. The only humour in ‘Hamilton’ was the song (and reprises) of George III, singing sarcastic love songs to his former colonies - which, incidentally were the best parts of the show.

What’s more, ‘Six’ wasn’t content to tell history, it questioned it. Catherine Howard’s song started as a boy-crazy number which devolved into the story of a woman forced into a relationship with the king before being murdered, whilst the final wife, Catherine Parr, questioned the whole set-up in the first place. After she argued that the only reason we imagined the women together was because they had happened to be married to the same man, they joined together in a final number. This number emphasised how each of the women was a person in their own right, with their own desires and lives and it was lazy historiography to lump them together. (Incidentally it reminded me of the new book ‘The Five’ by Hallie Rubenhold, which focusses on the women killed by Jack the Ripper, as opposed to the killer himself.) At no point did ‘Hamilton’ questioned its founding myths of the United States, not even slightly.

Two days after we saw ‘Six’, my sister and I went to see ‘Come From Away’. In subject matter, it’s nothing like the other two musicals, telling a modern story of some events to the side of 9/11. In terms of staging, the two have much in common. The cast play multiple roles (as some did in ‘Hamilton’) but more similarly, there wasn’t a split between dialogue and song, each scene was a song with dialogue seeded through it.

What ‘Come From Away’ showed was how awkward the choreography of Hamilton was. ‘Come From Away’ had an extremely tight ensemble cast who worked as a cohesive unit throughout. A bunch of mismatched chairs became a cafe, a school, a bar, a cliff-face, a plane and a bus through the seamless movement of the actors and a few well places lights. With the exception of ‘The Room Where it Happens’, where characters walk into and out of small rooms of boxed light, Hamilton was so cluttered and unfocused visually. The stage was full of extras, sometimes sliding across the floor but mainly strutting one way or the other. Most choreography in the piece involved people walking in hurried directions across the stage and occasionally picking up a chair and waving it in slow-motion - for some reason.

Finally, the big blow to ‘Hamilton’ was that when I walked away from ‘Six’ and when I walked away from ‘Come From Away’ I had an emotion. I had been cheered and buzzed, a teensy bit moved but ultimately uplifted by those two experiences, whereas ‘Hamilton’ left me feeling rather empty. The story was too baggy, the characters where mostly bland (except Burr, I liked him) and the storytelling linear and plain. It does have some catchy ear-worms though.

I can see the point of ‘Hamilton’ in the US, the last song is about ‘telling his story’. It was clear that Lin-Manuel Miranda had read a biography of the man, thought he was too interesting to languish in obscurity and decided to publicise ‘our’ least known Founding Father. Fair enough, but as a British person in the UK, his story does not have much significance beyond being being one of many interesting historical figures - why don’t the others get a chance? I want to write the punk rock William McGonagall musical, now that will be epic.

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