Sunday, 14 January 2018

Comparing the Broadway and West End productions of 'Hamilton'

by Eleanor Williams-Brown

(source: Daily Telegraph)
In case you have lived under a rock and never heard of Hamilton, it is a musical based on the life and times of Alexander Hamilton. It has been the hottest ticket for the past two years - and is now getting rave reviews in London.

I have loved this show for nearly three years, since it was in the Public Theatre before its move to Broadway, and in conjunction to listening to the album innumerable times, I felt some trepidation and did not want to set my expectations too high. Moreover, several summers ago I saw In the Heights, Miranda’s first original musical, and was blown away by the life energy, joy and a free drink of piragua, all showcasing how beautiful Miranda’s productions could be. So, with the immense love I have for this musical,and the original Broadway cast’s presentation of the characters, the West End production had to hit a very high bar. But, luckily, this show did not disappoint.

At two and a half hours, it covers Hamilton’s life in the Caribbean where his father left him and his mother died, meaning at 11 he had to become a shipping clerk. At 15, his ‘Hurricane Letter’, detailing one which had hit the island, was published in a local newspaper and was so spectacular the residents of St. Croix raised enough money to get him passage to America.

The rest, as they say, is history.

Hamilton rose to become aide-de-camp to George Washington during the War of Independence. Constantly outshining everyone in each field he encountered, Washington appointed him as first Secretary of the Treasury. In his 15 year long political career, Hamilton had the first American political sex scandal, founded America’s entire financial system, suppressed the Whiskey Rebellion, founded the New York Post and the Coastguard, decided the third president, and annoyed Jefferson so much a two-party system developed with him founding the Federalists. His life was cut short after being killed in a duel by his friend turned rival Aaron Burr in 1804, which isn’t much of a spoiler as it features in the first song.

After a series of delays, the London production of Hamilton opened on the West End on the 6th December, and I had the joy to go see it on the 8th;

Whilst no-one can stand up to Leslie Odom Junior’s spectacular vocals, Giles Terara held his own, shining most especially in The Room Where it Happens. The same can be said for the main female protagonist Eliza Schuyler (later Hamilton), whose portrayal by Rachel Anne Go was good, but nowhere near comparable to the incredible Phillipa Soo, who originated the role.

But, for me, it was Angelica (Rachel John), Washington (Obioma Ugoala), and Hamilton who shone. Already my three favourite characters, I knew I would be watching them closely to see how they could live up to Renee Elise-Goldsberry, Christopher Jackson and the shows creator Lin Manuel Miranda’s performances, they had tough shoes to fill. However, they all certainly stood out in the own right; it’s almost incomprehensible how Jamael Westman could portray Hamilton’s emotional journey from hopeful, over-excited, loudmouth to a slightly more beaten-down man, tinged with sadness. Westman only had two theatre credits to his name before this show, which is shocking given his talent, tthere’s, no doubt after Hamilton he will accumulate many more.

Unsurprisingly, King George III proved a fan favourite, with his little interludes proving a wonderful comedic break from the especially heavy narrative in Act 2. Michael Jibson reinvigorated the often repetitive songs and added his own spin, distinguishing himself from Jonathan Groff’s original portrayal.

I was pleasantly surprised to see a few minor changes to the lyrics which helped the show work better for a British audience. One was mostly for diehard fans who would notice the difference between “John Adams doesn’t have a real job anyway.” and “Vice president isn’t a real job anyway”. Anothers two were made for the help of the cross-atlantic audience. Few peoplee in England would know what the Potomac is (a river in Washington) or Weehawken, a small town outside New Jersey. These changes were very useful otherwise many would believe Hamilton and Burr were “hawkin’” in their duel. Changing this section of lyrics - ‘Jersey. Dawn.’ as opposed to ‘Weehawken. Dawn.’ also adds to the emotional weight to Hamilton's final duel, drawing links between his and his son’s respective duels, where each Hamilton died.

Of course there were questions whether a quintessential ‘American dream’ story cast to represent a modern American would translate well to London. But, when it comes to a good set of book and lyrics it doesn't matter too much where the performance is; Hamilton’s story of emotional growth, maturity, and mistakes is universal. As is the music -- the rap parts provide references to Mobb Deep, DMX, and the Notorious B.I.G., moreover, the characters’ style of rapping demonstrates their person. Laurens, Mulligan, and Lafayette, all revolutionaries but none too spectacular, rap in the tradition style used commonly in the 80s, but when Hamilton storms in, he changes the flow, rhythm and adds witty quips. But, what makes it so widespread in its appeal, is Miranda’s frequent nods to musical theatre legends too - Sondheim and Gilbert & Sullivan each get shoutouts. On top of this, Alex Lacamoire’s rich orchestration layers together blues, rowdiness, R&B, and even operatic moments. Thomas Kail’s single set production works just as well as it has on Broadway and Chicago, along with Andy Blankenbuehler’a choreography which was well deserving of its Tony Award. All these factors work cohesively to tell a man’s lifetime at a hurtling pace which is matched by the cast’s energy.

Perhaps what is most important about this production is its rawness. The performances feel fresh and emotive, not like Hamilton is being opened in another place in an attempt at a cash grab. You get the sense everyone involved feels intensely passionate about the story and just want to impart the life and times of the only founding father fully entitled to the accolade of genius.

1 comment:

  1. Broadway's take on the musical is the best for me! I've loved this musical for quite a while now too.


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