Oklahoma, West Side Story, Hair, Les Miserables, Rent. Every generation has its musical. The one that hooks them into the genre, is listened to on repeat and latches onto the public consciousness. It spawns copies and parodies and drives taste in performance, style and fashion. For me it was Rent. In 1996 I was 22 and fancied myself an artist or musician. With its driving rock and starving artists, Jonathan Larson and Rent spoke to me in a way Andrew Lloyd Webber could never quite manage. I listened to the CDs on repeat until I knew every word and every beat. I wore Doc Marten boots like Joanne, I had a long, stripey woollen scarf like Mark. It became part of me. There was no way I could fall for another show the way I fell for Rent. But I hadn’t reckoned on Lin-Manuel Miranda.
Lin-Manuel Miranda is a force of nature. He’s an actor, a composer, a lyricist, a geek, a political leader, a master of social media and a certified genius. Broadway bound from a young age; when he realised there were very few roles for him as a young Latino man he wrote them for himself. Miranda graduate from Wesleyan in 2002 with the first draft of In The Heights under his belt. He worked with his posse of friends and collaborators to bring his first musical to Broadway in 2008. Four Tony Awards and a Grammy later the question was where to go from here?
The White House. Why not? This is where Hamilton really began. After reading the Ron Chernow biography of Alexander Hamilton, Miranda created The Hamilton Mixtape: a summary of the life of the (then) little known Founding Father told in poetry. He then presented to President Obama at a White House Poetry Jam in May 2009. At the time, the drama of the tragic hero’s story rapped over a simple rhythmic piano score drew laughter from the audience when the name of the hero was revealed. Alexander Hamilton. Eight years later this poem is now a phenomenon and nobody laughs anymore.
Hamilton is a musical unlike anything that has come before. It is history made real for a modern audience. The founding of a new nation is played out in rap by a cast predominantly made up of people of colour. As Miranda describes it “the story of America then told by America now”. Thomas Kail and Alex Lacamoire worked on In The Heights as Director and Musical Director and they are also instrumental in shaping Hamilton. They have a way of harnessing the Miranda energy to create magic. And oh boy…Hamilton really is magical.
I first heard about Hamilton from Facebook. A friend living in New York saw it in the early run at the Public Theatre in 2015. She posted that this was unlike anything she had had ever seen; she knew it would be huge. I trust her, and was fond enough of In The Heights to start following Lin-Manuel Miranda on Twitter. The show moved to Broadway in June and not long after Lin-Manuel began #ham4ham.
Each day there was a queue to win front row tickets in a lottery. Lin decided to make the wait worthwhile by creating impromptu performances on the street for them. Audience members then posted videos that were shared via the ham4ham hashtag. Before the soundtrack recording was released this was the only way to get glimpses of some of the songs – but always with a twist. For example, the Ten Duel Commandments from the point of view of the deputy stage manager, or three King Georges playing the Schuyler Sisters.
The soundtrack was eventually released in September 2015. Initially streamed for free via the NPR website, this gave everyone a legal way to be first to hear it. By this time my anticipation was at fever pitch and I was concerned that the show couldn’t possibly live up to the hype. Also – I know nothing about rap music, would it mean anything to me?
The first thing that got me was the strings. A string quartet cuts through the beat and the samples to evoke the 18th century while staying absolutely contemporary. The Battle of Yorktown, halfway through act one, thrilled me from the first listen. Opening with sampled drums, it builds to a climax of strings mixed with scratching and voices that is unlike anything I have ever heard. Even now on the 753rd listen it makes me tingle.
To say I became obsessed would be to underplay my feelings for Hamilton. I listened to it exclusively for months during every bus ride and car journey. It was the soundtrack to everything I did just like Rent had been 20 years before. Within a week of the soundtrack release we booked tickets to New York and were Broadway bound for the first time to see it on stage with the original cast. A musicals nerd my whole life, I have waited for the right time to visit New York. This was clearly it.
New York is an incredible city. It’s the movies but for real, and standing outside the Richard Rodgers Theatre I couldn’t quite believe what was happening. We essentially got off a plane and headed straight for Times Square. This has given my memories of Hamilton on Broadway a dream-like quality. I can’t quite believe that I was in the same room as Lin-Manuel Miranda in a green velvet suit asking Aaron Burr “If you stand for nothing Burr, what will you fall for?”. No spoilers for those about to experience the show in London – but the staging only enhances the experience of the show, bringing out the layers of the score. As Miranda replies when people tweet about new details they’ve noticed, he’s playing chess, not chequers.
I tend to think that you should never meet your idols, so it took a lot of persuasion to stage door the Hamilton cast. But we did it. Photos I have with the back of my head in proximity to the stars are the only thing that can really convince me that any of this actually happened. The cast and crew were literally about to get on a bus to drive to Washington to perform for President Obama. Yet, Lin-Manuel worked the line and interacted with everyone he could. Daveed Diggs (Lafayette/Jefferson) is utterly charming and gave me a smile that touched my soul. My Broadway experience was perfect. I felt 22 again, and do every time I listen to Hamilton.
I can’t wait to see a new cast bringing this perfect score to life in London. Of course I have tickets. We should be going in the first week of December, but a delay to the opening has bumped us back to March. It’s absolutely gutting to have to wait, but luckily I’ve also got tickets for January. Yes, I will be eating beans on toast for the foreseeable future to pay for all of this, but for the “ten dollar founding father” it really is worth it.
You can get your tickets here.
With 11 Tony Awards, a Grammy and a Pulitzer Prize under its belt, Hamilton is a show like now other. And in 2017, Sir Cameron Macintosh will be bringing the musical to London’s West End.
The show notably incorporates hip-hop, rhythm and blues, pop music, soul music, traditional-style show tunes and protest songs. This collection features selections from the songs Alexander Hamilton, Dear Theodosia, Hurricane, It’s Quiet Uptown, One Last Time, That Would Be Enough, Washington on Your Side and more.