Is Hamiltonthe hit American history musical that won a whopping 11 Tony Awards and a Pulitzer Prize when it debuted on Broadway in 2015 and captured the hearts of critics and audiences around the world, pretty much everyone says?
In a word, yes. If you want to stop reading here and just book your ticketswe will understand.
There’s a reason it’s the most hyped show on Earth, and its writer and first star, Lin-Manuel Miranda, is now a household name. Approximately 3 million people watched the musical when it aired on Disney+ in July 2020, and nearly 8 million more saw it live, in cities across the US, London’s West End and Sydney. Now it’s Melbourne’s turn, with the show taking over Her Majesty’s Theatre.
With the soundtrack available on Spotify and the original Broadway cast version available on demand to anyone with a Disney+ account, Hamilton competes not so much with other musicals for your dollars and attention (there are no other shows of this type that can match the show’s tactical genius), but with itself. Most in the audience are at least familiar with the show at this point, and quite a few can relate to every word behind their masks. If you can watch the original Broadway version whenever you want and listen to the soundtrack 24 hours a day, what power does the staged version still have?
In short, magic. The entire cast is extraordinary, with all of Andy Blankenbuehler’s dance moves sharp as a tack and the constantly shifting stage a whirlwind of activity. It’s intoxicating to see it all click together like a precision-built Swiss watch. There’s real tension from the first notes to the last strings, and there’s a tremendous amount of nuance that doesn’t just come through the soundtrack, brilliant as it is.
Jason Arrow is thrilling in the titular role, with a thousand-watt movie star smile and a sassy confidence that makes the “learned, pain in the ass, huge pain” softer and far more charming than Miranda’s bitter turn in the role. He is perfect as the revolutionary revolutionary full of ideals and ambition, and you can’t help but stand in his corner. But Hamilton is truly a two-hander, with Hamilton’s best frenemy Aaron Burr at least as tall as Alexander. Lyndon Watts is magnetic in the role, draws attention in every scene he is in. He has the perfect blend of jealousy, despair and reckless self-aggrandizement to turn real pathos into tragedy. There is exquisite beauty in key song ‘Dear Theodosia’ that is moving and raw, and his soaring ‘Wait For It’ is heartbreaking.
Melbourne had fought to secure Hamilton‘s first Australian run, but lost that battle because of our repeated lockdowns. That turns out to be in Melbourne’s favour, however, as the show grew and matured during the Sydney run and is now even more nuanced and tight. The performances are smarter – and much funnier – than in March 2021. Arrow, in particular, impresses with a self-assurance and joie de vivre befitting his character’s playboy arrogance.
It was perhaps fitting, in this age of swings and understudies that hold the world in check, that director Chloé Zuel was missing on opening night in the role of Hamilton’s wife Eliza Schuyler. Zuel was absolutely extraordinary in her performance in Sydney, but the role was filled by understudy Tigist Strode on opening night here. Eliza is the show’s linchpin and moral center, and she not only has the most powerful song, but also the literal last word (and the famous last gasp). If Strode was nervous about filling in such important shoes with buckles, she didn’t show it, stretching the silence in “Burn” and radiating a rage that was felt at the very back of Her Majesty’s.
The audience on opening night clearly knew the show well, with beloved characters such as George Washington (Matu Ngaropo), Thomas Jefferson (Victory Ndukwe, also in Lafayette), King George III (Brent Hill), and Hercules Mulligan (played with gleeful exuberance by Shaka Cook) and Eliza and sisters Angelica (Akina Edmonds) and Peggy (Elandrah Eramiha) all receive a round of applause. When Arrow introduced himself as Hamilton, the entire show paused to let the audience settle down and let the cheers die down. But that doesn’t mean you have to know every word of the Marquis de Lafayette’s insanely fast-paced “Guns and Ships” rap to enjoy the show.
Watching a cast as perfect as this perform a show as brilliant as Hamilton is the apotheosis of theater. Beginners will likely miss some of the words and context as many of the songs are fast paced and furious, with complex internal rhyme schemes and clever nods to musical genres from everything from Gilbert and Sullivan to contemporary R’n’B.
However, that doesn’t mean the show is impenetrable, quite the contrary – masterful staging and brilliant lyrics make it easy to follow the story of the doomed Alexander from the ambitious 19-year-old revolutionary to that fateful duel at the age of 49. a spoiler by the way. The show is written for an American audience, all of whom would know at least three facts about Alexander Hamilton before the curtain goes up: 1. He’s on the ten dollar bill; 2. He came up with the concept of federalism; and 3. He died in a duel with Aaron Burr. Indeed, Burr opens the show by introducing himself as “the damn fool who shot him”. Knowing Hamilton’s fate from the very first lines imbues every scene with Burr with poignant dramatic irony.
Without the knowledge that Americans walk into the room, does Hamilton resonate with a 2022 Australian audience? Yes and no. Americans have a mythologized idea of the foundation of the country that is completely foreign to Australia. That immediately puts the Australian audience at a slight disadvantage, but the performances are so solid, the music so catchy and the lyrics so clever that even if you don’t know anything about the show or its historical context, you’ll be absolutely blown away. However, the more familiar you are with it, the more you get out of it. So you just have to go again.
Want more? Read our interviews with the actors who play Aaron Burr and Jefferson, and with the Schuyler sisters.