Criticks Reacquainted: Hamilton Back

In these difficult and unprecedented times, with theatres having to close their doors, performances cancelled or postponed, and rehearsals put on hold, we at Criticks have decided to revisit some past reviews, and think about new ways to experience theatre from the safety of our homes. The availability of past performances online has gone some way to satisfying our thirst for entertainment. One current example is Hamilton. The live Richard Rodgers Theater performance, starring the original Broadway cast, is now available to many viewers via streaming services. With that in mind, this seems a timely opportunity to revisit our review of Hamilton, written by former Criticks Editor Emrys Jones after he saw the show in 2018 at Victoria Palace Theatre, London. The availability of performances online has brought theatre to many who may have never had the chance to attend in person – but can a filmed version ever really capture the atmosphere and spontaneity of live theatre, or should such media be viewed as something else entirely?

– Dr Katie Aske, BSECS Criticks Theatre Editor.

For a normal production, we would have exchanged our tickets for a better day, or maybe given them to a friend. Then again, for a normal production I probably wouldn’t have bought said tickets a year in advance, oblivious to the fact that the fateful date would fall three days after our baby’s due date. Of course, Hamilton being Hamilton, there can be no exchanges. Tickets must be collected on the evening itself, accompanied by photo ID. It’s a policy that has had some success in discouraging ticket touts—and even greater success in ratcheting up the hype around the show—but it’s also a quite remarkable recipe for frustration and, in my wife’s case, physical discomfort. I’m happy to report then that not only did our daughter decline the opportunity to make her arrival during the performance itself (much to the relief of the other occupants of Grand Circle, Row C), but all three of us enjoyed this musical foray into the life of America’s purportedly forgotten Founding Father.

I say “purportedly” because the principal author of the Federalist papers is hardly likely to be an unfamiliar figure to most eighteenth-centuryists or most Americans for that matter. Alexander Hamilton’s name was already tightly woven into the fabric of American cultural history long before Ron Chernow’s 2004 biography and the Broadway sensation that Lin-Manuel Miranda spun from it in 2015. Hamilton has buildings and towns named after him. Perhaps fitting for a man instrumental in shaping the USA’s capitalist identity, he has “appeared on more denominations [of American currency] than any other historical figure since 1861” (Jennifer Gloede, “How Money Tells His Story”). It suits the musical’s promoters to play up a sense of Hamilton’s neglect because the show would like to be viewed as an act of heroic recuperation, its heroism reflective of Hamilton’s own. Certain songs—in my view, some of the least successful ones—present this as a story of brave young men battling oppressive regimes and valiantly struggling to impose their will on the tides of history. In “My Shot”, for instance, it feels like we are genuinely meant to admire the man who presents himself as “just like [his] country, / young, scrappy and hungry”. Hamilton’s relatively obscure and deprived background—an illegitimate child, born in the Caribbean and orphaned at an early age—makes him a natural focal point for such a project.

There are points of similarity here with the would-be revolutionaries of 1832 Paris as they are depicted in Claude-Michel Schönberg and Alain Boublil’s Les Misérables—a show with which Hamilton has much in common both dramatically and musically. Both musicals are caught between admiration for their idealistic firebrands and a recognition, articulated most forcibly by the wives and daughters they leave behind, that such idealism is at best a tragic delusion and, at worst, an empty rhetorical device. Thus Les Misérables can conclude with a stirring refrain of its revolutionary anthem, “Do You Hear the People Sing?”, even as the futility of the revolutionary action and the corpses of all but one of the revolutionaries are fresh in the audience’s memory. In Hamilton, the romantic idea of its title character’s destiny, entwined with a national destiny, is thankfully undermined repeatedly, whether through the exposure of Hamilton’s personal flaws or through reflection on the historical narrative’s own instability. Still, Miranda seems to be attached to Hamilton’s heroism in ways that may obscure the show’s more sophisticated historical commentary. After all, where Les Misérables famously took for its poster girl the weeping child, Cosette, Hamilton’s defining publicity image is of a solitary silhouetted young man, his legs forming the uppermost point of a star, his arm raised in defiance—perhaps of British colonial claims, perhaps also of the vagaries of history itself.

Such ambivalence pervades Hamilton. Its most powerful moments are those that confront most forcefully the artifice of political myth-making and historical narrative’s inadequacy to the task of conveying intimate truth. The beautiful “It’s Quiet Uptown”, charting Hamilton’s retreat from public view after the death of his son Philip in 1801, tells us directly that “there are moments that the words don’t reach”; that to engage with the lives of these characters, whether as a contemporary commentator or as twenty-first-century audience members, is to imagine “the unimaginable”. Moments like this are facilitated by the production’s uniformly superb standards of singing and choreography, among the best that I have had the fortune to see on stage. Jamael Westman is particularly impressive in the role of Hamilton himself, equally believable at every stage of the character’s eventful life.

Elsewhere the show is less committed to nuance, however. George III, played in the London production by Michael Jibson, is caricatured as a camp, egomaniacal dictator, whose few songs occur as interludes from the American action. If one were being charitable, the king’s one-note representation could be seen as consistent with eighteenth-century satire’s own puncturing of royal pretensions. But the songs themselves are frankly tedious. Deprived of the musical innovation that is present almost everywhere else in the show, they are suggestive of what musical theatre’s fiercest naysayers incorrectly think musical theatre is all about: unselfconscious razzle-dazzle and emotionally shallow exhibitionism. If George III had been permitted even a little of the complexity and humanity allowed to the other characters, it might have helped to make sense of American independence as more than just a virtuous cause for lovers of liberty.

Yes, there is acknowledgement of the revolutionaries’ pragmatism and moral failings. The second act delves into the Reynolds scandal of the 1790s, in which Hamilton’s extra-marital affair with Maria Reynolds and his blackmailing by her husband were made painfully public. Thomas Jefferson is portrayed as a political schemer, and there are a few (too few) allusions to his reliance on slaves at his estate of Monticello. Yet in spite of these gestures towards disapproval, the musical cannot quite disavow the national mythologies that have plainly inspired it. It pushes us towards embracing the founding fathers collectively, if not always as heroes, at least as figures that possess a self-evident claim on our attention and respect. The casting of non-white actors in all roles except that of the king implies that these figures are worthy of re-evaluation and reclamation, whereas he is not.

To be clear, the casting policy of Hamilton is a great thing, fundamental to the show’s success and to its meaning. This musical is about the recovery of stories, after all: about putting oneself “back in the narrative”, as Hamilton’s widow, Eliza, sings in the final number. It is absolutely fitting that this theme should be made directly visible in highly talented, non-white actors embodying white characters from eighteenth-century history. I suppose it is open to debate whether that act of embodiment involves adulation or subversion; whether by reclaiming these figures, Miranda also means to expose the gaps between what we might want them to have been and what they were. If that was the intention, then I would have liked for more anger and irony to rise to the surface, for more explicit awareness of the voices and personalities that get pushed to one side when we prioritise, however ironically, a history of great men.

I was reminded as the performance drew to a close of a very different, unrelated Hamilton from the late eighteenth century, and another modern work that tries to do justice to history’s competing narratives. Susan Sontag’s The Volcano Lover (1992) looks at the life and loves of Emma Hamilton (1765-1815), sees her through the eyes of the men who admired her, and considers her fluctuating value within an eighteenth-century culture obsessed with collectability. The novel ends by panning out from that culture though, with the verdict of one of its victims, a revolutionary female poet executed for the comfort of the book’s protagonists: “Damn them all”. That kind of indictment would be out of place in the musical that Miranda has constructed. It would undermine the wonderful pathos of some of its most moving songs. But I cannot help but wonder how much more powerful the show would be as a whole if it let us hear, at least briefly, from those who were powerless. Notwithstanding the show’s laments for the state of Alexander Hamilton’s historical reputation, he has been incredibly fortunate—and remains undisputedly central—in this telling of his story.

Hamilton is now available to stream online via Disney+.