The Surprising Timeliness of “Hamilton” in London

Culture / Culture Desk

The night that I saw “Hamilton” on Broadway, in 2015, the Vice-President at the time, Joe Biden, happened to be sitting down the row. It was a mixed blessing: his entourage jammed the bathroom lines at intermission, but his presence lent the musical, about the American Revolution and its aftermath, an additional thrill. Watching Alexander Hamilton rap against a series of antagonistic Vice-Presidents—Adams, Jefferson, Burr—with Biden just a few seats away felt as close as I’d ever come to seeing “Macbeth” in 1606 with Banquo’s supposed descendant, King James I, at my elbow.

Two years and one Presidential election later—and a little more than a year after Biden’s successor, Mike Pence, attended the show and was beseeched from the stage to represent “the diverse America,” as the musical’s multiethnic cast aspires to do—I saw “Hamilton” in London, on its opening night, at the Victoria Palace Theatre. The mood was similarly charged, with the mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, the much heralded son of a Pakistani bus driver, shaking hands in the lobby. It felt like a long way from the Obama-Biden years. American and British electorates didn’t follow Lin-Manuel Miranda’s script, voting against the inclusive immigrant narrative and cosmopolitan cultural energy that “Hamilton” had come to embody for many (though not for some left-wing critics, who have labelled the show “Founders Chic” and said that it merely dresses up the Great Men of American history in hip-hop robes). Would it be the same show across the Atlantic, in the era of Trump and Brexit?

Miranda has a knack for cultural synthesis; in a press conference before the London opening, he placed his verse drama in a tradition that runs back to Shakespeare and noted that he’d made a pilgrimage to Stratford-upon-Avon to see the Bard’s birthplace. He has also played up Hamilton’s ties to Britain’s current orphan hero: Hamilton’s first encounter with Aaron Burr “is basically Harry Potter meeting Draco Malfoy,” he wrote in his notes to the published script. On her way to a post-show reception, Helena Bonham Carter, who played Bellatrix Lestrange in the Potter films, said that she’d like to play Hamilton’s sister-in-law, Angelica Schuyler, powerfully incarnated at the Victoria Palace by Rachel John. On the day of the opening, the London “Hamilton” company released a promotional video that features a mashup of Angelica’s showstopping “Satisfied” with the Rolling Stones’ “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction.” At intermission, I had to step over the long legs of Keith Richards, who sat next to the Miranda family.

There were a few tweaks: Miranda said in an interview that he’d rewritten a joke about the Vice-Presidency for a British audience that might not know that John Adams once held that office. He also replaced references to Weehawken and the Potomac, since even general geography lacked local purchase. (A line about duelling across the Hudson because “Everything is legal in New Jersey” didn’t get the laugh it earned in Manhattan.) But a “Macbeth” allusion played better in the U.K. than it did Stateside: when a beleaguered Hamilton, “son of a whore and a Scotsman,” sings to Angelica, “Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow creeps in this petty pace from day to day / I trust you’ll understand the reference to another Scottish tragedy without my having to name the play,” the audience chuckled in appreciation.

“Macbeth” has had a decent run outside the Jacobean court, and “Hamilton,” too, looks poised to thrive through future administrations. When the newcomer Jamael Westman, as a laser-focussed Hamilton, a head taller and a decade younger than Miranda, rapped, “A bunch of revolutionary manumission abolitionists? / Give me your position, show me where the ammunition is!” the audience erupted. The ovation for the veteran Giles Terera, a canny Burr, stopped the show after “The Room Where It Happens,” his declaration of lust for insider politics, and Obioma Ugoala brought down the house with George Washington’s preacherly farewell address, “One Last Time.” Alex Lacamoire, the show’s music director, said, at intermission, “I thought about changing a few things, but then I decided, nah, it’s pretty good.” The one difference, he explained, was the speed with which the London actors learned the score. They’d all listened to the original cast recording—the highest-débuting Broadway album on the Billboard 200 chart in half a century—and came into rehearsal with the music memorized. The same seemed to be true for the audience, which obeyed King George III’s command to sing the chorus to his catchy number “You’ll Be Back” along with him. “It’s not common for an audience to come to a première already knowing all the songs,” Jeffrey Seller, the lead producer, told me. “Spotify changed everything.” (Seller added that he expected “Hamilton” to be translated into Spanish and, perhaps, German.)

King George, the home-town antihero played by Michael Jibson, resplendent and glowering at his errant subjects in the audience, got the biggest cheer of the night. (“We did spiff up the King’s outfit,” Miranda said. “He’s got a much bling-ier garter because we were in the shadow of Buckingham Palace and he was looking a bit dingy.”) But Hamilton’s complaint that “Britain keeps shittin’ on us endlessly” sparked a loud laugh, too, and the revolutionaries’ victory over the British forces at the Battle of Yorktown prompted mid-song applause. “It seemed a bit double-barrelled,” the Hamilton biographer Ron Chernow, whose book is the basis for the musical, reflected after the show. “The audience cheered for King George and then enjoyed the satire.” A British fan, waiting for an autograph from Jason Pennycooke, who plays a gleefully showboating Thomas Jefferson, said that the King wasn’t a villain—“he’s just comic relief.”

The most knowing laughter came at King George’s caution to the newly independent colonies: “Oceans rise / Empires fall / It’s much harder when it’s all your call / All alone, across the sea / When your people say they hate you, don’t come crawling back to me.” Was this a prophecy of Donald Trump’s spiralling isolationism—the travel ban, the broken accords, the looming wall—or an admonition to Brexit leaders fumbling after the British Conservative Party’s recent electoral setback? Miranda made the connection explicit before the show: “When you see the King singing about ‘You’ll be back; it’s harder on your own,’ given what you’re going through with Brexit, those lines ping off in all these different directions.”

A three-star review that ran in the right-wing Daily Mail, an outlier among widespread five-star rapture, asked whether Hamilton, as an architect of national sovereignty, might have actually supported the Leave vote; the other skeptical review, from the Sunday Times, compared Hamilton’s economic élitism to the leadership of the European Union. Barack Obama used to joke that “Hamilton” was the only thing that he and Dick Cheney could agree on; what sounded like a bipartisan endorsement also served as a reminder that works of art are susceptible to more than one ideology. “Hamilton,” after all, is a reflection on the contingency of historical narratives—its final chorus sings, “Who lives, who dies, who tells your story?” Chernow said that he hoped the show would remind Britain that, even in the age of Trump, America could represent diversity and inclusion, a force for good.

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