Anyone who knows me has been hearing, for the past year, how completely excited I’ve been to have secured one of the first release of the much-prized tickets for the London production of the show that has taken the USA by storm. ‘Hamilton – An American Musical’ has won numerous awards across the pond (11 Tonys in 2016), and the genius who wrote the music and lyrics, as well as starring in the title role for the original Broadway production, has become the new Big Cheese of musical theatre.
Lin Manuel Miranda, an American of Puerto Rican descent, had already been ‘discovered’ by British musical theatre fans when ‘In the Heights’ (which, again, he wrote and starred in in the U.S. production) was shown at the King’s Cross Theatre in London for a short run. I’d heard the buzz about Lin and the show itself through social media, and I was excited to be going to see it, a show offering a mix of rap, hip-hop and Latino music, with a nod to West Side Story. I wasn’t sure that I’d like it (I don’t really ‘get’ rap and hip-hop, but I do love Latin rhythms; and West Side Story has always been my favourite musical of all time). Off I went, on my own, to King’s Cross, and although I wondered if I’d made a mistake for the first few minutes, I was soon bowled over by the energy, passion, choreography and sheer exuberance of the show. Somehow, the hip-hop worked, the rap made sense. I left with a huge smile on my face, wishing I could have climbed up on the narrow stage (once a railway platform!) and dance along to the salsa and merengue rhythms…
Soon, early references to Lin’s new show were appearing on YouTube, along with clips of teenage girls (wearing yellow, pink and green dresses!) singing their version of ‘The Schuyler Sisters’. The idea for the ‘Hamilton’ musical came about when Lin read Ron Chernow’s biography about the man whose face appears on the American $10 bank note: Alexander Hamilton was “…a bastard, orphan, son of a whore and a Scotsman, dropped in the middle of a forgotten spot in the Caribbean by providence….”, but through his incredible work ethic and superior intellect became one of America’s Founding Fathers, a major player in the American Revolution against British rule in the late 18th century, and a trusted advisor to George Washington. Hamilton’s story is all the more pertinent now in an America where Trump appears to have a problem with the diverse culture of what is supposed to be the Land of the Free, and Lin clearly saw how Hamilton’s story would resonate with a modern audience. But this was to be no stuffy history lesson; Lin wanted to tell this story using his language and his rhythms. Instead of the performers gracefully stepping hand in hand to chamber music, they use a fusion of street dance, ballet, hip-hop and reggaetón, with a nod to Bob Fosse. The lyrics are modern, clever, dirty and funny….and there are SO many words jam-packed into most of those songs! The timbered stage set is ingenious and the lighting design is beautiful. Costumes, at least for the main characters, are pretty much as you’d expect for the period setting, but the stripped down versions worn by the ensemble cast give them their own identity, almost as if they’re a Greek chorus; if you can tear your eyes away from the main performers and watch the ensemble, you will see how they add far more to the story than most background players.
I don’t want to spoil the story for anyone not familiar with Alexander Hamilton’s life, loves and untimely death; you can look him up on Wikipedia and find out exactly what he did and how he died. His story itself is fascinating, but the show brings his story to life in such a way that no history books ever could. It’s a work of pure genius, thanks mostly to Lin Manuel Miranda, but also because of the people he chose to work with: David Korins’ stage design, Paul Tazewell’s costumes, Andy Blankenbuehler’s stunning choreography, Howell Binkley’s clever lighting and Nevin Steinberg’s sound design, with orchestration and music supervision by Alex Lacamoire – all adding layer upon layer of depth and wit and magic. I can’t help thinking that something similar happened when Leonard Bernstein, Jerome Robbins, Stephen Sondheim and Arthur Laurents all got together to create ‘West Side Story’. As you watch the show, you want to rewind to take in all the details.
I bought my ticket almost a year ago, having pounced on the Ticketmaster website the second the Pre-sale tickets became available – a tense, nailbiting transaction, waiting to see if I would be one of the lucky ones; I was! The Victoria Palace Theatre was being completely rebuilt and refurbished for the show, and I’d managed to bag a ticket for the preview period at the beginning of December; but having passed the theatre several times during the late summer, still clad in plastic sheeting and scaffolding, it came as no surprise when Ticketmaster had to contact those of us with early tickets to advise that the theatre wouldn’t be ready in time. More stress followed as I went through the process of waiting to see what other date Ticketmaster could offer me, and ultimately relief when I secured a better seat for the 30th December. I had scheduled a day off work on December 6th, and as this also happened to be the night of the first Preview performance, I thought it might be nice to go to London and hang around near the Victoria Palace, to see if I could spot any of the stars and catch some of the excitement in the air. It was a bitterly cold night, but a little group of us stood near the Stage Door, jealously watching from a distance all the lucky ticket holders who would be the first to see the show. Cameron Mackintosh was darting around the entrance, tweaking some last minute embellishments to the theatre’s beautiful façade. One of the girls standing with me said that Lin Manuel Miranda had been seen going into the theatre earlier, where we were sure he was being interviewed and photographed, but we hoped we’d spot a few cast members coming and going. And we did – Cleve September stopped for a photo, and Giles Terera, Michael Jibson and even
Jamael Westman (Alexander Hamilton) passed by. After about two hours, feeling raw from the cold and ready to all go our separate ways, there was a sudden flurry of activity as our little group slowly realised what was happening: Lin himself had sneaked out of the Stage Door and had come to see us! He explained that he could only stop for a few moments – he was going to dinner before the show – but he happily took charge of taking selfies with each of us, while commenting on the freezing wind, before dashing back into the theatre. I couldn’t quite believe what had just happened, but it had – I had the photo to prove it! One of the girls was so overwhelmed that she sank to the floor, which prompted one of the theatre marketing team to come over and ask if she needed help! I must have looked like such an idiot, grinning from ear to ear as I skipped off to hunt for my poor husband (who, strangely, hadn’t been that bothered about spending two hours in the freezing wind outside the theatre)!
I had been listening – every day, on my drive to and from work – to the original Broadway cast recording of the show (with Lin himself playing Hamilton), and knew most of the lyrics. I worried that the British cast wouldn’t sound right; I’d fallen in love with the Broadway cast – the Brits might not sing in the same way; they’d have different voices! As winter closed in, I had visions of a massive snowfall on the night before the show, stopping me from getting to London on the day. Maybe I should book a hotel the night before? I ate tons of fruit, to build up my defences against all the coughs and colds that everyone around me was suffering from. And what was I going to wear? My plans of ivory coloured leggings, shirt and waistcoat – like the ensemble costumes – were thwarted by a complete lack of suitable waistcoats in the local charity shops! I seem to have Hamilton tunes in my brain about 80% of the time, and I have to suppress the urge to use Hamilton quotes in day to day conversation (friend: “I bought these shoes in London…”; me: “All the way from London! Damn!”). Anything displayed in yellow, pink and green together – a bunch of flowers, three cupcakes on a plate – immediately makes me think of the Schuyler sisters. What’s wrong with me?! I’m not a teenager; I shouldn’t be obsessed like this! But this is how Hamilton gets you – the more you hear, the more you watch, the more you discover…the more you realise just how important and groundbreaking and brilliant ‘Hamilton’ is.
So; the big day has arrived.
My big-enough-for-a-theatre-programme handbag was packed the night before and triple-checked when I woke up. Ticketmaster are using a ‘paperless’ system for ‘Hamilton’ ticket sales: unless you can show your confirmation email, the bank card used to pay for your ticket AND your passport, you don’t get into the theatre. The weather was chilly (especially as it was very early and still dark), but I wasn’t snowed in and there were no traffic delays, so I arrived at Victoria in plenty of time. So far, so good! I had a peep at the theatre (still there!) before going for some breakfast nearby – I made it last as long as possible as I didn’t want to wander too far from the theatre, and there was still three hours to go before the show started.
By 12.30 I could stay away no longer. It was now an hour before the suggested arrival time, but already there were about 30 people ahead of me in the cordoned off queueing area. Security staff checked that I had a booking for the performance, and a sniffer dog (a cute spaniel) was paraded up and down the rapidly growing line. Ushers worked their way through the waiting people, checking that we all had our emailed confirmation with matching passports and bank cards. Then the doors opened; we shuffled through, our bags were checked and my bank card was put through a card reader by an usher who printed out my ticket. MY TICKET!! – I’d been waiting for this moment for a whole year, and now I was finally here, in The Room Where It Happens, with an actual ticket in my hand! I trotted off to the Merchandise stall ahead of the rush (third in line – I’d have need a lottery win to afford all the goodies I wanted, but luckily I had been given ‘Merch Money’ as a Christmas present!), so I was able to get a Tee Shirt, a tote bag, the Broadway cast brochure and the London cast programme. Still with time to kill, I had a chance to look at the beautifully restored interior of this lovely theatre. It was very elegant, with lots of sparkly chandeliers, gold-framed mirrors, lavish drapes at the windows, old posters on the walls; and I was very impressed by the ladies’ toilets (which is something you don’t often hear from female London theatregoers!) – they were spacious and elegant, and fully in keeping with the overall look of the theatre. And the Front of House staff were absolutely lovely: friendly, helpful, and clearly enjoying the buzz of being among so many excited people and being part of the experience!
It was time; time to find my seat – Royal Circle, row H, seat 40. It’s right at the end of the row, so I was worried that I’d be squeezed against a wall with a severely restricted view of the stage. But my worries were completely unfounded; there were wide steps to the left of me, plenty of leg room, and the seats were staggered and tiered, so that there was a clear view over the heads of the people in front of me. And there before me was the incredible stage. I’d seen many photos of it, but now I could see how much detail there was: nooks and crannies filled with oil lamps, coils of rope and bottles; arched openings showed glimpses of stone and brick walls behind, and clever lighting suggested sunlight breaking through loose timbers high up. A balcony ran from one side of the stage to the other, supporting two wooden stairways. The auditorium filled up; not a single empty seat. The excited chatter continued until the lights dimmed. Then there was silence.
Onto the stage walks Sifiso Mazibuko, standing in for Giles Terera as Aaron Burr. Those first few notes….and then “How does a bastard orphan, son of a whore and a Scotsman…”. And here we are, finally, rapt with excitement, hardly believing that we’re actually doing this. The songs are the same as I’ve heard so many times, but sung by different voices, stressing different words and different notes, and bringing whole new meanings to the lyrics. Most of us know the words but have never heard them quite like this; the same but different. As Jamael Westman strides to centre stage and sings “Alexander Hamilton; my name is Alexander Hamilton”, I feel like the whole audience, as a single entity, is holding its breath. As the story I thought I knew so well played out before my eyes, a whole new show was being revealed. The show I thought I was going to watch was full of actions, expressions and clever visual moments that I just hadn’t expected. To see Thomas Jefferson flouncing across the stage, and the look on King George’s face as he sings, and the mechanics of the duel scenes…the whole show was a revelation. And there are famous little highlights that the fans are waiting for: you could almost feel the audience’s anticipation just before Lafayette and Hamilton’s line “Immigrants – we get the job done!”…at which point I swear the whole audience was clapping inside! We know the story, we know how it’s going to end, and judging by the number of people reaching into their handbags to grab a handful of tissues in the second half, we knew there’d be tears. I know the danger points, for me; “It’s Quiet Uptown” starts me off, but the gut-wrenching part is a particular key change while Eliza sings in the Finale, “Who Lives, Who Dies, Who Tells Your Story”. I knew it was coming, and I blubbed like a baby. I don’t know if it was the song itself, or the knowledge that my first ‘Hamilton’ was almost over, but I didn’t want it to end. As the final notes died away, there was stunned silence from the audience, long enough for a moment on the stage that I hadn’t expected. Then the applause started, and it was loud and completely heartfelt and absolutely gushing. Everybody stood as the incredible cast spread out across the width of the stage, recovering from the performance they’d just given and looking almost surprised by the reaction of the crowd.
And it was over. I think I’d lost the ability to speak. I didn’t want to break the spell and leave the theatre. But eventually, after the orchestra (my God, they did an amazing job!) had played us out, it was time to brace the chilly December air and get back to reality. As I stepped outside into the night to join the crowd waiting by the stage door, I could see a few people already hovering around the main entrance ready to queue for the evening performance. Some of the wonderful cast came out for a chat and to sign programmes – Cleve September (Lafayette and Jefferson), Leslie Garcia Bowman (Charles Lee and ensemble), Obiama Ugoala (Washington) and Michael Jibson (King George) were all very generous with their time, especially after the energy they’d just put into their performances and the fact that they would have to do it all again in a couple of hours. Eventually the performers went off for some hard-earned food and the stage door fans wandered away. I hung around a bit longer, not really wanting to leave the glow of the theatre yet. I noticed Jamael Westman, very tall, wrapped in scarves and a hat, rushing purposefully towards Victoria station from the Stage Door. The security guard manning the door (who later told me his name was Sean) called quietly to me “That was Hamilton, you know?” “I know”, I replied, “but I think he wanted to eat”. We chatted about the show, about his brother and my son (who had both trained in musical theatre), and about how cold it was. I told him I was going to go, but he said “Jamael will be back in a minute; …in fact, I think that’s him now…” I had my programme open at the right page, my pen ready. “Excuse me, Jamael”, I asked tentatively, expecting to be told “Sorry, I don’t have time…”; but the lovely Jamael Westman, star of the biggest show to hit London for years, smiled, stopped, and said “Of course I’ll sign your programme! Did you enjoy the show?”
Yes, I enjoyed the show. ‘Hamilton’ has somehow taken over my brain (and my soul) for the last year, and to say that the show vastly exceeded all my expectations is a massive understatement. It was sublime, exciting, incredibly clever, excruciatingly sad and probably the best piece of theatre I will ever see in my life. I’ll be seeing it again in July, and this time my husband will be coming with me.
Info: Victoria Palace Theatre, Victoria Street, London SW1E 5EA: http://www.victoriapalacetheatre.co.uk . Nearest tube: Victoria.
Tickets – if you can find any – are ONLY available through Ticketmaster: https://m.ticketmaster.co.uk. There is also a daily lottery where lucky winners can win one or two seats for £10 each. Details available via the ‘Hamilton’ page of Ticketmaster’s website. The theatre does offer returns for sale just before a performance; a long queue waits hopefully to the left of the theatre prior to every show!
#Hamilton #London #VictoriaPalace #LinManuelMiranda #WaitForIt