This piece assumes you’re familiar with the story and music of Hamilton. The reason is that I’ve been familiar with the story and music of Hamilton for a year or more, so that’s what I brought to the matinée of the West End production I attended yesterday. I spent a period of weeks compulsively listening to the album when I first encountered it, and I’ve listened to my favourite songs often since then. I admire the verbal technicality and richness, the expressiveness of the music and use of leitmotifs. I’m not particularly critical of any of it – it’s why I was keen to see the show.
Unfortunately, it’s a show that left me rather cold.
Centrally, the character of Alexander Hamilton, as conceptualised by director Thomas Kail (who also directed the musical both Off- and on-Broadway) and star Jamael Westman, makes little sense and is incompatible with the man presented and described by Lin-Manuel Miranda’s songs. We’re told that Hamilton is a fascinating beast. He’s an upstart, obnoxious, loud, arrogant, charismatic, combative, ambitious, out of place, flying by the seat of his pants. He comes from nothing, an orphan from the Caribbean whose wit and work helped him climb the social ladder to the point where he married a wealthy socialite from an influential family and the political ladder up to the right hand of George Washington and the inaugural post of US Secretary of the Treasury. He should be a whirlwind of energy, commanding every scene. That isn’t Westman’s Hamilton.
Westman is statuesque, simultaneously positively and negatively. He’s physically striking, tall and handsome, but in movement, stiff, restrained. He performs facially more than bodily, a style that works for Meet Me Inside, in which Hamilton determinedly resists Washington’s furious opprobrium, but makes little sense elsewhere. The Hamilton the songs convey is compelling because despite wanting to belong, and knowing that he needs only to temper his behaviour and energy to do so, he’s constitutionally incapable of doing so. Westman’s Hamilton has no energy in need of dampening. He’s already cool, calm, collected. He belongs. It’s a problem.
It’s a problem that not only generates dissonance between Hamilton as described and performed, but also adversely affects the character’s relationships with his two primary antagonists, Aaron Burr (Giles Terera) and Thomas Jefferson (Jason Pennycooke). Burr is the epitome of restraint, arguably even cowardice. He’s forever encouraging Hamilton to “talk less, smile more”, advice that Hamilton takes until the second act to heed. Jefferson, conversely, is a livewire, a charming, characterful, wild ball of energy who stands up to Hamilton as they go about the business of building a country from scratch. Fundamentally, Burr should be Hamilton’s opposite and Jefferson his alternate version, equally charismatic, equally obnoxious, and the only person who can possibly prevent him from effortlessly getting his own way, because he fights fire with fire. But the way Westman plays Hamilton, Burr is more his like than Jefferson. Again, the show simply has it backwards, and it’s incongruous.
(Admittedly, one way in which Hamilton and Jefferson are opposites works well, Pennycooke’s diminutive stature playing enjoyably off Westman’s excess of height – and emphasising the comedy in his performance – but this could and should work alongside the characters’ similar personalities.)
I found the visual design and staging of the show predominantly quite competent but generally uninspired. For the most part, there’s nothing especially effective about the staging, with actors strewn across the stage, moving around with little purpose. I don’t want to be too negative, though, and there are plenty of imaginative or effective moments. The reading of the letter informing Hamilton of Laurens’ death is accompanied by Laurens (Cleve September) standing alongside Hamilton, isolated by and bathed in melancholy blue light. It’s simple and moving. There’s also impressive use of a revolving floor, used as a treadmill to help convey walking through crowds in The Schuyler Sisters and coupled with mime to depict Hamilton’s body being rowed across a river (Westman’s stillness is, here, quite appropriate). In Non-Stop, Hamilton is kept in one place as Angelica (Rachel John) bids him farewell and Eliza (Rachelle Ann Go) begs to be let into his life, the stage used to simultaneously move the former away from him and the latter towards him. There’s also surprising and effective use of mime to depict the flight of bullets in slow motion, a member of the ensemble “holding” the bullet in mid-air, the way a child might, and focusing everybody’s attention on their hand. It’s genuinely a little striking when a shot from a British soldier misses Hamilton’s head by inches and he looks up from his writing, unaware of how close he just came to death. These images did affect me and may linger, but they were all simply moments amongst an otherwise bland production, and I didn’t find the show’s visual design cohered.
I’ve reserved particular criticism for the two rap battles. In the writing, they’re brilliant: cabinet debates performed as 8 Mile style improvised raps, in which the combatants’ verbal dexterity and quick wit are just as important as their arguments, and playing to the crowd is crucial. As staged and performed, they’re stale and uninvolving. You can – barely – see the show’s set in the photo above. The rap battles are staged with Hamilton and Jefferson stood facing each other downstage, the ensemble sitting on chairs behind them forming the audience. Jefferson and Hamilton perform stiffly to each other, unsure of whether to play to the diegetic crowd or the one that’s paid an arm and a leg to be there. The lack of imagination in the staging contributed to two stagnant scenes.
I’m a connoisseur of neither rap battles nor theatre, but this was deeply disappointing, and which is worse, I think there’s a clear improvement that could be made to the staging. Indulge me for a minute: Put Hamilton, Jefferson and Washington (the MC) on the balcony upstage and have the ensemble’s crowd standing below, facing them. They could then play to the entire audience and command attention. It’s what balconies are for. They would, admittedly, be stood as far away from the audience as it’s possible to be, but I think the positives outweigh that negative. The crowd could react more energetically, engage physically and make more noise without fear of drowning out the rappers, instead of sitting tediously in chairs. I’m not saying this is perfect or if only the director had consulted me, I could have fixed it. I’m saying when I’m fairly sure there’s a way to improve a musical, that musical has a problem.
It’s of crucial importance that you understand that all of these criticisms come from someone who’s listened to the original Broadway cast recording of Hamilton repeatedly, at times obsessively, and as such I wasn’t overwhelmed by the music, lyrics and story because they weren’t new to me. Seeing the West End show was to me like seeing a film adaptation of a novel you’ve read twenty times. A newcomer would undoubtedly be blown away by the songs the way I was when I first heard them. It’s also notable that, with respect to content, there’s next to no difference between the album and the musical – a couple of instrumental interludes cover up changes of scenery and a brief, semi-sung, semi-spoken piece tells us of Laurens’ death. That’s all. The play has no other spoken dialogue, running through the songs with no alterations from the album versions like a concept album or opera. Or indeed hip-hopera. For this reason, despite the amount the show has to get through, it maintains a high level of energy and passes rapidly. Say what you will about everything else, the music is pretty unimpeachable.
But here’s the crux. My preexisting familiarity with the music has the effect of concentrating my attention entirely on the staging, performance, and everything that wasn’t on the album. From this perspective, I’m left to conclude that I was deeply disappointed. When a £90 theatre ticket adds little to a £10 CD – and in some respects actually hinders it – it’s a failure.