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Hamilton in London: What’s all the fuss about?
If you’ve been conscious during 2017, then you’ll have heard the word Hamilton, and not just in relation to the British Formula One champion. Since making waves after opening Broadway, Lin-Manuel Miranda’s musical has been breaking box office records, making international headlines, and now, the first international production is set to open in London’s West End. But what is all the fuss about? While we will have to wait until the official opening to see if it lives up to the hype (although early reports suggest, yes, yes it does), we can track back and look at how the biggest musical phenomenon in decades came to be.
Hamilton was hardly Miranda’s first foray into musical theatre. He began writing In the Heights as a college sophomore in 1999, and after a number of drafts and try-outs, it opened on Broadway in 2008 with Miranda starring as the show’s lead character.
It was on a vacation from the show that Miranda stumbled across Ron Chernow's biography of Alexander Hamilton, one of the founding fathers of America. He was inspired by Hamilton's story that he began to pen songs about his life. Then, when he was invited to perform songs from In the Heights for President Obama at a White House Poetry Slam, Lin-Manuel arrived, young, scrappy and hungry, and instead showcased the musical’s first song: Alexander Hamilton.
The reaction was, given the success the musical went on to have, bizarre. It sent ripples of laughter around the room – including the President and First Lady – as the audience reacted to hearing Miranda’s perform raps about the first Secretary of the Treasury. But this didn’t put the composer off, he knew he was onto something big.
After developing the songs, in 2012, Miranda was performing a collection of songs from the show which became known as the ‘Hamilton Mixtape’. With praise from the press for this early work, it wasn’t long until the show landed on Broadway and, after a run off-Broadway, it premiered at the Richard Rodgers Theater in August 2015.
There was buzz around the show, and on opening night, 700 people queued for a ticket. The reviews were positive, and success of the show was perhaps confirmed by Ben Brantley, theater critic for the New York Times, who put it simply: “Yes, it really is that good.”
What followed was an absolute phenomenon. Not only did Miranda, who played the title character on stage, become a celebrity outside theatre circles – jobs writing songs for Disney and late night talk show appearances followed his success – but the show also provided a springboard for the show’s cast; the likes of Daveed Diggs, Jonathan Groff and Phillipa Soo. In 2016, Miranda returned to the White House, this time with his cast in tow, to perform for Obama. This time, the reaction was slightly different, Obama quipping: “Who’s laughing now?”
The show broke records at the Tony Award in 2016, setting the record for most nominations (16) and and winning 11 (just shy of the 12 won by The Producers in 2001). It won Grammys for the soundtrack, Pulitzers for Drama, you name it.
But this was more than just a hit; the show was having an impact on America. In 2015, the US treasury announced it was set to redesign the $10 bill, removing Alexander Hamilton from the note in place for an influential woman from US history. This didn’t go down too well, and following an influx of complaints, Secretary Jack Lew reversed the decision. While it’s widely accepted this wasn’t completely down to the success of the musical, it undoubtedly had an impact.
But there was no question about the show’s influence when it made international headlines in late 2016. Just days after the US presidential election, Vice President-elect Mike Pence scored a tickets to see the show in New York. The reaction from the audience as he walked through the stalls was “mixed”, but at the curtain call as Pence left the auditorium, Brandon Victor Dixon stopped the politician in his tracks and delivered a message urging the VP-in-waiting to “work on behalf of all of us.” This sparked a reaction on Twitter, with Trump supporters using #BoycottHamilton to express their disdain, and Trump’s reaction (a trademark Twitter tirade) raised serious questions about whether this was a president that would work for all Americans.
But the show must go on. And this December, it arrives in London: the first overseas production of the musical. A show of which much centres on the American Revolutionary War between Britain and the US may well be seen in a slightly different light here in the UK. It tells the story from the Americans’ viewpoint, but there is a British voice lingering in there (namely “You’ll Be Back” and “What Comes Next?”).
With a brand new cast, including newcomer Jamael Westman playing Hamilton (no pressure there, but we’ve heard he’s smashing it) and a newly refurbished theatre (courtesy of Cameron Mackintosh), it’s an unmissable event. Be prepared, because if you don’t already have a ticket, you’re going to have to beg, steal or borrow to get your hands on one.
Hamilton is booking at the Victoria Palace Theatre until June 2018.