Ok, so here’s a star in COVID’s heaven: modern, fresh and gorgeous. And also not a film. But, what the hey, it’s a filmed musical theatre show, close up on theatrics and emotions of a dialogue-free hip and a hop through American history. The thing is a three hour history lesson, but beautiful and in-your-face new. You couldn’t get a ticket. But here he is: Alexander Hamilton.
Here begins the tale of an American boy, an orphan to a Scotsman and a woman of challenged character. He’s smart as buttons and a writer: prolific to the point of twisting the universe into a nation of the free. Alexander Hamilton (you’ll be very clear on his name by an hour in…) rises through the ranks of warfare with Britain in the 1700s. His life is a struggle, but his words are a glory. And they’re also eclipsed by the single campest King George (Jonathan Groff) you’ll ever see: a bit dribbly, he gets the most accessible song for the oldsters: thick with wit, snark and presumed blindness to the dangers of taxing subjects without representation.
Of course, Hamilton and his focused colleagues win the war whilst looking beautiful in their century-specific clothing. They duck, dive, pose and prance – some of the chorus in rather fetching jodhpurs. But forgive old Jack his distractions, the joyful, wretched or murderously political songs come thick and fast.
The accompanying dance makes points of character as Hamilton (writer and pretty much everything else, Lin-Manuel Miranda) and nemesis Aaron Burr spar. Leslie Odom Jr. gives his Burr stolid hide-your-truth and shin up the greasy pole emptiness until the competitive relationship turns fateful in the last act. Miranda gives Hamilton a history-making earnestness, but with underlying selfishness in pursuing the right Schuyler sister for marriage, the wrong one for intellectual companionship, and another man’s wife for late-arriving sexy times. His awfulness at struggling to resist the woman, herself abused and weak, is oddly glorified in his narcissistic lyrics. A duff note straight from real life: politicians, their power and the vulnerable are a staple not born here.
So – yup – it’s a history and life lesson. Phillipa Soo is cut-glass wonderful as Eliza Hamilton, and from pushing herself into the narrative, beats the emotional crap out of it when shamed by her husband’s betrayal. History and the final hour give her all the power, but I’m not sure that’s enough: Hamilton the man strives for greatness, kind of achieves it, writes himself through the majority of the American constitution…and these days that comes with an awkward duality.
Hamilton the Musical came before these days of black lives mattering. And while its existence – indeed, its presence on the shiny new Disney+ (thanks, my boy Steve) – talks of tradition, it is a thoroughly modern thing. And that’s in the performances as much as the diversity of the cast. They’re all so damn young, pretty and skilled that comments on diversity almost drag it down for me. Old Jack here doesn’t want something this stuffed with energy to be dampened by narrow, admittedly essential, points about race. I’d far rather they were about the talent on show. From Miranda’s astonishing storytelling to the terrific art and physical direction to the stars. Renée Elise Goldsberry wins; and Jasmine Cephas Jones; and the Ensemble: their performances – the best of today.
Old Jack’s favourite? Watch out for Daveed Diggs as the Marquis de Lafayette…then be dropped of jaw as he returns as Thomas Jefferson. That most lanky cat-like, self-owned-dizzying, and bang-on the moment of future presidents. If there’s a performance that tells you what this show is, and why it deserves its awards, its audience, and the kindness of a movie brought out wayyyyy early to dull the sting of lockdown, it is this. Lovely.
But, aaaargh, this is a dull review. Sorry, people, these words don’t capture what you owe yourself. Find a house or home allowed group viewings and a dash of Disney+. Be strong for the hiphop; be ready for the contained chaos of the lyrics; be ready for the excellence. Come watch the show where it happened.
Nations need fathers, too.