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Hamilton: An American Musical

KATHLEEN NOTOHAMIPRODJO | REPEAT OFFENDERS



“How does a bastard, orphan, son of a whore,” become the titular character of a critically acclaimed rap musical?


The “bastard” in question is Alexander Hamilton, an immigrant from the Caribbean who became an indispensable asset to the American Revolutionary War, and later, the first Treasury of the Secretary of the United States. In 2015, his life was brought onto the Broadway stage in the form of a genre-bending musical, written and performed by Lin-Manuel Miranda. Using a combination of hip-hop, R&B, and jazz, the musical features contemporary tunes to embody the transformative spirit of revolution and bring spice to the stories of long-dead, white men.


You would be right in thinking that rap and hip-hop is an unexpected way to narrate Hamilton’s story, and yet it oddly works. Averaging 144 words per minute, the use of rap is used to mimic Hamilton’s quick mind, overly talkative nature, and prolific writings (he did, for example, write 51 essays in the span of 6 months). And with Hamilton earning its place as a cultural phenomenon – see the 11 Tony awards and Pulitzer Prize for receipts – it seems that portraying historical figures as hip-hop stars is a winning formula.


I have to admit, I spent a few years consumed by the Hamilton hype, to the point where I will willingly recite the entire soundtrack if asked. As you can imagine, I was extremely excited to hear that Hamilton was coming to the Sydney Lyric Theatre, and it appears I wasn’t the only person. Even before opening night on the 27th of March 2021, Hamilton broke Australian box office pre-sale records, with an estimate of over 250 000 tickets sold. What’s more, COVID-19 has meant that the Sydney production is currently the only production of Hamilton being performed in the world, a fact which Gladys Berejiklian has very smugly promoted.


Diverse casting has been a large part of adapting Hamilton’s life into a stage musical, a notion which the Sydney production has similarly emphasised. The 36 person cast features Indigenous, Samoan, Maori, Filipino, South African, Nigerian, Egyptian, Japanese, and Italian performers together on the stage. In the words of Miranda himself, casting people of colour portrays the “story of America, told by Americans now.” While this line doesn’t necessarily work for the Sydney production (they are all local, Australian and New Zealand performers), it makes a statement to the irreplaceable contributions immigrants and minority groups have made to America’s history.


Seeing the show in early April was everything I wanted it to be. Even if you’re not a musical theatre fan, it’s hard to deny that the show is incredibly impressive. Cast members not only have to be triple threats, but are also required to dance on a rotating stage while occasionally holding bits of furniture upside down. Other roles, such as the role of Lafayette, demand a leap off a table while rapping 6 words per second in a French accent.


Jason Arrow took the leading role of Hamilton, with big shoes to fill considering the role was originated by Lin-Manuel Miranda himself. In my opinion, and judging by the audience’s standing ovation, he absolutely nailed it. Hamilton is a difficult role, not only due to the endless rapping, but also because the character of Hamilton is… not a great person. He’s egotistical and impatient, doesn’t know when to shut up, and gets so easily offended he’s constantly challenging people to duels. And yet, Arrow’s passion was such a refreshing take you couldn’t help but root for him. His version of Hamilton was relentless while also vulnerable, and unafraid to moonwalk in order to win a rap battle. Arrow was also as good a singer as he was a rapper, and at some stage sang a riff so high the man behind me gasped in shock. In summary, if you’re concerned that the Australian cast doesn’t live up to the hype of the original production, there’s no need to worry.


Lyndon Watts played the role of Aaron Burr, who is labelled as the “villain in your history” and, for lack of a better word, Hamilton’s frenemy. Whilst desperately wanting to be involved in shaping a new nation, Burr is unwilling to make impulsive decisions and chooses instead to ‘wait’ for the right opportunity. The right opportunity, apparently, is to shoot Hamilton in a duel after a long, ongoing rivalry between the two characters. Despite being the antagonist of the musical, Watts played Burr in an enchanting way that is best described as Disney Villain Energy, complete with arched eyebrows and a dance number that, in my very humble lack of knowledge for anything dance-related, had an impressive amount of high-knees. In addition, his voice and acting was so incredible that if they had retitled the musical as Aaron Burr: An American Musical, I wouldn’t have objected.


The Schuyler Sisters were performed by Chloe Zuel as Eliza, Akina Edmonds as Angelica, and Elandrah Eramiha as Peggy/Maria Reynolds. All three were exceptionally powerful, and equally good at making 1700 audience members cry. There seems to be a pattern in musical theatre where Act 1 is incredibly happy, while Act 2 slams you in the heart. Hamilton certainly follows this pattern, with Eramiha depicting the devastation of being exploited and used as a tool for extortion, whilst Zuel and Edmonds portrayed grief with such conviction that you could legitimately hear people shedding tears.


This wouldn’t be a complete review without mentions of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and King George. Played by Matu Ngaropo, Washington was a suave man with a voice so smooth he was basically the human equivalent of honey. Jimmie “J.J.” Ketter performed as both Lafayette and Jefferson on the night of my performance, switching effortlessly from America’s “favourite fighting Frenchman” to a scheming Virginian who owned the stage. Finally, King George was portrayed by Callan Purcell with the confidence of someone who’s the life of the party, and knows it. Supported by a spectacular ensemble, and lighting that emphasised the masterful staging, the show was captivating.


As celebrated as the show is, Hamilton is not free from criticism. Most notably, in the process of making its characters relatable and entertaining for its audience, it is argued the musical has glorified slave-owning historical figures. Hamilton refrains from explicitly addressing that many of its main characters were involved in slavery, despite Thomas Jefferson owning more than 600 African-American slaves in his lifetime, and spending years sexually assaulting 14-year-old enslaved seamstress, Sally Hemings. Alongside George Washington and Marquis de Lafayette’s involvement, Hamilton himself assisted with the purchase of slaves for the Schuyler family. It seems that Hamilton’s revisionist portrayal of a diverse America is too optimistic in its attempt to highlight the erased experiences of Black and Indigenous people, and the marginalisation of female characters. In response, Lin-Manuel Miranda has stated that “all criticisms are valid” and that he found it difficult to portray the “sheer tonnage of complexities and failings of these people” within a musical format. Ultimately, while the musical is often celebrated for its diverse representations of America and its role in introducing new audiences to theatre, it is important to recognise that the idealisation and romanticism of the Founding Fathers is problematic.


Hamilton continues to be a sold-out show, with dates extending at the Sydney Lyric Theatre until November 2021. This review was basically a round-about way of saying that yes, it is definitely worth seeing Hamilton in the “room where it happens.” And if you’ve already seen it and are thinking of going a second time, sign me up.


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