Hamilton (Review)

The concrete legacy of Hamilton will always be important: giving starring roles to people of colour and putting them on the biggest broadway stage, a stage that was hitherto dominated by whiteness and homogeneity. Though this is no saviour of theatre, and has done little to inspire similar shows in its wake, it did provide important opportunities for those who would otherwise not have them. This is important and cannot be underplayed. It is just a shame that the vehicle for this is, well, this, as Hamilton is a deeply conflicted and disappointing musical dripping in conservatism, revisionism and traditionalism.

The positioning of Hamilton is deeply uncomfortable. The vast majority of the cast are people of colour, with white actors playing the British occupiers in this tale of the founding of the United States – specifically following the life of Alexander Hamilton. This purposefully puts minorities into the spotlight, only to have them act out white history for a, primarily, white audience (after all, this is big budget, expensive theatre now put onto Disney+). The sanitised feel cuts through everything and this casting decision did provide important jobs but sits uncomfortably with the story chosen. We are watching a bunch of slave owners and racists divorced from this context; seeing people of colour inhabit people who would despise them – or look down on them – and imbuing them wife life and spark. Yes, we have the unrepresented on stage, but why are they not allowed to represent themselves? Why must white history still be pushed as a universal narrative? This claims to be the under told tale of one of America’s founding fathers, but it ends up as a deeply individualistic tale of white genius (flawed genius, but those flaws – the show believes – make the story worthwhile) told via people of colour.

In addition to this, there is an unavoidable narcissism at play. Lin-Manuel Miranda writes the music and the script, and plays the main part. He is one of the weakest performers in an otherwise excellent cast (Daveed Diggs of clipping. fame is especially brilliant despite the discomfort of his role) and one lasting discomfort is the presentation of the story Miranda is telling. Time and time again we are told that Hamilton is brilliant. He is a genius with a quill, one of the best military, economic and legal minds and, in addition to this, a good soldier. We are told this a lot, we are not shown this. This trend is a real issue with a show that tries to tell far too much history in too little time, ending up as repetitive exposition with no real character work or justification beyond being told things. The audience is whisked along at too fast a pace through this overlong story which never really feels worth telling. However, the repeated refrain – especially towards the end – is that Hamilton was an unparalleled writer. Yet, in this version, Miranda replaces all of Hamilton’s words with his verse and performs it himself. The connotation here is uncomfortable and again begs the question of why this story and why this way?

The other elephant in the room is the musical stylings. This advertises itself as a hip-hop musical; in reality it is rap for people who do not like rap. I do like rap and its approach to rap music is deeply linked with the overall uncomfortable positioning of the whole show. Hamilton seems to be built around not upsetting old white people. The story may show them people of colour, but it is about white people, and the music may be ‘rap’ but the heavy musical theatre stylings make it very ‘digestible’. The things is, Hamilton does nothing challenging or interesting. Its setup could allow it to make clever commentary, to push some boundaries and to create relevant discomfort. At every point it could challenge the audience it instead mollifies them. This is a monumental disappointment as the show is so aware of the audience it is playing to, and has them in the palm of its hand, but only continues to satiate them. There are no clever twists, there are no interesting politics. It is just traditional theatre with a twist, the twist being the use of traditionally Black music and people of colour in the cast. This as a twist, well that is very uncomfortable, but not for the right people.

Politics aside, Hamilton also falls flat as a piece of musical theatre. As previously mentioned, the pace is too quick and the story too stretched out. It all becomes quite boring after a while, and this is – once again – down to the overt traditionalism. There are catchy hooks, but these are overused, and the show is drowned in cliche. We have men only getting emotions when they are dads; we have women defined by men and a whole lot of very cringey moments. It is all trying very hard, the rhymes very overt – and there is also a juvenile trend of repeatedly getting close to a swear word, and then backing off – as a gag – or just having the word ‘shit’ as a punch line. Again, the show does not want to challenge despite being about very challenging history. It just wants to tell a linear story about one person, who is – actually – always annoying and hard to care about. The show wants to push the idea that some stories are not told, and that they should be, but it picks the wrong story for this message. I was left asking why this story was told and, above all, why like this? The show also gains very little from being filmed. There are too many close-ups and the staging is frequently lost.

Ultimately, Hamilton is defined by its myriad contradictions. There is a repeated insult to a key character: the claim that he stands for nothing. This is held against him above all else. The issue is that this show stands for nothing, it has no political stance – outside of just going ‘women’ and ‘immigrants’ as if namedropping an issue was to take an actual stance. Maybe the issue runs deeper though, as the politics of the show clearly value taking a stance over the stances we take. Hamilton did things, and is therefore worthy of being remembered, and the context around this is unimportant – in the show’s eyes. This show not only removes important context, it replaces it and in that process obscures important realities.

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