Prepare For An American Invasion

Christopher Fowler
Hamilton2 They're sleeping rough on the streets of New York. Not because they're homeless, but queuing for tickets. A chance to buy the latest iPhone? Nope, a show. And they're going to do it here too; Americans are preparing to fly over rather than face stateside lines. What do you do when the once vibrant culture scene in your city becomes reliant on tourism? After decades of stagnation, Broadway found a new way forward last year with a musical play as American as the game-changing 'Show Boat' was in 1927 (which was, after all, about miscegenation). 'Hamilton' isn't the first rap play but it's the first that works. A
show about 'young rebels grabbing and shaping the future of an unformed country', it tells the story of Alexander Hamilton,
first secretary of the US Treasury, but does so by delineating the rebels as forward-thinking rappers
writing (and rewriting) the Constitution.
The rebels are black and Hispanic; the old school is white. The battle lines are drawn up. Hamilton is young and unformed. He talks too much, he's excited by others who share his intellect. The switch here is that these are the founding fathers of America, and force you to take a second look at those around you - who among us is harbouring dreams of revolutionary change? Written by (and initially starring) Lin-Manuel Miranda, 'Hamilton' garnered a slew of awards, critical plaudits and - unusually - insane record-breaking box office, bringing in younger, more racially diverse audiences than usual. I can't say I enjoyed his first outing, 'In The Heights', which was too schmaltzy for London (I didn't stay for the second half, and nor did many others on the night I went) but could see its optimistic appeal. But at least Miranda approaches maturer subject matter in 'Hamilton', something his UK equivalent in box-office bonanza, the 'Harry Potter' shows, are less likely to achieve. Lin-Manuel Miranda, actor and creator of the of the play "Hamilton," addresses the audience after the plays opening night on Broadway in New York August 6, 2015. REUTERS/Lucas Jackson - RTX1NE1Z'Hamilton' is clearly not perfect; a biography doesn't make for a satisfying story arc and the score doesn't stand on its own, but as a historical account of immigrants getting the job done it couldn't be more timely. And previous shows covering the same subject have failed over here (we're played as the villains, after all). But as it
prepares to sweep the Tonys and the production website here goes live on Monday, I hope that when it gets to London (not until October) it's not received with quite the same hysteria. The current trend for going overboard about theatre badly needs to be tempered. With 'Potter' tickets changing hands for thousands and lunacy over 'Hamilton' do plays and concerts really deserve their adulation? Last month I saw two productions where everyone stood up and wildly applauded mediocre work. I've been seeing theatre since I was a kid, sneaking in to steal empty seats, and it taught me discernment - but with modern seat prices so astronomical, do we feel duty-bound to love something just because it cost us dearly? 'The Book of Mormon', a moderately entertaining show about an obscure religion has one rude song and a lot of US-paid advertising, but it's shockingly overhyped and really deserves to go now. Shows are now like restaurant openings - over-hyped, oversold and then often simply - over.
We who have a bit of a showbiz gene are a misunderstood lot. I'm allergic to razamatazz, but I admire fine prose and nuanced performances. And those are more likely to be found in the railway arch-theatres of South London than in the overpriced stalls of the West End.    


Brooke (not verified) Sat, 11/06/2016 - 13:06

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

Excellent review. Hamilton has always been controversial here-- we get stuck on his race. But his core idea of a central bank enabled the very young unstable country to survive.

Wayne Mook (not verified) Sat, 11/06/2016 - 19:24

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

Banker as hero now that is controversial.


John (not verified) Sun, 12/06/2016 - 05:20

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

A little American perspective:

We saw something utterly forgettable called Gotta Dance based on the true life story of a bunch of senior citizens who do a hip hop dance routine as a half time act at a professional basketball game. This is what contemporary theater in the US is like now - sit come style garbage or movies turned into musicals. That something like Hamilton can become a phenomenon is not really all that "hysterical". People are starving for vibrant real theater over here and when it comes its so rare that they become rabid for it. Your reaction, as usual for anything you write about US culture, is a bit extreme. If you lived here and had to endure the drecky pop culture we're inundated with and that most of us can't abide (all of my friends lament the state of our failing theater culture as well as the decline in the art of a genuine acting) you'd be elated for the success of Hamilton. At least it's not another glitzy musical that does nothing put parody other famous musicals the way Book of Mormon does and nearly every popular musical since The Producers has done. I say "Thank God!" for Lin Manuel and his HAMILTON. Why must a score stand on its own? The only reason a score exists is to tell the story of the musical. Composers who write songs that can be pulled out of the story to become pop standards don't know anything about musical theater composition or structure. Hopefully, it will inspire real creative people to follow suit in an equally radical, very modern sensibility to shake up the theatrical form that our country invented.

Christopher Fowler Sun, 12/06/2016 - 07:01

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

Hi John, let me correct a couple of assumptions here. I'm thrilled that 'Hamilton' has had a good reaction and will inspire others. I didn't realise things were quite as bad on Broadway until I ran down the theatre checklist and saw you were right about the poor quality of shows. I'd assumed this was the result of Manhattan's geography as much as anything - visitors coming in and creating a price bubble (something that has happened in London too, believe me). But we still have a lot of serious West End theatre which is hugely popular.
'In The Heights' is an extended Glee episode and is coming off but 'Hamilton', I agree, is a game-changer, as I said above. We British never tire of being caricatured villains in US films (something that would border on racism if we didn't simply ignore it) and obviously won't mind pantomimic representation in 'Hamilton', but the most important thing for me is that it contains a brilliant idea - and that's something we see less and less of in new theatre.
The adulation is being reported here as hysteria, though. Thank God I didn't see 'Gotta Dance'!
BTW, the last time I wrote about US culture was to praise 'Wayward Pines' and I got mail saying I had been extreme in admitting I loved it so much (the first series only). I stand by that!

Helen Martin (not verified) Sun, 12/06/2016 - 22:53

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

Historical drama depends on viewpoint and there are only certain viewpoints permitted. Ask a southerner about the civil war or a Canadian with Loyalist roots about the Revolution. Britons don't mind being portrayed as villains but it would be nice to have an alternate viewpoint acknowledged occasionally. There hasn't been a southern viewpoint since Gone With the Wind and the Loyalists get short shrift all the time.

John Howard (not verified) Sat, 18/06/2016 - 20:16

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

Talking of the railway arch theatres went to see "The Sins of Jack Saul" in one of them the other week. Good fun and nobody lying around trying to get a ticket ( Still a full house though ). Even had a song or two..