Above – Jason Arrow. Cover – Chloé Zuel and Jason Arrow. Photos – Daniel Boud

In 2006, an improv hip-hop act called Freestyle Love Supreme rocked the Melbourne International Comedy Festival, captivating the audience “with their sharp wit, tight rap, urban soul and thumping bass” according to our reviewer at the time. Amongst the company was a young performer going by the name Lin-Man, singled out by our reviewer as the ‘fastest and sharpest rapper’ in the troupe.

As it turns out, while on tour in Melbourne, Lin-Man was making changes to the second act of his first full-length musical, a hip-hop inspired work set in the largely Latino/Dominican neighbourhood of Washington Heights, Manhattan. One year later, In the Heights, opened Off-Broadway – a year after that, it opened on Broadway, earning an impressive thirteen Tony nominations, ultimately winning four (including Best Musical). Since then, Lin-Man, or Lin-Manuel Miranda, has cemented his status as one of the world’s leading musical theatre artists, winning a swag of accolades for his work as a writer, performer, producer and director.

You could perhaps be forgiven for having never heard of In the Heights – we are yet to see a large-scale production of it in Australia, although a short season was produced at Chapel off Chapel in 2015 and a film version was released in 2021. However, you will no doubt have heard of Miranda’s more recent and most famous work – Hamilton.

After a COVID-interrupted Sydney season that spluttered through 2021, mega-musical Hamilton has finally opened in Melbourne, and the anticipation is palpable. If awards count for anything, few shows have arrived on these shores with a higher pedigree. Since it premiered in 2015, Hamilton has picked up almost every accolade going, including multiple Drama Desk Awards, Tony Awards, New York Drama Critics' Circle Awards, an Obie Award and a Pulitzer Prize for Drama (to name just a few). International productions too have been similarly endowed, with the West End production picking up seven Olivier Awards. This Australian production has already won a swag of Sydney Theatre Awards – and it's a fair bet there are more to come.

Suffice to say that expectations are high.

Hamilton tells the story of the ambitious Alexander Hamilton, one of the lesser-known (in this country at least) ‘Founding Fathers’ of America. While never quite achieving the fame of George Washington, Hamilton nonetheless served as his right-hand man at a critical moment in U.S. history, proving to be a pivotal character in the American experiment and an important co-author of modern democracy.

However, as you are probably aware, this slice of 18th century history is told using decidedly contemporary means. The narrative is sung-through using a blend of hip-hop, R&B and soul music, which for those who prefer their show tunes over the Top 40, may make Hamilton an instant non-starter. But it really shouldn’t. Musical theatre has always borrowed from the popular music of the day – think of the Gershwin brothers, Rodgers and Hammerstein, or more modern musicals like Hair, Chicago and RENT (not to mention the gazillion ‘juke box’ musicals which are almost by definition made up of pop music). Even if, like me, you’re no particular fan of hip hop, the music of Hamilton is its greatest strength and a distinct highlight of the production.

Hamilton has been hailed as something of a game-changer, not only for Broadway, but for the musical theatre genre more broadly. This is due in part to the innovative use of hip hop, but also because of its commitment to ‘colour-blind’ casting which sees the central roles of the Founding Fathers all played by non-white performers. The significance of casting non-white actors in what would otherwise be regarded as ‘white’ roles in such a high-profile production should not be underestimated, and has arguably had a significant influence across the entire theatre industry. In the space of a few short years, colour-blind casting has become a major topic of discussion within the industry and even mainstream companies now regularly seek greater diversity in their casting , which is unquestionably a good thing.

Notwithstanding these important innovations, Hamilton is in many ways a pretty conventional production. All of the design and production elements are handled proficiently – even expertly – but they are hardly ground-breaking. Employing a single static set (David Korins), the staging, choreography (Andy Blankenbuehler), lighting (Howell Binkley) and costume design (Paul Tazewell) are all done very well, but utilise an orthodox range of music theatre devices. Indeed in this regard, compared to some other ‘blockbuster’ musicals, Hamilton is perhaps even a little underwhelming.

Even the much-celebrated use of ‘colour-blind’ casting is offset somewhat by the show’s entirely simplistic approach to gender. The disparity between the male and female roles in Hamilton is glaring. All of the ‘important’ work of revolution and nation-building is left to a small coterie of very macho and assertive men, while the women are generally relegated to little more than love interests for the main protagonist.

All that aside, the true standout of Hamilton is Miranda’s exceptional music and lyrics. Hamilton, we discover, is a highly articulate and persuasive writer whose prolific output was to have a significant impact not only on his own career and fortunes, but in shaping the public perception and attitude toward the new government. Miranda’s dense lyrics and rapid-fire rap, perfectly encapsulate the relentless (and somewhat verbose) energy of Hamilton’s character, who is constantly asked ‘Why do you write like you're running out of time?‘ Against the backdrop of American revolution, the driving energy of the lyrics and music are integral in propelling the story forward.

Director Thomas Kail (who also directed Freestyle Love Supreme) has elicited strong performances from the entire cast, led by WAAPA graduate Jason Arrow as Hamilton. Arrow captures well the ambition and cocky machismo of Hamilton in his younger years, mellowing (slightly) as the character ages. Another WAAPA grad, Lyndon Watts as Hamilton’s nemesis Aaron Burr, also does a fine job, excelling in one of the show’s best-known numbers, The Room Where it Happens.

But in truth, performances across the board are excellent. Kiwi Matu Ngaropo cuts a fine figure as a down-to-earth George Washington, while Brent Ashley Hill (another WAAPA grad) serially steals the stage with his comic turn as King George. Other strong performances are also given by Chloé Zuel as Hamilton’s long-suffering wife Eliza, Akina Edmonds as his sister-in-law Angelica Schuyler, and Victory Ndukwe doubling as Lafayette and Thomas Jefferson.

Hamilton may not be the radical revolution of the genre as advertised – but its without doubt a very clever evolution. It's not perfect by any means but it's pretty damn good. Like Harry Potter did for the book world, Hamilton will no doubt bring in new audiences for the theatre – and that can only be a good thing. Viva la evolucion!

Event details

Jeffrey Seller, Sander Jacobs, Jill Furman, The Public Theater and Michael Cassel present
Hamilton
book, music and lyrics Lin-Manuel Miranda

Director Thomas Kail

Venue: Her Majesty’s Theatre | 219 Exhibition St, Melbourne VIC
Dates: from 24 March 2022
Bookings: hamiltonmusical.com.au

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