The HAMILTON Experience At Victoria Palace Theatre
This is not a review of Hamilton - there are plenty of those online, including BWW's own UK Editor's five-starrer here - but an account of the experience of witnessing what has become one of the cultural events of the 21st century.
I've queued for a few things in my life (comes with the British passport, I suppose) but the Victoria Palace Theatre's management of the excited, confused punters is the best I've seen this side of the All-England Club. There are stewards to help outside, no signs pointing in two directions at once, and we move quickly.
Like that queue at Wimbledon, it's an international bunch too. Compared to most audiences with which I'm familiar, there were far more younger people in the foyers and bars and there were also far fewer obvious corporate types on hospitality packages than expected (though it was a Friday).
One show of the email on the phone with the credit card to back it up gains access and then it's a card swipe with another member of staff and you have your precious tickets in hand, small oblongs worth a lot more than their weight in gold.
Small too is the programme, A5 and £4 with a pricier A4 version available as a souvenir. Glossy and informative, it's hardly going to trouble the Pulitzer Prize committee, but it er... gets the job done and is certainly no rip-off.
From the back row of the Royal Circle, the stage seemed a little distant but - and Hamilton has done this better than any show I've seen - the magic of theatre dissolves the space the moment those familiar chords boom towards us. Lighting plays a part in the illusion of that intimacy, but so too do the dandyish costumes of the late 18th century, literally eye-catching.
It's handy that Jamael Westman (Alexander Hamilton) has the build of a heavyweight boxer - we can hardly miss him - and the Schuyler sisters cruise around the stage like their father owns half of New York.
Like many around me, I was familiar with the score, but others - more than I expected - were clearly hearing those wonderful songs for the first time, so famous lines like "My name is Alexander Hamilton" and (natch) "Immigrants? We get the job done" get both an immediate and a delayed reaction.
The effect is a little like the impact of replays on a big screen at a sports event, when there's an ooh and ahh for the live action, and a later reaction when the video feed catches up.
Thomas Kail's direction is as notable for what it doesn't do as for what it does. The revolve gets plenty of use, but never induces giddy motion sickness (years later, I can still get a little nauseous thinking about Starlight Express) and there's a pleasing denial of any video projection or other special effects. It's as if a big West End story can be told by singing and acting alone! (It'll never catch on...)
Sung through, the show has more in common with opera than musical theatre - isn't this how Puccini would write American history? (Though I suppose he'd off Eliza at the end and not Alexander).
Though all the songs are standalone brilliant and many get their own round of applause, the show hurtles along at such a pace that few feel like set-pieces in the way one can isolate songs like "Send In The Clowns" or "Food, Glorious Food". Rachelle Ann Go's chilling "Burn" is probably the closest one gets to a song dropped into the action, but even then it's driving the narrative and the characters.
Lin-Manuel Miranda may have absorbed hip-hop and drawn on it for inspiration, but he also grew up with the music video, so things happen fast. There's simply no time to stop the show for a showstopper, no sense of any song being IMPORTANT - the feeling one gets with "Don't Cry For Me Argentina" or that bombastic grandstanding at the end of Made in Dagenham, for example.
Some celebrated aspects of Hamilton barely registered. There's rap, but it's crystal clear, shorn of its often testosterone-fuelled misogyny, and, in the mixing of vocals and orchestra, delivered firmly within the traditions of musical theatre.
There's never a moment when the show lurches into "rock" territory, percussion and bass overpowering voices, the lyrics lost - directors of jukebox and rock'n'roll musicals, please take note. Rachel John's tour-de-force on "Satisfied" proves a perfect example of how musical theatre can do a "gig" song whilst retaining the opportunity for the audience to hear every word.
Much was made once upon a time about the colour-blind casting, but it simply slid by me, the excellence of the performers taking them inside these brilliant, flawed, famous men and women. Even the (black) Thomas Jefferson - Jason Pennycooke, funny and frightening in equal measure - with his blink-and-you'll-miss-it reference to Sally (Hemings, his mixed-race, slave lover) jars alarmingly. As it should.
It all passes so quickly, an exhilarating rollercoaster ride that entertains and educates, that reimagines the limits of musical theatre and that, incredibly, lives up to the hype - gone so swiftly it's almost impossible to assess.
The senses are assaulted, but in a wholly different way to that of (say) Avengers - Infinity War, which I'd seen in the cinema earlier in the week. Unlike that blockbuster movie's confused storytelling and barely discernible character development, Hamilton throws out so much story, so much innovation, so much singing of sensational songs that one emerges pleasingly disoriented, not quite certain of what's just happened. Except that it's like nothing you've ever seen before.
It's a good job I'm going again in September.
Photo courtesy Jon Lo