A hip-hop musical about a section of American history which sees British rule overthrown and a new republic created; a story that’s probably quite unfamiliar to many native Brits. It’s not on the history curriculum for one thing – when I was at school, once you got to a particular stage in your education the variety in this subject significantly decreased – so any extracurricular reading (I was, and still am, a nerd so of course I did this) could be taken from a wide field, but American history might not be the top of your list. For example, I never got to study the French Revolution, but the snippets most people pick up about it make it a tantalising topic indeed.
So if this period of American history doesn’t potentially have a wide appeal, in the first instance, and the context is a major British loss… Why is Hamilton so popular and so relevant to Britain today?
The spark of this post came from a series of tweets I happened across a few months ago from a US writer, expressing surprise at the London audience cheering for King George and the Americans’ Yorktown victory, as well as the reaction to “immigrants: we get the job done”. Now, I’m not going to judge these tweets in the slightest, or take offence; it’s easy to miss the tone when you’re just dealing with text, and I’m not interested in causing a furore. Some subsequent tweets suggest she wasn’t being entirely serious about it (though a selection of responses from others were quite revealing!), but it does get you thinking about why you might react in a certain way.
To the Daily Mail, of course, Alexander Hamilton could potentially have been a Brexiteer (or, as I prefer to call them, a Quitter) – presumably this is mostly based on the line “why should a tiny island across the sea regulate the price of tea?” in Farmer Refuted. Comparing the American fight for independence (from a country over 4,000 miles away across the Atlantic) to a faction’s wish to “take back control” from a governing body based around 200 miles away across the English Channel is downright foolish – as oversimplistic as you would expect from that section of our press.
Let’s go back to those tweets first. I think the King George cheering can easily be explained when you see Michael Jibson’s portrayal of the character; childish, pompous & petulant, any flashes of temper he shows are also quite ridiculous, so you can’t help but laugh whenever he does anything onstage. Any cheers are for Jibson’s brilliant performance, and I for one also relish the fact that it pokes fun at the Royal Family – for anyone who’s never grown up in a country that still has a monarchy, it may be hard to imagine how frustrating & embarrassing it is, and so this kind of portrayal is the best kind of outlet. I understand that Jonathan Groff’s performance, as part of the original Broadway cast, was more villainous – a completely understandable choice, and one that I can imagine was quite powerful, but I’ll opt for a piss-take any day!
As for cheering Yorktown (The World Turned Upside Down)… As an unfamiliar piece of history, it’s not like we feel personally invested in it – and hopefully by now colonialism feels rather distant for most people. Shakespeare writing about the Wars of the Roses, and the reign of Henry VIII, in his history plays would have been a lot closer to the bone for audiences back then as they weren’t quite so far removed from it all – for us, so many generations have passed since the 1700s, and there isn’t an empire to think about anymore either. Basically, if you’re still lamenting the loss of the colonies then what are you doing with your life?
It’s at the beginning of this song where Hamilton and Lafayette say that line about immigrants (though the show as a whole does its best to extol immigrants’ worth) and I think the reason why it gets such a rapturous response is simple: the show probably isn’t frequented by the kind of people who oppose this view. Rather, the majority are likely to be more on the liberal (and humane) side of this debate – and are self-aware enough to realise that we have been an island of immigrants for centuries.
There’s another, very straightforward, reason why the show is relevant to the British and makes audiences react in such a way – and that’s the incredible skill & tenacity of Lin-Manuel Miranda in writing the damn thing! If you don’t cite specific historical references, and strip it back to its themes, you’ll see they are entirely universal, and tap into what many of us are thinking and feeling. Drawing on Shakespeare again (and not just because this one’s referenced in Hamilton), it’s thought that Macbeth was inspired by the Gunpowder Plot, which would have seen the assassination of Britain’s new Scottish king James I – so it could serve as another reminder of what happens when you try to disrupt the natural order of things in killing a Scottish monarch, as well as reflecting the unsettled feeling of the early 17th century.
Over recent months, political engagement in the young seems to have been increasing, and there are many things that the ruling classes are pushing through that we’re not happy with; seeing, in Hamilton, a story about a fight for freedom is a rallying cry to our generation that might just light the fire of revolution in this, the 21st century. Whether it’s opposing state visits from questionable leaders, calling for an end to the monarchy, or seeking accountability in the people who claim to be representing our best interests… Yorktown (or any number of songs in Hamilton) gets the blood pumping and hope rising.
The final point about the writing is that those songs are incredibly catchy, and made all the more engaging by the way it’s staged. The straightforward set suggests a focus on storytelling, and the large company of talented actors/singers/rappers/dancers (backed by an energetic pit band) hammers that home in emphatic style. You can’t not be gripped from the very beginning. Its choice to explore the central character’s flaws alongside his groundbreaking & heroic deeds, and not really cast an out-and-out villain per sé is also rather appealing on a human level – so you have the dramatic arc, but you’re very aware that nobody is being set up as a paragon of virtue. Also, if you boil it down, to some it will be ‘just’ a theatre show; a piece of entertainment & escapism that can provoke a wide range of reactions. And, unless you’re the most Contrary Mary, you won’t stop yourself from being swept away for the sake of history!
Obviously there’s a fair amount of generalising here (I wouldn’t claim to speak on behalf of everyone in the audience – with those £250 premium seats, who knows what some patrons’ politics are), but hopefully it goes some way to explaining why British audiences respond the way they do and why the show is so suited to London. I say “British audiences”, but that’s part of the beauty if it: the mix of native Brits with tourists & immigrants of all nationalities makes London the ideal place for the show’s first non-American production. Now, has anyone sorted out Trump’s ticket for the end of the week..?