Why Hamilton Is Not Just a Fad

I first heard of Hamilton three years ago, from the teenagers at my son’s drama classes. They were all excited about this new show that none of them had seen, but for which they knew the songs and lyrics. Endorsement by famous people, including the Obamas, added to the spice. Then, after the election of Donald Trump, it became a form of political activism to support this show.

The steep prices and instant sellout when the tickets were put on sale for the London show almost put me off the whole enterprise. But my teenage son looked at me pleadingly and I found some restricted-view sets that only involved selling off one arm and leg instead of my kidneys too… So I gave in to the buzz.

Then we had to wait for more than a year.

I bought the CD with the original Broadway cast. My older son and I became obsessed with it, much to the dismay of the younger son, who is not a fan of musicals. We started reading up about American history, the founding fathers, Lin-Manuel Miranda, bought the book. It became an all-consuming passion and we marvelled at the research, hard work, cleverness, passion and teamwork that went into creating the show. We worried that we were so impregnated with the recording that we would be disappointed with the new voices in the London version.

We needn’t have been.

Seeing the show onstage is an electrifying experience. Not so much because of the audience reaction – although it was wonderful to see that, alongside the elderly white people who could afford the seats there were also young people and people of all colours. It is simply even more dramatic and poignant getting caught up in the whirl of things live. I didn’t think I would cry more than once perhaps (at the death of Philip) after knowing the whole musical by heart, but seeing it performed had me in floods of tears a mere 4-5 songs in. So yes, I did embarrass my son (although I had tissues on hand).

The voices were indeed different and it took me a couple of songs to get used to it, but it then allowed me to appreciate all the nuances and differences in interpretation. For all of his Olivier award, Giles Terera was good but not as suave and extraordinary as Leslie Odom Jr. in the role of Aaron Burr. Jamael Westman is charismatic, unflappable and perhaps almost too heroic for the role of Hamilton – he certainly demonstrates why people fell in love with him, but is perhaps not as impish and nasty as I can imagine Miranda might play him. King George and Lafayette/Jefferson made the roles their own and milked them for all they were worth, providing excellent comic relief, while Laurens/Philip was very close to the Broadway original and utterly charming. My favourite was Eliza (understudy Marsha Songcombe) – who started off relatively quietly and hesitant, but just grew and grew in voice, drama and stature. She brings all that is good and loyal, beautiful and sad to the play. Her final gesture of reaching her arms out for her husband still brings tears to my eyes.

It’s not just the cleverness of the lyrics, the staging, the singalong music, the charismatic performers that makes this a night to remember. It’s not even the almost impossible blend of high drama, excitement, farce, lyrical moments and profound sadness. It is absolutely true that this breaks the mould and shows us what is possible with musicals and cast if you are audacious enough and inventive enough. But above all, like all good plays and musicals, it takes something that is particular (about a person and a time) and makes it universal. We all know that feeling of ‘running out of time’, the need to leave a legacy behind. We’ve all wondered ‘when my time is up, have I done enough?’. And Hamilton forces us to acknowledge as well that ‘you have no control: who lives, who dies, who tells your story’.

Hamilton London cast on opening night.

The problem now is living with having seen it. It feels like there is nothing more to look forward to. Ever.

And if you too want to see it, there are £10 tickets available for lottery.

Wind in the Willows – stage adaptation

windKenneth Grahame’s The Wind in the Willows was not an integral part of my own childhood. I had read it at some point, probably when I was a little too old to fall under its storytelling magic, but too young to be gripped by nostalgia. I liked it well enough, but I only really understood it and began to love it when I moved close to Cookham, the small village on the River Thames where Grahame had grown up and where he lived with his sickly son Alastair, for whom he wrote The Wind in the Willows. When I had children of my own, we read it together and often visited the River and Rowing Museum in Henley, where there is a loving recreation of the story. My older son knew big chunks of the text by heart at the time.

So you can imagine that, five years later, when he heard that Simply Theatre in Geneva (where he attends weekly drama classes) would be producing a stage version of his beloved book, he was desperately keen to get into it. He had been unsuccessful in all of his previous auditions, and this was his last chance to get into a show before our move back to the UK, so we didn’t hold much hope.

But, in a wonderful instance of karma or poetic justice, he managed to get in! Just a small role and a member of the ensemble, but that was all he needed. Suddenly, my lazy, disorganised, dreamy teenager who moans about having to do homework, that he never gets enough time to play, that he can’t get up in the morning… well, he’s become disciplined, focused and incredibly hard-working. Not a word of complaint about all-day rehearsals at the weekends, going straight from school to 5 hour rehearsals in the evening, missing out on all the fun of playing with his younger brother and his friends.

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Last night was the premiere (which is why I am posting twice today – plus I never know when I will next have access to the internet). The audience consisted mostly of parents, prepared to be indulgent and forgiving, as the young actors had warned us that there were still some glitches to be ironed out. However, huge sigh of relief, I could give my maternal bias a rest…

This is an excellent show! You can bet your life it’s not your average school production. Actress/director Selene Beretta certainly does not make life easy for her cast in this complex and ambitious retelling of the story of Ratty, Mole, Toad and Badger, rabbits and weasels. There is constant movement, countless sound and light cues, so many costume and set changes, a very imaginative recreation of the river bank, Toad’s mansion, the prison, Badger’s home and so on.

Although the adaptation has a funky modern feel to it, it stays close to the original and has captured many of the elements which make the book such a unique reading experience: the wit, larger than life characters, rollicking good story, but also the more lyrical aspects. I particularly loved Mole’s sense of yearning for adventure and Badger’s sage reminder that human civilisations rise and fall, while the rivers and wildlife remain. There were even some scary moments in the Wild Woods, reminding us that nature is not all cutey-wootey. But there are also those perennial moments of relaxation we all aspire to: just messing about in boats, having picnics by the river, chatting to friends…

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Congratulations to everyone involved in this production! For those of you who are based in Geneva and would like to experience it for yourselves, the show continues until Sunday 29th May and you can book tickets online on the Simply Theatre website. I’ll certainly be going more than once (and not just to pick up my son after the show).