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Why Hamilton's Arrival In London Should Not Be Written Off As Just Another Mega-Musical

17/01/2017 17:43 GMT | Updated 18/01/2017 10:41 GMT


On January 30, 2017, tickets will go on sale for the West End debut of Hamilton at London's Victoria Palace Theatre some nine months before it opens. The multi-Tony-award-winning musical tells the life story of American founding father Alexander Hamilton via a sung-through, hip hop-inspired score and a pared-down set which is far from the usual glitz and glitter of a theatrical form that has brought us the likes of Wicked (now in its eleventh year) and jukebox jamboree Mamma Mia. While its conceit may appear to be an odd choice for contemporary theatre, it is far from outlandish in the world of musical theatre where anything is possible, gravity can be defied, fear can be whistled away, and any dream, in fact, will do. But what feels particularly fresh and new about Hamilton is its ability to retell American history through an unashamedly multicultural lens. It offers a timely corrective to the current political landscape that has seen the rise of the so-called alt-right in its homeland alongside the ascendancy of President Trump who himself offers a readymade, larger-than-life character ripe for some future musical theatre makeover. While we have no idea how Hamilton will ultimately fare in a post-Article 50-invoked London, its debut will certainly resonate at a local level within an industry that has constantly fallen short of delivering diversity outcomes in roles that move up and beyond the chorus line.

That said, musical theatre has long offered a safe haven for the LBTGQ community and its links with feminism and queer politics are well documented. But its potential to challenge authority has never received the kudos of other theatrical forms such as contemporary playwriting and it remains largely viewed within the cultural sector as a predominately commercial and conservative enterprise. The film Team America: World Police (2004) made great satirical play of this issue when it included a plot line whereby Broadway actor Gary Johnstone used his immense powers of 'acting' to carry out acts of espionage on behalf of the United States with disastrously flawed results. When it comes to affairs of the state, no-one is likely to go knocking on the doors of musical theatre for answers to the complex problems of the world economy or threats to world peace. And then Donald Trump got elected, the world as we knew it got turned upside down, and musical theatre almost overnight became the enemy within.

The impetus for such a cataclysmic turn of events was the attendance of Vice President Elect Mike Pence at a Broadway performance of Hamilton in November. Following a curtain call, and speaking on behalf of the cast as well as America's diverse minorities, actor Brandon Victor Dixon addressed Pence directly, expressing hope that the show had inspired an enthusiasm for American values but also the cast's fear for the forthcoming administration's potential to over-ride the rights of the country's marginalised minorities.

In what has become an all too familiar pattern, President Elect Trump took to Twitter to deliver his own response at the show's audacity to address the Vice President Elect in this way, demanding that:

The special and safe place into which Hamilton will arrive is a London that shares many similarities with New York - London voted to remain a full member of the European Union just as New York voted overwhelmingly for Hillary Clinton in the 2016 Presidential election. London, too, has had its own experience of actors taking a dressing down after they have dared to indulge in a bout of post-show banter with their audience. Back in September 2015, British actor Benedict Cumberbatch got into some hot water when he addressed his audience at the Barbican who had just watched him perform Hamlet. Criticising the government's slow response to the Syrian refugee crisis, he subsequently became the bête noire of that champion of free speech the Daily Mail, who did not look kindly on actors voicing their opinions on matters non-theatrical. Entertainers who do not limit themselves to acts of entertainment run the risk of causing outrage if their views do not endorse those of certain sections of the popular press, it seems. Thus, while their private lives may provide justifiable fodder for public titillation, any comments they might wish to make on humanity are neither sought or welcome.

It is into this climate that Hamilton has managed to break new ground for musical theatre in the US, where it has, inadvertently perhaps, led the way for the arts to become a tangible oppositional force in a space that has begun to normalise a discourse of wall-building, isolationism and wanton acts of bigotry. By making a direct link between art and politics, political discourse and lived experience, multiculturalism and hope, Hamilton's arrival in London this year is both timely and necessary.

Hamilton opens at the Victoria Palace Theatre on 21 November 2017. Tickets go on sale on Monday 30 January.