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Hamilton: the first 'new' musical of the 21st century

Sky TV finance journalist Janine Perrett is also an enthusiastic theatre-goer. A frequent visitor to New York, she was enthralled last month by Hamilton — the new, crazily successful show about politics, power, racism — and a debt crisis.

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Welcome to the first new musical of the 21st century — Hamilton –a musical that has taken New York by storm.

Not that there haven’t been many new stage musicals written in the last 15 years, but this one feels like it’s the first to have brought the genre into the new millennium.

Who would have thought a rap musical about an 18th century US treasury secretary could feel so relevant today?

Given musical theatre from Manhattan to Sydney is awash in revivals of mid-century classics from South Pacific to The Sound of Music, Hamilton feels particularly new.

‘Hip Hop Hamilton’ some are calling it, and while it does feature rap music, it’s a gentler version accessible to everyone — you only need talk to the many Australians who have already downloaded the cast album and are singing along to its catchy tunes.

In fact Hamilton is not too different to a traditional musical in its staging or tempo. Its one big difference to the usual Broadway fare is that the cast is almost all African-American or Latino. The only white face on stage is the brilliant Jonathan Groff playing a dribbling King George III.

George Washington (Christopher Jackson), Thomas Jefferson (Daveed Diggs) and Hamilton himself (Lin Manuel Miranda) are played by non-white actors, which is groundbreaking in its audacious colour-blind casting. Colour is forgotten as you are swept up in the show’s energy.

That energy begins before the curtain rises.

The show is sold out for many months and scalpers are getting over $1000 for good seats. The queues for returns are so long the theatre became concerned someone would freeze to death after waiting in line for four hours and there is a daily lottery where some lucky winners nab a prime seat for $10. However, if you are going to New York you should keep checking the show’s website as some tickets do come up occasionally.

By the time you take your seat in the Richard Rodgers theatre you know you are one of the privileged few; the buzz is palpable. For visitors to New York, any Broadway show should be exciting, but ticket prices are so exorbitant the top shows tend to attract an older, richer demographic who are usually whining about having to get a park.

The Hamilton audience is uncharacteristically young and vibrant and on the day I attended a gaggle of teenage girls were a source of endless information about the cast.

Unlike many, I was aware that the creator and star of the show, Lin Manuel Miranda, does not perform Sunday matinees. That is no disappointment as his understudy, Javier Munoz, is also fantastic. He played for Barrack Obama on the President’s first visit to the show, and the New York Times published a special review of Munoz calling it “Sexy Sunday” and assuring theatregoers they “will not lose out” watching the understudy.

So how does a show about the uniformly white founding fathers, starring black and Latinos and focus on a man who was not even President (Hamilton’s top job was Treasury of the Secretary) become such a huge hit, — especially with a young audience?

It’s not just the wonderful words and music, but the fact the story still resonates today; particularly in an America in the midst of a toxic election that each day more and more resembles a reality TV show.

Hamilton has it all — politics, power, racism, a debt crisis and even a sex scandal complete with a loyal wife standing by her man during a media storm. (In one irony, Renee Elise Goldsberry, who is a prosecutor on TV’s The Good Wife, plays Hamilton’s smitten sister-in-law).

We all know about Washington and Jefferson, but Hamilton himself is best known for being killed in a duel by Aaron Burr, (the subject of the famous Gore Vidal novel, Burr). So that’s no spoiler.

It is constantly noted that Hamilton was looked down upon as an “immigrant” and every time the word is used (as in “immigrants get things done”) there is a cheer from the audience.

As a finance journalist, I cannot help but be thrilled that talk about his battle to assume state debt and establish a national bank is actually highly entertaining in the Cabinet Battle song.

Sings the Southerner Jefferson: “We plant seeds in the ground, we create, you move money around”.

New Yorker Hamilton fires back: “If we assume the debt the unions get a new line of credit, a financial diuretic”.

The Room Where it Happens is an ode to power and the desperate desire to be in the inner sanctum.

And every Australian who thinks about the possibility of a republic will relish poor old King George bemoaning the revolutionary war in You’ll Be Back — “When push comes to shove, I will send a fully armed battalion to remind you of my love … my loyal, royal subjects”.

The lyrics are so clever you are actually better off downloading the album and appreciating them at leisure as so much is missed when watching the fast-paced action live.

The good news is that the first productions outside New York have been announced in Chicago and on US West Coast from early next year.

Meantime if you are planning a trip to New York in the next year or so, book a ticket to Hamilton. If you’re not planning a trip then book a ticket anyway, then go.

It’s that good.

2 responses to “Hamilton: the first 'new' musical of the 21st century

  1. Trying to get tickets, but ticket master is colluding with scalpers now to get its share of the markup from 177 face to $700-$1400 per orchestra seat. Have to wait for the movie.

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