Sleaze and sex — plus ça change

The rap musical Hamilton reminds us that shakedowns and steamy liaisons are far from new in US politics

Theatre
Turbulent hero: Debutant Jamael Westman triumphs as Alexander Hamilton  (©MATTHEW MURPHY)

The most heartening thing about Hamilton is that it is a mega-hit, cross-generational musical that gets more rewarding the more you know about the foundations of the American constitution. For a London audience in 2018, that sounds like a tall order. But the Tony awards-laden show, which arrived trailing clouds of admiration from Broadway and Chicago at the start of the year, is borne along on the wave of witty lyrics and Lin-Manuel Miranda’s sublime gift for the kind of musical repartee that can make an edgy rap rhyme out of the first meetings and the crafty power-play of America’s founding fathers.

Burr: “How you gonna get your debt plan through?”

We meet our turbulent hero, played by Jamael Westman (an extraordinary first big break for a 25-year-old Rada graduate), driving a  platoon of dancers as soldiers, seizing British artillery at Brooklyn and soon under the fatherly wing of General (George) Washington. The war is over quicker than you can say hip-hop, and the ambitious, fissiparous founding fathers get Project America under way. The original team of rivals is riven from the start by envy and mistrust. Miranda hones in on the relations between super-confident Hamilton — “young, scrappy and hungry, just like my country” — and the brooding Burr (Giles Terera). Terera is by far the better singer of the duo — Westman dominates the stage at well over six feet, but lacks the voice heft of recent American productions. The casting keeps to the spirit Miranda intends with the most ethnically diverse staging in the West End. Is it, as some allege, too comfortably PC? Well, it’s a stretch to hail Hamilton and others moving from one 18th-century British dependency to another as plucky immigrants in the sense we would use the word now, but Hamilton was also an outsider at the time with an arriviste’s blend of self-confidence and self-doubt.

The more obscure or complicated the story, the better the drama. So the foundations of the US Treasury under Hamilton’s federal funding arrangements, the stand-off over the location of the capital, and the extent of presidential powers (contemporary relevance is broadly winked at) produce the best set-pieces. “The room where it happens” is a sly, masterful insight into closed-door encounters that drive the world forward: “Jefferson approaches with the dinner and invite/Madison responds with Virginian insight.”
This long number is really the crux of the drama — a grand example of Manuel’s ability to adapt Ron Chernow’s dense 2004 account of Hamilton’s life and make it stand for eternal political truths and veiled half-truths. I thought the London production rattled through this song as comedy — whereas the Chicago version has the singers growl about the room as symbol of a politics that gets more corrupt the less light is let in. Hamilton is very funny — but there should be a sliver of anger and warning that the British version understates in its quest for slickness.

The second half sees our difficult hero’s arrogance getting the better of him. Burr is brooding and plotting, and personal stories and betrayals unwind. The roles of women here are tunefully decorative, but the musical strives to make them more than skirt-whirling accompanists to the brilliant lives of the men they love or lust for. The imbalance stems in part from a justified reluctance to invent detail where history has lost the detail of what happened. So Hamilton’s suspected dalliance with his sister-in-law Angelique is hinted at, but the psychological roots of his aggressive appetite for sexual conquest go unexplored. It’s more elegant contrivance and clever knitting together of great events than a psychological deep dive.

Things burst back to life with the extraordinary saga of his summer fling with Maria Reynolds, which turns into (or may have been all along) a shakedown by her unscrupulous husband. Lest we think Stormy Daniels or Bill Clinton’s train of one-night stands unforgiveably sleazy, Hamilton is a reminder that steamy sexual encounters and subsequent shakedowns are as fundamental to US politics as the First Amendment. To cling onto his role as the first Treasury Secretary, Hamilton publishes the full, messy kompromat Reynolds has collected on his adultery. The story rolls onwards, through the poignancy of a father’s sins visited on the son, as Hamilton’s hotheaded boy defends dad’s honour — perishing in a duel on the Hudson. (“Anything’s allowed in New Jersey.”)

Burr’s and Hamilton’s fates converge in the election of 1800 when both overplay their hands and end up sulking on the edge of the new politics. At a dinner in 1804, a guest recorded Hamilton describing Burr as “dangerous”. The insults become Burr’s challenge to a duel that is idiotic and yet a dreadfully fitting conclusion to the “war of two”. Although George III (Michael Jibson) is a gloriously effete, bitchy soul who greets the news that Washington is to be succeeded by John Adams with “Good luck with that”, he has a tart point in his spiky song about the gap between the dream of liberty and the grubby business of governing.

A small but telling aspect of the early American republic that the musical brings to life is how extraordinary tight-knit and competitive the founding fathers were. When Maria Reynolds finally divorced her no-good spouse, her attorney was one Aaron Burr. And if parody is the greatest compliment, then the great musical American export has surely earned its spurs for eternity. Another US  import, Spamilton, opens shortly at the Menier.