Hamilton, Festival Theatre, Edinburgh Review: 'The most acclaimed and talked-about musical of the century'

This mighty musical retelling of the life of Alexander Hamilton is delivered with wit, passion, profound humanity and unforgettable power, writes Joyce McMillan

Hamilton, Festival Theatre, Edinburgh *****

Here it comes, the most acclaimed and talked-about musical of the century, so far; and it’s a huge thrill both to see Edinburgh’s beautiful Festival Theatre welcoming capacity audiences for the Scottish premier of Hamilton, and to report that for all the hype that surrounds it, this is a show that fully matches, and often exceeds, all of those expectations.

First seen in New York in 2015, and written when Barack Obama was still US president, the show has an angry, impassioned, yet profoundly hopeful tone that might be difficult to recapture today.

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Yet those are the emotions that give the drama its unforgettable drive and shape, as it retells the story of the founding of the United States through the voices of a young company of mainly non-white performers; and uses a dazzling range of contemporary musical styles – from straightforward musical ballads to intense rap and hip-hop – to chart Alexander Hamilton’s astonishing career, from his birth on the Caribbean island of Nevis as the illegitimate and impoverished son of a young Scottish trader, through his vital role in the American Revolution and War of Independence – where he became George Washington’s right hand man, and a founding father of the United States – to the loss of power and status that marked his later life, largely thanks to his own hubris.

It’s a huge story to tell, in other words; and Miranda’s narrative proceeds at a breathtaking pace, whirling through 34 terrific musical numbers in the time it takes most musicals to deliver 15 or 20. The lyrics are brilliant, the musical and choreographic set-pieces are dazzling, and designer David Korin’s big, wide-open set – a narrow gallery on two levels round three sides of the stage, magnificently lit by Howell Binkley – creates a fine arena within which sets and furniture, platforms and staircases come and go, seamlessly conjuring up settings from Hamilton’s study to public meetings, taverns, and the streets of 18th century New York.

Nor is the show simply telling the story, without comment. Miranda’s songs and lyrics have plenty to say, for example, about the prejudice Hamilton faced as an “immigrant” from the Caribbean. “Immigrants, huh,” he raps, in a scene with the Frenchman Lafayette, “they get the job done”; and the commentary on current American politics is clear. The show also sends up the attitudes of the British monarch, George III, with a sharpness that will strike a few chords with contemporary Scottish audience; his first number, You’ll Be Back, perfectly captures the combination of sentimentality, belittlement, and straightforward threats that the British state has often deployed towards those wishing to declare themselves independent, and depart from the imperial family.

And above all, in the show’s magnificent final number and elsewhere, Miranda tackles the question of who owns the narrative, and who gets to tells the story; both celebrating the achievement of Hamilton’s widow Elizabeth – who outlived him by half a century, and worked tirelessly to ensure that his legacy was not forgotten – and offering an explanation of the show’s very existence, as a retelling of the story of America’s fight for freedom, and of the founding of the United States, by those most often excluded from that historical narrative.

In this UK production, the whole mighty story is delivered in magnificent style by a 35-strong company – led by Shaq Taylor as Hamilton, and Maya Britto as his wife Eliza – whose work as singers, rappers, dancers and actors is beyond praise, both in the most intimate scenes, and in the show’s exhilarating set-piece numbers. And as the audience rise, at the end, in a heartfelt standing ovation, it feels like a rare moment of pure, spontaneous celebration – of the sheer force of creativity, skill and energy that drives this astonishing show, and of what is surely one of the greatest political stories ever told, delivered with wit, passion, profound humanity and unforgettable power.

Hamilton is at the Festival Theatre, Edinburgh, until 27 April.