Hamilton tickets are changing hands for thousands ahead of its London opening
When a musical called Hamilton opened on Broadway in August 2015 the theatre critic of the prestigious New York Times wrote in his review: “I am loath to tell people to mortgage their houses and lease their children to acquire tickets to a hit Broadway show but Hamilton might just about be worth it.”
And anyone who has missed out on booking a seat for the initial sixmonth West End run of the show that opens on December 21 might have to do just that if they are determined to see it.
Seats are already being touted online for no less than £6,000 apiece.
So what is it about this production that is provoking such hysteria?
Hamilton has been an international sensation and critical darling
The best piece of art in any form that I have seen in my life.
The truth is that American theatreland has not witnessed a phenomenon to match it in living memory.
Former first lady Michelle Obama has called Hamilton “the best piece of art in any form that I have seen in my life”.
And the awards juries agreed.
Hamilton was nominated for no fewer than 16 Tony awards, winning 11.
It also carried off the Grammy award for Best Musical Theatre Album.
Hamilton comes to London after a wildly successful New York run
And, as if that wasn’t enough, it won the holy grail of any playwright: the Pulitzer Prize for Drama.
None of this would have happened if Lin-Manuel Miranda, an American with Puerto Rican antecedents, had not happened to pick up a biography of one of America’s founding fathers at the airport when he was heading off on holiday one day in 2007.
Alexander Hamilton, by historian Ron Chernow, was the life of an illegitimate child of a white West Indian mother and Scottish father who went on to become secretary to the US Treasury and whose likeness adorns the 10-dollar bill to this day.
Like the musical it was to spawn, Chernow’s book was garlanded with praise and spent three months in the New York Times’ bestseller list.
Miranda, who had already penned a highly successful musical called In The Heights about a Hispanic neighbourhood in New York, saw the story’s dramatic possibilities.
Ron Chernow’s retelling of Hamilton’s colourful life was itself a bestseller
Quite apart from Hamilton’s inspirational rise from unpromising origins, the circumstances of his death were melodramatic.
A long-term feud with Thomas Jefferson’s first vice-president Aaron Burr, whom Hamilton considered a corrupt and decadent, culminated in a duel.
Perhaps traumatised by the death of his oldest son in a duel a few years earlier Hamilton is said to have fired his pistol into the sky. However Burr had no such qualms and his shot left his opponent mortally wounded.
After discovering that no play had taken Hamilton as its subject since 1917, Miranda embarked on a musical with a difference.
Hamilton swept the 2016 Tony Awards, winning 11 gongs
Instead of a line-up of white actors taking the parts of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton and telling the story through a succession of traditional show tunes, he created a production composed of black actors performing in the genres of hip-hop, rhythm and blues and soul.
Thanks to the success of In The Heights, the first off-Broadway run of Hamilton was soon sold out and his production transferred to the Richard Rodgers Theatre on Broadway where it took £22million in ticket sales before its official opening.
In November 2016 it set a box-office record for the most money grossed in a single week: £2.5million for eight performances.
Not everyone loved it.
In the same month it broke that ticketsales record President Donald Trump described it as “highly overrated”, not having seen it but in reaction to the news that his vice-president Mike Pence had been booed as he took his seat to see it.
Lin-Manuel Miranda chanced upon the topic when he read Ron Chernow’s Hamilton biography
Such controversy added to the mystique surrounding the show and it was soon destined to open around the country.
But while Miranda was keen to see his baby go on a national tour he had also long fostered a desire to have it performed in London.
For if any American is an Anglophile it is Miranda.
He has always been a great Monty Python fan and is so addicted to Ricky Gervais’s comedy series The Office that when he made one of his first trips to the UK he asked his taxi driver at Heathrow to take him straight to Slough, so he could pay homage to David Brent’s home town.
But Miranda did have reservations about whether the life story of an American bureaucrat would go down as well here as it had in his homeland.
And then there was the problem that the only British character in the musical, George III, was written as “a jumped-up, flamboyant fop” in the words of one commentator.
It took Dame “Helen Mirren to put his mind at rest. She was one of the first people to see Hamilton,” recalls Miranda.
“She saw it very early and I said, ‘If we’re lucky enough to go to London, are they going to be bothered by King George?’ And she said, ‘Nahhh! We love it when you take the p***.’”
Given that the West End is clearly already in the grip of Hamilton fever – previews have already started at the Victoria Palace Theatre – it would appear that she is right.
The unknown taking centre stage
The actor who has been chosen to take on the hottest role in West End theatre is not a household name with a string of TV credits on his CV but a complete unknown who left drama school last year without an agent.
Jamael Westman, the 25-year-old son of a Jamaican father and Irish mother from London, won the part after no fewer than five auditions.
What is more he was told he was going to play the title role before he had even seen the show.
The producers had sent him to New York to view it and he was sitting in Fraunces Tavern, a museum and restaurant that had once been the HQ of George Washington, the first president of the United States, when his new agent called.
Jamael Westman bagged the lead role in Hamilton’s London run
“I was in this historical site that Hamilton definitely would have walked around,” the actor told one interviewer.
“And it still didn’t hit me. I called my brother, called my mother and then that evening I saw it.
“As I came back from the interval it really hit me. You know, it was like that Bob Marley quote, ‘When the music hits you, you feel no pain.’
“I felt absolute joy and elation. It all came into being right before my very eyes. What I was getting myself into, how lucky I was.”