SALT LAKE CITY — By the time “Hamilton” made its U.K. debut in London’s West End last November, it had been on Broadway for more than two years, racking up 11 Tony Awards and a Pulitzer for its creator, Lin-Manuel Miranda.
Though the hit musical is very much about America, it’s at least in part about the British and America gaining independence from them. So how exactly did Brits receive it?
Before its arrival at Salt Lake City’s Eccles Theater next month, the Deseret News contacted a handful of theater critics overseas who witnessed “Hamilton’s” London debut. Most of them loved it. A few were unimpressed. Together, they helped us see “Hamilton” through British eyes.
Not lost in translation
Ann Treneman, a theater critic for The Times, has a unique perspective on “Hamilton”: She’s spent the last 30 years living in England but was raised in America. By all accounts, “Hamilton” has been a smash in London, where it has earned 13 nominations at the Olivier Awards (the British equivalent of the Tonys).
“That makes it the most nominated show, ever, even over ‘Harry Potter’ last year,” Treneman said over email.
According to Treneman, the emotional connection to “Hamilton” probably runs a little deeper in America — most Brits aren’t normally familiar with the show’s titular character, one of America's Founding Fathers. But she, like most native English, adored the new British production. In her five-star review, Treneman said she “wasn’t so much moved as riveted,” adding that it felt “like a rock concert where you don’t know the star.”
The musical’s British component, she said, isn’t really what grabbed British audiences before its debut. Rather, it was the insane demand it had already earned in the U.S.
“There were certainly some of the lyrics and jokes that went over their head here and I did find myself laughing, virtually by myself, in the theatre,” she told the Deseret News. “But, of course, the key to ‘getting’ ‘Hamilton’ really is the music and the sense of an outsider trying to make his mark.”
Henry Hitchings, who reviewed the show for the British publication The Standard, told the Deseret News that “Hamilton” was “the most feverishly anticipated show of the last decade, riding a bigger wave of hype” than any production he could remember.
In his estimation, British audiences understood most of the humor and references — the crowds had done their homework, he noted — and that the show does a good job explaining itself. Like Treneman, Hitchings, too, was wowed, giving the production a five-star rating.
In his email to the Deseret News, Hitchings said the show’s music was among its most impressive elements. Specifically, he admired how the score melded a variety of musical traditions, from rap to jazz to musical theater. Of course, rap isn’t exclusively American at this point, and Hitchings said the British could certainly pen their own rap musical, but current British rap, in his estimation, is perhaps too angry for mainstream musical theater.
Lots of love (and a little scorn)
The London production portrays Britain’s King George III as a bit of a foppish buffoon. And actor Michael Jibson, who plays the part, received an Olivier nomination for it. It seems British audiences haven’t taken offense.
“We love having fun poked at us and especially our institutions, as long as it’s essentially good-natured,” Hitchings said.
Quentin Letts, a theater critic for the Daily Mail, added, “We are not at all fazed by representations of past colonialism. In fact, audiences here would probably be rather shocked by any show which cast past British imperialism in a positive light.”
While Treneman and Hitchings loved “Hamilton,” Letts was far less impressed, giving the production only three stars.
Describing the play’s PR hype as ill-advised, Letts clarified that he didn’t hate “Hamilton.” For plays like this one, which have years of success in the states before coming overseas, hype is inevitable. That lag, Letts said, irritates the news journalist in him, but he claimed it amounts to “no more than a grain of peevishness” in his actual reviews.
“I found my spiritual innards determinedly unmoved by the music, dance and characterization,” he said in his email. “Some online types poured scorn on me for giving it only three stars. Hey ho. C'est la vie. Some critics dislike attracting flak from social media finger waggers. Happily, I am so clueless about most internet sites that it flies over my little head.”