Hamilton: A Musical For London And New Orleans

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A couple of weeks ago I spent a stressful morning trying to get tickets for the London production of smash hit Broadway musical Hamilton, which is coming to the West End next year (I managed it, just about). I heard shortly afterwards that Hamilton will also arrive in New Orleans in 2018 or 2019.

Neither city can really claim to be the spiritual home of the musical in a conventional sense. US founding father Alexander Hamilton, on whose life the musical is based, spent much of his life in New York. Lin-Manual Miranda, who wrote the musical, is from the same city, being a born-and-bred New Yorker with Puerto Rican roots.

However, Hamilton seems to have struck a chord in both London and New Orleans, if actual and forecasted ticket sales are anything to go by. Its emphasis on ethnic diversity – it alludes to suggestions that Hamilton’s mother was mixed race and the Broadway production has made a (sometimes controversial) point of using actors from ethnic minorities – appeals to audiences in many cities in the US and Europe. The association of the musical with the Obamas and its feud with the new Trump administration will have won it further fans everywhere.

But I think Hamilton has particular resonances for people in New Orleans and London that could be aiding its popularity in these two cities in particular.

To take New Orleans first, Hamilton was born in the West Indies, a part of the world with geographical and cultural ties to New Orleans. Some of his ancestors were from France, New Orleans’ first colonial mistress, and he grew up speaking French. It has even been argued that his work enabled the US to make the Louisiana Purchase, just under a decade after his death.

In terms of London, meanwhile, Hamilton also had British ancestry, through his Scottish father and his mother also. The economic and political innovations he brought about during his career, while often framed by America’s struggle for independence, were arguably influenced in part by British institutions and traditions. Despite his involvement in the Revolutionary War, he was an advocate for good political and commercial relations with the British.

And, though I haven’t seen it yet (and will have to wait for nearly a year to do so, unfortunately), I sense that Hamilton’s touchstones are the kinds of themes that are important in London and New Orleans, and that link the two cities together.

It seems to me that Hamilton is ultimately about the journey of people across the world as we’ve negotiated colonialism, a phenomenon that has profoundly shaped London and New Orleans. Many, many wrongs have been done, but people in these cities, and elsewhere in Europe and America, have moved forwards from histories involving slavery and injustice to enjoy a greater degree of freedom, democracy and equality, though there is still much, much progress to be made.

Moving forwards also requires looking back and the preservation of historical memory, which is alluded to in Hamilton’s final song “Who Lives, Who Dies, Who Tells Your Story”. History, storytelling, and how we confront the sometimes difficult presence of the past in our lives today: London and New Orleans know these things are worth making a song and dance about.

Image: Cosmopolitan

The Fictional Characters Who Best Represent London And New Orleans

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Recently, I’ve been reading a lot of Sherlock Holmes stories. It’s January; there’s not much else to do right now in London. And because, for me, Sherlock Holmes is the ultimate Londoner.

First, there is his obsessive knowledge of this vast, dense and knotty web of people, places and things perched in the Thames estuary. His forays outside it are undertaken with a sense of adventure, but also a polite distaste for spending too long outside the capital that any Londoner would recognise.

Even the way in which Holmes eventually retires from the city to keep bees on the south coast is an acting out of a version of a longstanding Londoner fantasy that’s as potent now (and as likely to remain confined to fiction) as it was a hundred years ago.

Then there’s his anthropological fascination, used to great effect professionally, with London’s caste distinctions and conventions – and his willingness to ignore or breach them. This is true to London as a whole, which is the place where the UK’s class system and social customs are at their most complex, and also their most flexible.

Finally, he shares the fascination of many Londoners with anything unexpected and novel. And like many of them, he is as happy mining the city’s layers of historical detritus as he is looking to the newest scientific innovations to get a hit.

While I’ve read plenty about New Orleans and visited many times, I can’t claim to know this city as well as I know London. So I asked people who live there which fictional character they would pick to represent it. I received some inspired suggestions that reminded me how much great literature has been written about New Orleans. (Though as one person pointed out: “Tough question for a city full of real-life characters.”)

Lestat, Anne Rice’s legendary rock star vampire. Ignatius J. Reilly from A Confederacy of Dunces, which many see as the best novel ever written about New Orleans, or just ever. “Sometimes Stanley, sometimes Blanche”, two of the lead characters in Tennessee Williams’ electrifying downtown-set play A Streetcar Named Desire. Benjamin Button, the eponymous hero of an F. Scott Fitzgerald short story and a 2008 film starring Brad Pitt, who lives life going backwards.

Quite a gang. They’re all very much individuals, but I notice some common threads in their personalities and the stories that link them to New Orleans.

First: order versus anarchy. Stanley lectures Stella on the Napoleonic Code as their lives begin to twist out of shape. Ignatius is a notorious breaker of New Orleans’ social rules, yet cannot bring himself to leave the city.

Then there is time. Lestat is a joyfully decadent immortal, only occasionally troubled by the trials of neverending life. Button is distinguished by being born old and dying young, which I think qualifies him well to be (in the film at least) an inhabitant of New Orleans.

Sherlock Holmes could be one of this crew. Like them, he balances somewhere between order and anarchy. He also seems to somehow float free of time’s usual restrictions, as shown by the regularity with which his adventures are adapted and updated.

All these characters tell us something about the overall characters of London and New Orleans. The fact that they’d probably all get on well if they were to meet in a Marigny bar or a Hackney pub also tells us there are a few things the cities have in common.

Image: Scott Monty

New Orleans Does January Much Better Than London

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Happy New Year from London. Yes, I have excluded a festive exclamation mark, and deliberately so. It is generally agreed that January is when London is at its least happy, and most miserable.

Here the first month of the year is about cutting back after Christmas spending, New Year’s resolutions, and the more recent British tradition of having an alcohol-free “Dry January”. This week my email inbox has been full of 2 for 1 offers for the restaurants, West End shows and other attractions that would have been bursting with people just a couple of weeks ago. The result is a quiet and depressing city, usually cold but these days rarely brightened by snow.

It’s not supposed to be like this. As everyone knows from the famous carol, there are twelve days of Christmas. In the UK, most people pretty much regard the whole of the week between Christmas and New Year as holiday season, even if they have to work. But by the first days of January, Christmas seems to be well and truly over in many people’s minds.

I still keep my decorations up until the 6th of January as old tradition dictates, but this week have seen many balding Christmas trees left out with the rubbish. When I was a child, my parents would go to Twelfth Night parties, but these seem not to happen any more.

There is a good case for extending the fun even further into the new year than its first six days. In a brilliant column for Time Out London a couple of years ago, Giles Coren said he thought we Londoners had got it all wrong. Why do we save all the festive spirit (in London, this essentially means alcohol) for the busy days of December and allow none for quiet, dim January?

“It’s just nuts,” he wrote. “We’re doing it all the wrong way round. What booze is for is for cheering you up when life is shit. It’s for getting you through the day when there is nothing to do and you feel like you don’t have any friends. Like in, for example, January. And the one time you do not need it is in the month running up to Christmas.”

Things are done differently, and I would say better, in New Orleans. Here 6th of January marks the beginning of Mardi Gras season, and of course its festivities. One of my favourites of this day’s events I’ve read about (having never been in the city in January) is the ride of the Phunny Phorty Phellows carnival krewe. The Phellows board, in costume, the St Charles streetcar and proceed, they say, to “sip champagne, eat king cake, dance, and let fly with the very first beads of the Mardi Gras season”.

A month and often longer of more king cake (see image), parties and parades follows, culminating in the glories of Mardi Gras day itself. Lent also follows, of course, but somehow giving up something festive when you can see and feel spring coming seems like a better idea than doing so during the very darkest days of the year.

Image: praline3001