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.