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Don’t be Burr, sir: The transformative politics of Hamilton on the London stage

Rachel Ann Go Hamilton

I went to Hamilton and it was pretty great. Five Stars. Admittedly, when it comes to hot takes that one right there is pretty tepid. As Matt Trueman mentions in his WhatsonStage blog, if you’ve been sentient over the last two years months, there is really no need for me to tell you just how critically-acclaimed, clever, relevant, inspiring or any number of other praising adjectives the Lin-Manuel Miranda-penned show, which has just opened at Victoria Palace Theatre, is. Instead, I want to talk about Hamilton and rewriting. The cautious reader might think it foolish to bring up rewriting when talking about a Pulitzer-prize and Tony-award winning show, so before There is Five Things You Need To Know:

No. 1. I too am Ham trash.

No. 2. I gladly confess to regularly trolling the murky depths of Tumblr in search of a new fix, preferably in the form of a gif of Renée Elise Goldsberry (a leading actress from the original Broadway run) being sassy on stage, a lip-sync battle video between members of the principal cast, or a YouTube marathon of songs that didn’t make it into the final stage version.

No. 3. I was utterly swept up in the celebratory atmosphere that surrounds the new London incarnation of the show.

No. 4. I cheered and sobbed and jumped to my feet and sighed and did all the things you do when you finally experience something that you’ve been listening to on your headphones for over a year.

No. 5. I felt pathetically happy coming out of the theatre.

But despite building anticipation over several months, and generally agreeing that what we had just seen had outstripped all our expectations this is what happened next: upon leaving the theatre, two of my female theatre-going buddies turned to me and said: “So… we want to rewrite the show from the perspective of the Eliza Schuyler because she’s the real star”. For the uninitiated, Eliza is the wife of the show’s eponymous hero, Alexander Hamilton, one of the United States’ founding fathers. Crucially, in addition to single-handedly creating America’s financial system, Hamilton was also what we would now call ‘a self-centred douche’. But still, why would a show that has famously been hailed for its post-racial politics elicit such a reaction?

Setting up legacies, dominating the narrative, rewriting and telling our own life stories; these are the central themes of Hamilton, as any number of opinion pieces and publications since its opening in 2015 have pointed out. And the real Eliza played a crucial role in how the legacy of her husband continued after his death. History is not, as the proverb has it, written by the winner. Neither is it a static series of neutral facts that can be understood and learned. History is constantly in the process of being made, lived, written, rewritten, and remoulded. Hamilton does not simply use rap music to retell the story of the American War of Independence. It considers hip hop and the genre’s history to be a revolutionary musical mode, and then blends this with historic characters and ideas that have become part of the American national identity. Squabbles over defending the US constitution, lurid political sex affairs and rapping founding fathers, eighteenth-century politics never sounded so current.

Transferring such a uniquely American mashup of a show to London comes with its own battles. The first thing that has been made anew, in a quite practical sense, is the Victoria Palace Theatre. The paint is still drying in places, but it’s a gorgeous space with terrific sight lines and super comfy seats. While you stand in a merchandise queue that stretches over two stairways and contemplate whether you could get away with buying the youth hoodie in XL instead of the more expensive adult one, you can bask in the shiny newness of it all. Though it must be said that the refurbishment has resulted in a programme contribution by Cameron Mackintosh that is too many damn pages for anyone to care about.

The American Broadway show was a trailblazer in many respects. It challenged industry norms in regards to racial representation on stage and what types of music are deemed palatable for mainstream audiences — something that can only do good in the notoriously non-inclusive London theatre industry. But, while still in New York, it also stirred up discussions about privileged access and exorbitant ticket prices. As a result, the London producers have put measures into place to try and avoid the same extortionate ticket touting, so far to only limited success.

Other challenges will perhaps be even more tricky for the London cast and crew to negotiate. They carry on their shoulders the weight of a Grammy-Award winning album and they need to do some major reworking on the audience’s ears, which in large swathes will have grown accustomed to the Broadway recording. The London production does this boldly. By casting fresh-out-of-drama-school newcomer Jamael Westman in the title role, and by giving the part of antagonist-narrator Aaron Burr to Giles Terera, they have decided to give the London production its own distinct sound. Less crisp and show-tune-y than Leslie Odom Jr. from the Broadway cast, Terera’s voice has a more characteristically jazz-tinged timbre. Between them, Westman and Terera unveil all the shades of grey in the traditional hero and villain-scenario.

And then there’s the other elephant in the room. It might not have escaped readers that the empire from which the American republicans sought independence was the British one. How does a celebration of that victory fly in front of a contemporary British audience? Unsurprisingly, the British audience seems to be utterly besotted with King George III. Huffing, eye-rolling and strutting performer Michael Jibson milks the ridiculous toff-ness of the emasculated monarch for all its worth.

Despite knowing the story and songs inside and out, I have to admit that I wasn’t quite prepared for the moment when the Marquis de Lafayette (superb comedy acting from Jason Pennycooke) and Hamilton, about to fight the British troops, shake hands and chant “Immigrants, we get the job done”. The audience cheered as I’m sure it has done many times before in its New York run, and I started blubbing. And that’s the deal with Hamilton right here. I know that this story is not about me, a white EU immigrant in London, yet it affects me personally because I can see the UK’s own relationship with patriotism changing every day before my very eyes. The story, the characters, even individual lines concerning such a specific historical context, are made to feel so universal that they lend themselves to reshaping around individual listener’s own biographies and experiences.

So, yes, I might have been initially stumped by my friends’ comment about ‘rewriting’ Hamilton. Yet reshaping the narratives of what’s believed to unchangeable is in the DNA of the show. There’s even an official mixtape remixing the original tunes to prove it. And while I know that Hamilton is still only a big piece of commercial entertainment, it was ultimately heartening that after a year that was all about female voices finally being heard, these two twenty-first century women came out of the show and didn’t just simply fawn over how brilliant everything was. Inspired by the electrifying performances of the London Schuyler sisters, Rachel John, Rachelle Ann Go and Christine Allado, they had no problem voicing their issues with some of the more sketchy aspects of the show’s feminist politics. The transformative impulse that drives the show has kept its momentum even after having been shipped across the ocean.

As an addendum, I’ll risk sounding like I have a bit of a chip on my shoulder. Judging from social media conversations, it appears that the producers of the London show did not offer reviewing tickets to bloggers or alternative reviewing sites such as Exeunt and instead prioritised the traditional news outlets. While I can see how that decision can be justified in trying to ensure widespread coverage for the show while it is still settling into its new home, it is disappointing nonetheless. Given that rewriting is at the heart of Hamilton, how great would it have been if the producers had acted more in accordance with the politics of the show and tried include bloggers and sites like Exeunt from the very start? Pretty great, right? (And to be sure, Bridget Minamore’s Exeunt review is stunningly thought-provoking). Because by facilitating and supporting alternative criticism you ensure that a diversity of voices can be found not just on stage but also in the reception and fan discussions. And if the show does not have rewriting at its heart then perhaps all it deserves are reviews saying: “I went to Hamilton and it was pretty great. Five Stars.” (or “Nice jodhpurs. Three Stars”.) And nothing more.

Posted in Musical, Reviews

Visual Monsterisation Strategies

clinton monster

Monsters thrive in the messy swamps of pop culture. They live in the fertile space where classic literary narratives and traditional aesthetic norms are blown apart by visual strategies born at the crossroads between political turmoil and contemporary taste. The particularly adversarial climate of the current American Presidential election campaign proves that monsters are nourished by culture’s incessant need for new imagery.

In an example from a couple of weeks ago, game designer Mike Selinker worked with several illustrators to produce an adaptation of the well known ABC book The Gashlycrumb Tinies by Edward Gorey. The original 1963 illustrated book is an assembly of macabre pictures about children meeting their unfortunate ends through such creative mishaps as being “sucked dry by a leech” or being “devoured by mice”.

Gorey Trump

In 26 different images the 2016 persiflage transposes the visual language of the original source directly onto a set of new images. While most of the illustrations in the amusing A-Z feature distorted drawings of Trump, it is the last picture that eventually sees him morph into a tentacled, bog-eyed and bewigged creature, wafting over a dystopian landscape and ushering the little girl Zeitgeist over a cliff. The Trump ABC is a reinterpretation directly addressing a range of policy issues that the illustrators see as marking out the Conservative candidate as unsuitable for the office of Commander in Chief. In doing so it relies heavily on the retention of the original alphabet structure and uses textual elements to deliver its criticism.



This first example shows the ways in which satire allow us to make sense of current issues through already familiar visual contexts. While stealing from or ‘being inspired’ by other art work is one of the most common ways for artists to find authentic expression for their own ideas, most monsterisation processes are a lot more complex than this. Often when a new monster is born, it dodges attempts to be assigned a conclusive meaning. This is not only because it draws its fangs and slimy limbs from a variety of visual sources, it also relies on the violent deformation of forms and contexts. Monsters leech off images that are freely circulating in popular culture. In their bellies they churn around these ideas and regurgitate them into new, puzzling and scary shapes.

When monsters fuse the remnants of several texts and images onto their bodies, it is not only incredibly difficult to make out the exact sources that have served as inspiration; exactly what they are saying, alluding to and achieving also becomes much more ambiguous.

In October a Big Issue magazine featured a cover illustration of Donald Trump in jarring colours reminiscent of the iconic ‘Uncle Sam’ image in which a man points at the onlooker. Big Issue, for those not familiar with the British publishing landscape, is a magazine set up as a social enterprise and which has been around since 1991. It prides itself on producing high-quality journalism and is published on behalf of homeless and vulnerably housed people who are able to support themselves through working as street vendors. The magazine covers are usually laid out in striking colours, sometimes featuring celebrities or allusions to current affairs. The picture on that particular issue is special because it is not merely an amusing picture of a person of current interest, but because Trump has been turned into a zombie-like creature. The aesthetics of the figure are directly informed by the John Carpenter alien invasion B-Movie They Live which was made in response to Reaganomics. In the film a special pair of sunglasses allows the wearer to detect the weaknesses of the American democratic system as personified in the fleshless aliens. Below I hint at the various visual and pop culture influences that have come together in this figure.

Donald Fear

The origin of Uncle Sam as the personification for the United States is apocryphal but likely dates back to at least 1812 when America was, still, or yet again, at war with Britain. It took about a hundred years, until 1916 for the image we know now to solidify into its iconic state. The illustration by artist James Montgomery Flagg appeared first in the magazine Leslie’s Weekly under the title “What Are You Doing for Preparedness?” and later, in the Second World War, served as a military enrolment poster. The creature with its exposed jaw and teeth also has distinctly zombie-like features. The idea of Uncle Sam as a zombie is not new: in 1996 — a time in which the States were involved in numerous military operations all over the globe — a horror military comedy lured punters into the cinema with the catchy tagline “Uncle Sam wants you… dead!” Now, this unspecific personification of America’s national pride has been swapped for an actual politician.

This Trump Monster both invokes the uncertainty about America’s future and plays to the popular conceit of a dystopian apocalypse. The flesh is taken off its face, revealing the sinews underneath which are made up of the colours of the American flag. The ‘rotten core’ forms a visual antithesis to Obama’s iconic 2008 election poster in which the colours of the flag are unambiguous and blocky, an image surface on which ‘Hope’ is quite literally projected. Instead, the projection of fear reflects back at us a jarring zombie-esque face, and instead of “Hope” an ironic “Nothing to fear” in a B-Movie alien flick font is splattered across as an ominous warning. The Trump Alien erupts from the complex paradoxes that underlie American history exactly in that moment when the patriotic idea at the core of Uncle Sam is twisted into senseless oblivion by a demagogue.

Wants You


Another example draws heavily from European cultural history. Greek mythology in particular with its unreasonable deities and suffering demi-gods has been a rich source for artist reworkings throughout the millennia. Cursed by the goddess Athena for ‘laying with’ Poseidon in a sacred temple, the snake-headed female Medusa has become a popular choice especially when attacking women in power.


Donald Medusa


Vanity Fair’s illustration by Edward Sorel which depicts Trump as the ancient Gorgon beast appears a strange choice for a refiguration of Trump as monstrous. According to some interpretations of Ovid’s take on the story, Medusa was cursed by Athena after being raped by Poseidon. It introduces a strange irony into the picture to cast a man accused of and bragging about sexual assault in the role of a vilified woman. There is after all a history of female artists of reclaiming monstrous females, such as Medusa, to probe into female relationships (Sylvia Plath, for example, wrote a poem about her mother which alludes to the myth).

The article accompanying the picture discusses the convoluted tax issues around Trump’s business empire. Therefore the central themes of the underlying myth have been completely emptied out and have little bearing on this new monster. Instead, an amusing jibe about Trump’s unruly hair is fused with the symbolic character of the serpent standing in for regeneration. This aspect is perhaps more prominent in the myth of the many-headed snake creature Hydra which regrows a new snake head if one has been hacked off.

More intriguing in context with the same mythical background is this street poster which depicts Democratic nominee Clinton as a female Perseus slaying the Medusa. While the askew Medusa/Trump parallel is still present, the focus of the image is on Clinton dressed as the American comic book super hero Wonder Woman.



In the original myth the alliance between the cursing goddess Athena and the conquering hero Perseus stands opposite the perpetrator Medusa. The two women, according to art historian Marina Warner, act out the conflict between a woman being able to demonstrate and side with masculine strength and female fertility and victimhood (in the moment of death Medusa bears the fantastic beast Chrysaor and the winged horse Pegasus). In the act of violence committed by the new Clinton-Perseus lingers the rejection of traditional binary gender circumscriptions that govern how are females in power are supposed to act.



The picture also alludes to the misogynistic attack that Trump has repeatedly launched at Clinton. On top of the figure the word ‘nasty’ is printed in a celebratory gesture of reclaiming a word that was meant as an insult. The way figure and font are positioned in relation to one another echoes pop artist Beyoncé’s reclaiming of the word ‘feminist’ in one of her performances. Only in taking on the role as the Medusa slayer and exerting violence, the proto-masculin hero turns into an empowered female. For those who want to know more about the Medusa, Elizabeth Johnston has written a great article for The Atlantic examining how throughout history powerful women have been vilified through portraying them as the gorgon.

To finish off this menagerie of political monsters, I would like to share one of my favourite Trump monsterisations. It comes from a blog on tumblr that regularly posts stomach-churning photo manipulations using a different, uglifying strategy.

donald trumo


Instead of overlaying countless intertextual references the artist reduces the facial features of Trump to only a few aspects (hair, chin, mouth) and distorts any human familiarity. It’s a literal defacement of the politician the artist would like to get rid of. This deformation transfixes the perceived human failure of the candidate on moral, ethical and behavioural levels onto the visual body of the new monster.

When new creatures come to life, an awareness for the visual strategies involved in their generation is vital in order to pin down the heavily politicised ideologies behind them. The kinds of monsters we encounter in popular culture are part of the currency of creatively facing contemporary challenges.


The Ghastlycrumb Tinies:

The Ghastlytrump Tinies:

Big Issue

Vanity Fair article:

Vogue endorsement:

Medusa and women in power:

Marina Warner, Monuments & Maidens, (London: Vintage 1996), pp. 113–114.

On Defacement:

Dinild Trimp

Originally published on the Monster Network and on

Posted in Academia, Monsters
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