If you’re even vaguely a fan of musical theatre, the hype surrounding Broadway’s new smash hit musical Hamilton has probably reached your ears. For once, the new internet bandwagon actually deserves the praise that’s been piled upon it. With a formula that doesn’t seem like it should work, but totally does, Hamilton tells the story of America’s founding fathers, merging traditional musical theatre style numbers with hip-hop and freestyle rap – with amazing success. Credited with opening musical theatre up a whole new demographic, tickets for the show in New York (the only place it’s currently playing) are completely sold out until the end of the year, and ticket re-sales are being flogged for hundreds of dollars online. While there are plans to take it on tour, and a West End opening is surely very likely, it doesn’t look like British fans will be able to see the show anytime soon. In the meantime, we will have to just make do with putting the soundtrack on repeat.
What people might not know is that the creator, composer and lyricist of Hamilton, Lin-Manuel Miranda, has also written a previous musical In The Heights. Set in the New York suburb of Washington Heights, it tells the story of a small community of mostly Latina immigrants struggling with the threat of gentrification. In The Heights is currently playing at Kings Cross Theatre in London. In similar fashion to Hamilton, In The Heights merges musicals styles, with elements of salsa, hip-hop and rap mixed in with big musical theatre ballads. Miranda’s genius is as obvious in In The Heights as it is in Hamilton, with clever, witty and often endearingly funny rap sections, and warm, engaging characters ready to burst out of the theatre. Hamilton is being lauded as ‘reinventing’ musical theatre, but In The Heights was already laying down the foundations for Hamilton’s success, and is a colourful, electrifying performance in its own right.
King’s Cross Theatre is small, and the vibrancy of the musical feels like it could easily fill a much bigger theatre. Back when it debuted on Broadway in 2008 it was a word of mouth success and the same thing is happening in London at the moment; large groups of young people are going back again and again to see it. That successful, innovative, modern musicals like In The Heights are being restricted to small or off-West End venues is a sign of the times where musical theatre is concerned. Long-running musicals like Les Miserables, The Lion King, Wicked and Mamma Mia are dominating over newer musicals or smaller revivals, and even forcing them into shorter runs. Musicals like Bend It Like Beckham, Funny Girl, Memphis and In The Heights are having to fight for their place in the West End in smaller venues against the more heavy weight names that more people have heard of, and are sure of recognising the songs before they go. That’s why Hamilton itself is such a surprise, the sheer scale of its success an anomaly for such a new musical, and surely a testament to Miranda’s talent and the influence of the internet.
It’s a shame when musicals like In The Heights are around, at the cutting edge of musical theatre, and don’t get all the attention they deserve. If more people were aware that it was playing and that it is the sister production to Hamilton, and an equally fabulous show on its own, perhaps we could open it up to more people. And yes, if you’re waiting on Hamilton in London, it’s definitely worth a visit in the mean time.
Image courtesy of Johann Persson