Usually, I am a sucker for middlebrow musicals of the Sound of Music and Evita stamp, where you leave the theatre singing, tunelessly but enthusiastically, the showstopper tunes.
But last week in London, and aptly on the eve of SA’s Heritage Day, I witnessed a musical event with such great and wider meaning, and performed in such an unusual, shape-shifting idiom, that I marvel at its ingenuity. Even if its tunes are not exactly hummable.
Hamilton — a three-hour musical — is ostensibly about perhaps the most remarkable and unlikely founding father of the US, its first treasury secretary, Alexander Hamilton.
Though the ticket price seemed the equivalent of a second mortgage, it was enthralling to witness a play set in 18th-century America, sung entirely in hip-hop and with most of the white founding fathers portrayed by black or mixed-race actors of extraordinary range and versatility. It is the rough equivalent of watching an epic about, say, King Shaka, with a white man in the lead and set to boeremusiek.
To locate the element of South African pride in the production, the mesmerising performance of Pretoria-born and -educated Sifiso Mazibuko in the co-starring role as the villain of the piece, vice-president Aaron Burr, made a transformative evening even more meaningful.
It says something about the polymath genius of one man, Lin Manuel Miranda, who over six years of gruelling effort wrote the book, music and lyrics of this phenomenon.
For our country, where race and identity and xenophobia are seemingly hardwired into our tortured national psyche, there is something deeply refreshing in witnessing such a creative and hopeful exercise in transforming fixed categories into something so much more fluid and contemporary.
As Miranda wrote of his effort, there is a direct connection between the troubled and talented life and struggles of Hamilton and his all-white co-founding fathers, and the polyglot and immigrant communities who define the US and much of the world today.
Amen to that. Though I couldn’t help but reflect, on leaving the theatre, how a few decades ago when the UK actors’ union made it almost impossible for foreign actors to appear on London stages, how difficult it would have been for Mazibuko to have appeared in the show at all. Let alone receive the roof-raising standing ovation our audience awarded him.
That localised, shut-out-the-foreigner sentiment has been swept away in the theatre at least. And after Boris Johnson received a Zuma-like slapdown from his own Supreme Court, the entire Brexit project to remove the UK from Europe remains imperilled. But on the evening, the greatest line of the entire production — which drew the greatest applause from a Remainer audience — was noteworthy.
In a duet between Caribbean-born Hamilton and the French general who helped win the American War of Independence against Britain, Marquis de Lafayette, the duo sing: “We’re immigrants, we get the job done.” It brought down the house.
Meanwhile, back at the ranch as it were, we had the latest madcap idea from our government, which is facing a tide of anti-foreigner sentiment on the surge of a broken-backed economy.
According to the minister of justice, Ronald Lamola, the government is “developing legislation that will bar foreign nationals from operating in certain sectors of the economy”.
Maybe this will include the creative arts, in which case Hamilton — if local maestro Pieter Toerien could be persuaded to try to stage it — will remain unseen or be denied some overseas cast members. And to think that the ANC once believed in internationalism and global solidarity.
The magnificent Mazibuko, playing devious Burr, is stung when Hamilton sings to him: “If you stand for nothing, Burr, what’ll you fall for?” Precisely.
Leon, a former leader of the opposition, now chairs Resolve Communications.
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