My exposure to theatre has grown exponentially in my life, as has my love for it. I remember pretending to be other people in the primary school nativity, channeling angst in devised pieces for year seven drama lessons and singing in my secondary school musical, all the while feeling a unique sense of energy, an exuberance that I could not place. The idea of consuming professional theatre, however, did not even seem like an option. I swooned over films and movie musicals instead, placing narrative over form and choosing what I could access, and by that time had concluded that theatre was reserved for people who could pay for tickets, and those whose guardians had the time to take them.
The sense of exponential lift-off, then, happened fatefully in my mid-teens, when one of my parents came home and produced discounted tickets to see An American in Paris at the Dominion Theatre. After squealing, I immediately ran to my wardrobe, wanting to pick my fanciest outfit in ceremonial preparation. I was going to see a show in the West End!! At this point, my exposure to theatre had only been from a distilled distance, through the plays I had studied in English or my beloved film adaptations. I had not yet seen what arguably makes theatre so magical, its dynamism – the shared experience, the collaborative result of real people working in real time, and the concomitant spine-tingling feeling that for a number of hours, anything can happen at any moment.
I experienced An American in Paris with a sense of hushed wonder: the unified precision of the incredible dancers, the swaggering lilt of the classically trained voices, it was a dream. However, the more I reflected on the experience, my excitement was rivalled by a growing sense of personal incongruence. My delayed claps after the first few songs highlighted my lack of knowledge of theatre etiquette. My mother’s raised eyebrows at the prices of the ice cream during the interval (“you can get a 2L tub from Tesco for a fifth of the price!”) made me feel guilty for asking. Worst of all, my ‘fanciest’ outfit, which I had anticipated would give me a sense of belonging, seemed silly and forced, and I was one of very few black faces in the audience. I left the theatre feeling like the dream had ended, and a dream it would thus remain. I did not know when I would be at the theatre again or, as marvellous as it was, if it was designed for people like me.
I think Hamilton, the huge cultural phenomenon that it is, did for a lot of people what it did for me. It opened me up to a world of theatre I was completely unaware of. After numerous recommendations, I finally gave in and listened to the first song on the soundtrack. My head bobbed rhythmically and my eyes widened in clairvoyant expectation; I knew this musical was going to matter to me, a lot. And it did.
Indeed, Hamilton is groundbreaking in a number of ways, its commitment to diversity and the reclaiming of the narrative surrounding immigration are poignant and relevant talking points, but it articulated most for me the merit of theatre as a listened experience. As a sung-through musical, I can hear the story of Hamiton in full and imagine it for myself on stage, with no visual stimulant. I can appreciate the recognisable rap and hip-hop influences in the songs and their poetic functions. I can pick up on the musical motifs and nuances in staging through stills and short clips, and discuss it with my friends and within online theatre communities. Listening to Hamilton gave me a thirst for theatre and what it could be in my life, as I hunted for more musical theatre soundtracks and began to research how I could watch more live theatre alongside it. Access charities, student subsidies, rush tickets (discounted tickets purchased on the day of performance) and lotteries opened up my world even further. Theatre is and always has been, for everyone, it just turned out that I had to want it enough to look out for the opportunities.
Hamilton is not my all-time favourite musical, but it will also never leave me. I only had the privilege of seeing it live years after discovering it, an extremely kind birthday present, but the experience of listening to it alone has opened a gateway and given me the confidence to exist and thrive as a theatre-lover in theatre spaces. In the age where musical theatre is becoming more democratic than ever, with a global pandemic encouraging increased streaming of shows, and the participation of people from across the world in TikTok musicals such as Ratatouille, the reach of theatre and its ability to teach and move us is deeply felt. As for me, listening to Lin Manuel-Miranda’s creation is something I will always be grateful to my past self for doing.