When tickets went on sale for the British transfer of Hamilton: an American Musical in January this year, they sold out instantly, such was the buzz surrounding the show, which has won 11 Tonys and a Pulitzer Prize for drama in its home country.

Touts sold tickets for US$10,000 ($14,500) apiece on Broadway. Next week, it opens in London at the refurbished Victoria Palace Theatre.

Not bad for a show that's about the US equivalent of the chancellor of the exchequer.

Alexander Hamilton was America's first secretary to the treasury. Born out of wedlock in the West Indies around 1755, he migrated to America, was George Washington's right-hand man in the revolution, heavily influenced the politics of the early republic and was killed in a duel with Vice-President Aaron Burr in 1804.

Advertisement

For two centuries, Hamilton was regarded by many Americans as one of the lesser figures of the Revolution, even a contradiction of its egalitarian spirit. But when Lin-Manuel Miranda read Ron Chernow's 2004 revisionist biography of the man, he saw someone very different. Chernow emphasised Hamilton's lowly roots and, implicitly, the link between his personal aspirations and the ambitions of the American Dream. That's what Miranda tried to capture in his musical.

People who love Hamilton tend to do so for two reasons. One, it takes its history very seriously, weaving a narrative crammed with technical detail and historical fact that, somehow, Miranda makes lyrical. Act II opens with Hamilton and Jefferson locked in a rap battle over whether or not to establish a national bank. Hamilton won't take lectures from a slave owner: "Hey neighbour/ Your debts are paid cuz you don't pay for labour/ 'We plant seeds in the South. We create.'/ Yeah, keep ranting/ We know who's really doing the planting!"

Those lyrics are the second reason why Hamilton has seized the public imagination: the clever way it explores race. A story about dead white men is performed with modern music by a multiracial cast. Just as Barack Obama proved that anyone, regardless of the colour of their skin, can play the part of the President, so Miranda's show asks: "How does a bastard, orphan, son of a whore and a/ Scotsman, dropped in the middle of a forgotten/ Spot in the Caribbean by providence, impoverished, in squalor/ Grow up to be a hero and a scholar?" The answer is: by genius and hard work, and the message is that any black or Latino could do it, too — given half a chance. So compelling is the show's the message that Hamilton has been propelled from a half-remembered face on the $10 bill to a symbol of social progress.

But how accurate is that? Hamilton was opposed to slavery, which makes him look like a liberal visionary next to many of his peers. But Miranda's immigrant hero was associated with the passage of some of the most blatantly anti-immigrant legislation in US history and Hamilton, oddly for such an encyclopaedic play, makes no mention of this.

In its focus on the famous faces of the revolution, Hamilton takes a surprisingly conservative approach to American history. It's an old-fashioned tale of great men building a great country, rather than a country that, in contradiction of its stated aims, conspired to keep slavery alive until the 1860s — while its economic and social system displays obvious injustices even today.

In November last year, Mike Pence attended a performance of Hamilton and one of the actors addressed him from the stage: "We are the diverse Americans who are [alarmed] that your new Administration will not ... and uphold our inalienable rights." Donald Trump tweeted: "The cast and producers of Hamilton, which I hear is highly overrated, should immediately apologise to Mike Pence for their terrible behaviour."

Trump was wrong: the show isn't overrated. It is imperfect history but musically sublime and — as the age of Obama, with his promise of forming "a more perfect union", has given way to the age of Trump — it has taken on the quality of protest music. "I'm just like my country," sings Hamilton, "I'm young, scrappy and hungry/ And I'm not throwing away my shot!"