Comprised of three performances (two with an actual audience) shot in June 2016, Hamilton, the famed stage production, made its debut on the House of Mouse’s Disney+ streaming platform. Originally slated for a theatrical run in 2021, COVID-19 changed things, resulting in the musical’s implausibly-intoxicating mix of contemporary tunes, historical exposition, and political commentary arriving at the best possible time.
The compelling story
The play’s opening, with a young man arriving in the big city, looking to find his place in the world, is about as traditional as it gets, even as the show that follows absolutely isn’t. Rapid-fire rap propels the narrative forward, as the titular “bastard, orphan, son of a whore” seeks to make something of himself in a nation that is, much like him, in the process of defining its identity.
The first half of the film follows Hamilton from his inauspicious beginnings through to his actions in the revolutionary war against Britain that led to the formation of the United States of America. Following a brief intermission that (ostensibly) replicates the theater-going experience, the second half catches up with Hamilton in later years, navigating the treacherous corridors of loyalty, infidelity, and the very government that he helped to build.
It’s a groundbreaking work of art
Making its debut on Broadway in 2015, Hamilton: An American Musical was a hit from the outset, delivering a heady blend of contemporary hip-hop, R&B, and traditional show tunes, all working to deliver tons of historical exposition, plot twists, and character development. Mainstream audiences had never seen anything like it, and Lin Manuel-Miranda (Moana, Mary Poppins Returns) rocketed his way to stardom. The decision to cast people of color as white historical figures gave the narrative a shot in the arm, playing on the notion of history invariably being painted by the people telling it (shout-out to everyone who thinks Jesus was a white guy).
It’ll make you ask the hard questions (e.g. “Is this is a film or a play?”)
Honestly speaking, it’s tricky to judge Hamilton: An American Musical in this way, as this isn’t so much a movie adaptation as it is a snapshot of a moment in the show’s history that likely won’t come again. Too self-indulgent to take as a straight-up play, and too stage-bound to accept as a film, Hamilton (2020), like its protagonist, defies definition, and, despite its shortcomings, the result is glorious. While some of the decisions made in the filming may be irking to some, the filmed production succeeds spectacularly at serving up the prodigious, irreverent energy of the show’s early years.
Looking back, it’s remarkable how relevant the story still is, and that’s even before we get to its mode of presentation. As far as America’s founding fathers go, Alexander Hamilton’s life as an immigrant defying societal expectations to lead the fight against imperialistic designs has become eerily prophetic.
It’s got an important message
By integrating musical forms steeped in defiance into a traditional stage musical, Miranda was able to deliver his message of defying oppression to mainstream audiences in the only terms they would accept: their own. It was a move that very easily could have backfired. Instead, the musical became the hottest ticket in town, as audiences devoured the fictionalized history being presented. To date, the production has spawned a North American tour and a West End production and, while the ongoing pandemic has halted live shows, Disney+ has stepped in to fill the gap, a full 15 months before originally scheduled.
It’s technically exquisite
Knowing that this would be one of the last times the bulk of the original Broadway cast would be performing together, director Thomas Kail (who helmed the original play) and cinematographer Declan Quinn went all in; with every scene, step, and verse, viewers unable to experience the show in person (or those looking to relive it) are placed right in the room where it happens. Kail, of course, was Hamilton’s original director, so his knowledge of the production, staging, and narrative beats is arguably unmatched. The pleasant surprise here is Quinn, who, in the years since he shot 2005’s Rent: Live on Broadway, has learned a thing or two about lensing a stage show. The cinematography here is a pleasant, organic middle ground between play and film that works in context, versus the frenetic style he previously employed.
While not entirely successful in recreating the theater experience, the tradeoff is that we are spoiled with perspectives that the best seats in the house never would have gotten. Indeed, the filmed version excels at adding dimension to the performances of everyone involved; whether you saw it on the stage or experienced it primarily via the bestselling soundtrack, there is a visceral thrill to seeing the story’s emotional beats play out on the screen in this fashion.
The characters — and casts — are amazing
Lin Manuel-Miranda stars as Alexander Hamilton, running the gamut between wide-eyed incorruptibility and vehement defiance. While opinions on his singing ability vary, his handle on the material is unquestionable. Amusingly, it is Aaron Burr (Leslie Odom Jr., Murder on the Orient Express) who possesses a somewhat larger role, serving as the de facto narrator, introducing each section of the show with a series of questions on Manuel’s character that he attempts to answer. Seeing the two men play off of each other is a study in opposites, despite token efforts to convince us of their similarities as orphans. Where Manuel’s character is hungry and ambitious to climb the social and political ladders, Odom excels at presenting himself as an elite who believes that he is entitled to such things.
Comprising Alexander’s better half, Eliza (Philippa Soo) bears the bulk of the play’s emotional component, while Daveed Diggs (TV’s Snowpiercer) does an impressive double act as Marquis de Lafayette and Thomas Jefferson. Ironically, it is a character who has literally the least screen time that makes arguably the biggest impact on the proceedings, in the form of England’s King George III (played by Frozen’s Jonathan Groff) presented here as an ineffectual, tone-deaf monarch with delusions of grandeur. Simply put, he’s hilarious, but you wouldn’t want to live under such a buffoon.
It’s a good time
As much fun as it is to take in a radically fictionalized retelling of America’s early days, it is undeniable that Hamilton serves up an idealized vision of the period. From the presentation of the British monarchy, to Alexander Hamilton’s spirited debates with his comrades on when to step in or stay out of a fight, the play drives home the notion that ideals, in any form, are meaningless without people to stand up for them (Unless of course, you’re cool with King George, but that’s a whole other can of worms). Of course, one could go on about how the American ruling class just didn’t want to share their riches with a foreign ruler anymore, but that’s not the story this play is trying to tell.
This is the story of someone who worked their way up through nothing but their intelligence and hubris, and the price they paid for it, and it is told extraordinary well. Is it accurate? Mostly! Is it fiction? Partially! Is it a good time? Hell yes. For anyone looking for a more accurate depiction of historical events, there are books for that sort of thing – Hamilton isn’t about accurately representing history, it’s about the experience.
Bottom line: Watch it.
Deftly preserving the original Broadway cast’s lightning-in-a-bottle energy, the filmed version of Hamilton makes no attempt to hide its stage-bound origins, which, ultimately adds to its charm. While this is hardly the first filmed stage production, you’ve rarely seen one executed with such a clear verve and affection for the material. All told, Disney’s Hamilton is unabashedly joyous, and heck knows we could all use some of that.
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