AT A GLANCE
Directed by: Thomas Kail
Starring: Lin-Manuel Miranda, Phillipa Soo, Leslie Odom Jr., Daveed Diggs, Renée Elise Goldsberry, Christopher Jackson
Available on: Disney Plus beginning July 3
Critical rating: 4 stars out of 4
Leslie Odom Jr., left, is Aaron Burr and Lin-Manuel Miranda is Alexander Hamilton in the musical “Hamilton,” streaming on Disney Plus.
By Forrest Hartman
Reviewing “Hamilton” now is like deconstructing the Super Bowl the day after America watched. Everyone already knows what happened, so your job is to bring context … or at least avoid looking stupid. Here goes.
“Hamilton,” with music, lyrics and book by Lin-Manuel Miranda, has been a smash since opening off Broadway in February 2015, and many who fancy the theater have already seen either a Broadway or touring production. Beyond that, casual fans are aware of the wildly popular “Hamilton Mixtape.”
So, why talk “Hamilton” now? Because a filmed adaptation of the 2016 Broadway show is debuting on Disney Plus July 3, bringing “Hamilton” into even more lives and putting Miranda one step closer to world domination. The exquisitely shot production is about as close as one can come to a quality Broadway experience during the Covid-19 pandemic and … although not as thrilling as a live performance … it’s really, really good.
First, the obvious. “Hamilton” is a great piece of musical theater. The music, heavily infused with hip hop, R&B and other pop elements is lively, unique and beautifully rendered. Add a smart book about a largely ignored American founding father and you have the foundation for a genre-changing work.
“Hamilton” isn’t a flash in the pan. People will likely be talking about this musical in theater circles for decades … not just because it’s good, but because it’s smart enough to appeal to the traditional Broadway crowd and cross over to pop music audiences who might otherwise shy from the theater. This Disney Plus run will only cement that, exposing oodles of youngsters and their families to both the show and live theater.
But is “Hamilton” the movie actually theater? I think it is. This filmed version captures the Broadway cast at work in the Richard Rodgers Theatre in June 2016. It is not a single, front-to-back take. Rather, filmmakers shot a number of live performances (including one with no audience) over the course of several days. This … and six cameras shooting from varied viewpoints … allowed director/producer Thomas Kail and his editors to replicate the live experience while allowing viewers to hang on facial expressions and appreciate dance numbers in a manner that would be impossible in the theater itself.
It’s a treat in large part because this is a great cast. Miranda stars as Hamilton, rapping, dancing and acting his way through one number after another, dropping a ridiculous amount of verbiage in the process. Because so much of the “Hamilton” soundtrack involves rap and hip-hop, the score is always moving, and the cast members aren’t just singing. They are spitting important exposition at a furious pace. Had Miranda simply created the show, he would have earned a place in theater history. The fact that he is so compelling in the title role is a bonus. His Hamilton is alternately ambitious, melancholy, rambunctious and wise, and it all seems a fitting tribute to a man who helped build a fledgling nation.
Miranda is bolstered by memorable supporting turns from a host of great talents. Daveed Diggs plays Marquis de Lafayette and Thomas Jefferson. Phillipa Soo is Eliza Hamilton. Renée Elise Goldsberry is Angelica Schuyler. Christopher Jackson portrays George Washington. Leslie Odom, Jr. plays Aaron Burr. All are tremendous.
“Hamilton” uses what some might call color blind casting, but it goes beyond color blind. The show is intentionally diverse, meaning white historical figures are often portrayed by minority actors as a point of course. This is particularly poignant in the wake of the George Floyd protests. One might be able to overlook the fact that a black man is playing Thomas Jefferson, were it not for that fact that Jefferson ran a plantation and owned slaves. That juxtaposition is jolting, and it is meant to be. It is also a powerful statement, asking viewers to think about the founding of America differently than they might have previously.
For those who have somehow missed the “Hamilton” hype, the story itself focuses on U.S. founding father Alexander Hamilton, who played an outsized role in the American revolution and economic policy in early America. As noted in the show, he is oft overlooked by pop culture, but Miranda and company have set the record straight. Today, you are far more likely to hear a teenager humming the Hamilton anthem “My Shot” than an ode to Ben Franklin, and we can thank Miranda for that.
This is not a simple history tale, however. Hamilton’s story is recited using music that many would find more at home on a hip-hop station than a Broadway stage. The soundtrack is a hybrid really. It’s part rap, part pop, part melodramatic theater ballads, and it blends into a wonderful, inspired mix.
One should not, of course, take the history lesson too seriously. Although the broad strokes are right, Hamilton – arguably – is too sympathetic. He wasn’t a perfect man, and a number of his transgressions (although addressed) are glossed over. Also, Aaron Burr is the unquestioned villain of the story, which is equally oversimplified. That said, “Hamilton” could very well convince viewers (particularly the young) to read more about American history, leading them to a more nuanced view of the men who shaped America’s past. But, to dwell on that idea is to risk a reputation for stodginess. Whether or not “Hamilton” inspires scholarship, it is a thrilling and inspiring piece of art … and the movie version is an exceedingly nice stand in for the live production.