The United States on July 4, 2020 might be the bleakest it's ever been since, well, idk ... the summer of '68? The Great Depression? Civil War? Ever?
Therefore the release of Hamilton (filmed in 2016) on Disney Plus is a balm for the frayed nerves of the country. It's also a dream come true for the many musical theater fans who never saw the now-legendary OBC. When I saw Hamilton in 2018, some of the replacement cast was great (Micheal Luwoye as Hamilton), but a lot of the cast was quite frankly disappointing.
This film lives up to the hype and then some. Director Thomas Kail and editor Jonah Moran do a good job in preserving the look and excitement of the live performance (the audience can be frequently heard laughing at the lyrics). They also keep the camera fluid and not simply a static shot of the stage. The fondness for close-ups sometimes is detrimental -- you can see some actors' spit, and also the mics tucked into the actors' foreheads. But there's a nice balance between close-ups, moving cameras, and stage shots.
The greatest gift of this film however is preserving for posterity the original Broadway cast. It doesn't matter how many times you've heard the cast recording -- watching them up close is a revelation. The accolades they received were not exaggerated -- they really are that great. There are no small roles because every actor makes his character so dynamic and exciting.
|The Schuyler sisters|
Soo and Goldsberry restored the balance between the Founding Fathers storyline (which dominates the musical) and Alexander Hamilton's personal life. They are great foils for each other -- Soo warm and nurturing, Goldsberry a firebrand. Goldberry's "Satisfied" was stunning -- she combines quicksilver rapping and a classic Broadway belt.
In general, the Hamilton household storline plays much better in this film -- for instance, Philip (Anthony Ramos) rapping for his ninth birthday is adorable. I don't even remember this moment in the theater. The Maria Reynolds affair is covered with the delicious lyrics "I wish I could say that was the last time/I said that last time/It became a past-time."
Daveed Diggs' performance in the dual role of Lafayette/Jefferson was another game-changer. James Monroe Iglehart had only a fraction of the energy and pizzazz of Diggs. Diggs's Jefferson is a wonderfully hateful villain -- arrogant, smug, snobby. Diggs made "What'd I Miss?" a flurry of rapping and dancing and preening. It's maybe the best Act Two opener of all time. You have to watch it to believe it. Diggs steals the show whenever he has a line. His wonderfully elastic, expressive face translates so well into your TV.
|Aaron Burr, sir|
The only caveat to Hamilton is that some parts of the musical don't hold up so well four years later. The choreography by Andy Blankenbleuhler is repetitive and distracting -- one can only watch bodies weave in and out of the main characters' blocking while doing a body wiggle so many times. The second act goes on a little too long. And Lin Manuel Miranda is a great composer and lyricist and a decent actor, but his voice is weaker than all the other leads.
The musical is an unabashed love letter to Alexander Hamilton -- he's approached with the same adoration given to Michael Jordan in The Last Dance. He's portrayed as an abolitionist when the truth was more complicated. Aaron Burr is given shades of gray and nuance but Hamilton is given a heroic, rose-colored treatment. Part of this is Lin Manuel Miranda's portrayal -- LMM has such an open, friendly face and such a warm persona that even when Hamilton says lines (re: a duel) "You're absolutely right, John should have shot him in the mouth/That would've shut him up" our reaction is to think "aww how cute."
|Jefferson and Hamilton|
So Hamilton is aspirational rather than historical. It's the America we want rather than the America that was and is. But it's a damned great musical. Lin Manuel Miranda's lyrics are Stephen Sondheim levels of clever -- "Dying is easy, young man, living is harder" is the kind of lyric that has both wit and wisdom. Everyone who loves and misses Broadway should watch this wonderful document of an iconic work and "raise a glass to Freedom, something they can never take away."