Hamilton on Disney Plus - Happy Independence Day!


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
The biggest game-changer for me was Philippa Soo and Renee Elise Goldsberry as Eliza and Angelica Schuyler. When I saw the show Lexi Lawson (Eliza) and Mandy Gonzalez (Angelica) were so bland and low-energy that one couldn't understand why so much time was spent on 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
Aaron Burr gets the best music and lines of the musical. "Wait for It," "Dear Theodosia," and "Room Where It Happens" are gorgeous melodies. There's not much I can add about Leslie Odom Jr.'s performance except to say it's every bit as amazing as everyone said it was. When I saw Hamilton the Burr (Daniel Breaker) was a good actor and singer, but not the fierce rival that Odom creates. Odom's Burr is every bit as "young, scrappy, and hungry" as Hamilton. Odom's smooth tenor voice contrasts nicely with Miranda's raw baritone. When Odom and Miranda onstage together the tension crackles from Burr's first piece of advice to Hamilton -- "Talk less, smile more." Their adversarial relationship is like a slow burn train wreck.

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
The other issue is that Hamilton with its diverse, multi-ethnic cast and generally respectful portrayal of the Founding Fathers also is naive when watched today. The Hamilton cast is a melting pot, the Founding Fathers generally honorable (with the exception of Thomas Jefferson, who is portrayed as a cartoonish villain). This is a portrait of America that  doesn't look anything like the America of 2020 -- you watch this musical and it's hard to imagine that this is the same America where George Floyd had the life snuffed out of him by a sadistic police officer and over 130,000 people have died from a global pandemic with no end in sight.

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."

Comments

  1. I saw the original cast twice. People have told me they were disappointed in the cast they saw. I know I'm lucky. It's still a really good show.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I was a bit disappointed in the cast I saw. The OBC were like unicorns.

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  2. We're lucky to have this. I'm not subscribing to Disney for it. Hoping for a commercial release within 6 months.

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