2020 | rated PG-13 | starring Lin-Manuel Miranda, Leslie Odom Jr., Daveed Diggs, Renee Elise Goldsberry, Christopher Jackson, Phillipa Soo, Jonathan Groff | directed by Thomas Kail |
The 2020 release of Hamilton by the Walt Disney Company brings the original New York Broadway production into the homes of the people who couldn’t get a ticket to it’s many, immediate, sold out shows. Now the rest of us finally get to see what people in the New York-centric media have been talking about. It’s a recording of a 2016 performance set before a live cheering theater audience and played with passionate gusto by the original cast. Is it really a movie? Eh… Disney certainly says it is. If it’s not, neither is Dogville. Is it possible to write this review of Hamilton as a story and a musical and not just be a cheerleader over it’s diverse cast and race-flipped reimagination of historical figures, using it as an entry point to talk about contemporary racial politics? The round table at RogerEbert.com sure don’t think so, but we’re about to do that too.
The first thing to address is how radically different the experience of watching this as a movie vs. seeing it live on Broadway must have been. Disney has done an amazing thing here and taken what has been marketed for years by Fathom Events for people who want to see a classy play, but don’t want to go to live theater, and made it socially acceptable again (sorry Fathom). These are two different mediums that will result in two different experiences. In a live production your eyes can wander across the stage and soak up every detail. In a live production, theater audiences let their imaginations suspend disbelief to a degree that a very literal movie does not afford. In this 2020 release of Hamilton, we’re seeing a recording, a camera eye put between us and the production with shots carefully selected to capture the action. Each angle, each zoom, each emphasis on something on stage over something else, the speed and pace of the cuts – all of it, create an almost invisible but incalculable change in the experience from Hamilton 2016 into Hamilton 2020. This is not a review of the play, it’s a review of the recording.
Even in this version, Hamilton is an ambitious production and an exhaustive experience. It is a gargantuan 2 hours and 40 minutes (with a 1 minute intermission) and it moves non-stop with nearly every line of dialog a rhyme or folded into a musical number. The musical numbers are as wordy as they come, packed to the gills with exposition and historical observation – which is what you might expect from play book author Miranda translating Ron Chernow’s verbose biography of Hamilton to the stage. The result is a musical more, genuinely, admirable than entertaining and gets to Hamilton’s most glaring issue:
In all of it’s nearly 3 hour running time, the show doesn’t have a single catchy song in it.
Coming away from The Book of Mormon or Les Miserables or Broadway-styled musicals like Frozen will leave you humming along with some tuneful earworm. Other than possibly “The Room Where it Happened”, the entire operatic production is more concerned with cramming character development and historical tid-bits than finding a single memorable tune.
But Hamilton shouldn’t be tossed on the kindling with Fleabag as a useless piece of pop culture that only New Yorkers like. There is a lot of wonderful stuff in here. When you put Miranda’s book against the library of movie bio-pics it’s storytelling strengths really start to shine. Hamilton makes for an excellent bio-pic. Miranda makes some unique and bold choices in his telling of the story, some that at first seem odd, but ultimately weave perfectly into his overall theme. Miranda’s Hamilton is a story of Alexander Hamilton but it’s also a story of who gets to write history and how that history is shaped by the perspective we read it in. At almost every turn Alexander Hamilton’s story is told not by Hamilton himself, but he is pieced together in a kaleidoscope by the perspective of outsiders on the periphery of the story looking in. Most admirably is that Miranda is tackling a story that we all know the ending to: Hamilton will die in a duel with Aaron Burr. How does he handle it? By making the ending known up front with Aaron Burr (a terrific Leslie Odom Jr.) telling us what will happen. By Hamilton himself (played by Miranda with endearing friendless, insecure, heart-on-his sleeve honesty) feeling he has cheated death just to make it this far.
The play treats Burr as our most frequent narrator, turning the historical image of Burr as a black and white villain upside down. It gets into Hamilton’s marriage to Eliza (Phillpa Soo) not through Eliza, but through the perspective of her sister’s (Renee Elise Goldsberry) aching unrequited love for the scholar. We see Hamilton the politician through the lens of Thomas Jefferson (Daveed Diggs, incredible in duel role) and James Madison (Okieriete Onaodowan, also terrific in duel role)’s opposition to his politics. My fear going into this play was that it would be a champion of Hamilton’s big government national bank ideas, but it is far more complex. Every character is given their moment to make their case (the play staging senate debates like an 8 Mile rap battle with George Washington [Christopher Jackson, singing his heart out] as MC). It depicts Hamilton has a flawed hero who succumbs to temptation and blackmail, but also a tortured soul who is nearly broken by the death of his son. It is interested in Hamilton as a figure of significant historical importance, but one who often gets left out of history because he was never president. In terms of breaking the moldy structure of the usual bio-pic, the writing here is ambitious to the point it is fun to study.
The production is equally spectacular. Leading into it’s 3 duels with a rhyme reminding us of the 12 rules for duels. The company ensemble throws itself around the stage to set the tempo, to help speed up and slow down the action for dramatic moments. Time stops for Goldsberry’s wedding toast. It stops again for the film’s brilliant portrayal of the climactic duel. A girl holds a bullet in her fingers slowly tracing it’s destination in theatrical slow motion as it moves from one pistol across the stage to it’s target. It’s these more cinematic moments where the play approaches a brilliance that only live theater can offer.
Other than it’s depiction of King George (played as a spittling man-child by Jonathan Groff, almost always on stage by himself across the pond), Hamilton is a story that lives in shades of grey and the cracks between history textbooks. There is definitely a nerdy quality to it. It comes off at times like a teacher trying to be hip, reaching out to kids by rapping about history. Miranda’s juggling of his large cast of characters and their development is excellent though. It’s entertaining and exhausting, but not revolutionary. I would be shocked if a cinematic adaptation isn’t also in the works by Disney to bring it even further to life. I was entertained by it and entertained more the more I thought about it and all the subtle but clever choices it makes along the way to crack open the usual bio-pic (which desperately needs a cracking). I just can’t imagine listening to the soundtrack by itself thought