Hamilton, is still as relevant and brilliant as it was when it broke out into Broadway.
Having listened to the full soundtrack a couple hundred times over (no exaggeration), as well as having seen the London cast live, I am more than a little biased towards Lin-Manuel Miranda’s genius. And after years of resisting potentially ruining the experience with dodgy YouTube bootlegs, I was excited to see how the slightly censored, up-close version of the original Broadway cast on Disney+ would play out on screen. Spoiler alert – it certainly did not disappoint.
For those who have been living under a rock, Hamilton, tells the story of how 19-year-old “bastard, orphan, son of a whore”, Alexander Hamilton, worked his way out of the Caribbean and ended up becoming America’s “ten-dollar founding father”. From Hamilton’s rise to Washington’s right-hand man and his marriage to the wealthy Eliza Schuyler, to salacious scandals and his ultimate tragic demise, the musical pretty much covers Hamilton’s entire life story in song and rap within the context of the American revolution and the founding of the independent United States. The Obama-era musical, makes a point to celebrate an extremely talented cast populated with people of colour, providing totally-not-subtle subtext commentary on the role of immigrants and slaves in establishing the “American experiment”.
There isn’t really much need to rehash how Miranda’s musical adroitness has been used to brilliantly piece together Hamilton’s story to make a masterpiece – if the awards aren’t proof enough, there are masses of reviews and interviews that pick apart every inch of the production trying to pin down how Miranda managed to create this American pop-culture sensation. Besides, the entire script, barring one short scene, manifests itself in the two and a half hour original cast recording, which in itself showcases an astounding mix of hip-hop, rap, jazz, ballads, and R&B, that subverts all the usual expectations of musicals… The real test of this Disney+ version, was how the up-close and personal vibe would play out on the silver screen (or, well, living room TV).
The show starts a little slow, probably because it’s a lot harder to achieve that fully immersed feeling, lacking the pitch-black tension of the theatre and the surround sound provided in real time by a live orchestra and ensemble. But by the end of the opening song, the musical is an unstoppable wonderous whirlwind that will make you forget where you are as you try to sing along to every single part. Aside from the eargasmic tunes, we get to see the rather interesting and different way in which the production is staged, with an incredibly detailed and versatile set, amazing choreography (including the very cool and clever use of a turntable), and great physical comedy. Daveed Diggs does a lot to carry the show in terms of bringing in this physicality, as well as spicing up scenes through his spectacular delivery of amazingly complex lines in the dual roles of Lafayette and Thomas Jefferson.
The show is not completely historically accurate – a lot of creative liberties have been taken (in the editing and omitting of the plot, and especially with the costumes), but in this case it really is for the better in terms of the show as it serves to focus and streamline the story – Hamilton is nevertheless incredibly convincing, even in the audience-orientated love stories. Nothing in the production has been thrown in as an afterthought, with an important role built in for every character. Speaking of love interests, Renée Elise Goldsberry and Phillipa Soo brilliantly play sass and romance in their Schuyler sister roles of Angelica and Eliza, respectively. The close-ups that film affords, does Soo a lot of justice in particular – especially in the more tragic scenes towards the end of the show where you can actually see tears rolling down her cheeks as she weeps. There is so much second-hand emotion evoked from Soo’s performance it is bound to make you at least a little glassy-eyed.
Unfortunately for Jonathan Groff (who plays King George III), the close-ups are not as kind to him, really highlighting a kind of gross spit-up moment that you just can’t ignore, as his particularly pronounced plosives leave him with rather a wet chin. Groff’s portrayal of King George otherwise provides hilarious comic relief, but after the spittle that makes you want to reach for an umbrella it is rather hard to think of anything else whenever he comes back into view. The more intimate view of the action does show off a lot of sweat, but beyond the glistening foreheads, we get a much better view of facial expression and body language, that ultimately improves this musical experience. The tiny bit of censorship for the sake of accessibility does little to change up the overall experience, and built-in intermission minute is a brilliant idea that provides the perfect place to pause for popcorn without breaking you out of the intense immersion and investment in the plot.
The only real downside in this filmed version (which isn’t really too much of a downside overall), is Miranda’s depiction of the titular Alexander Hamilton. Don’t get me wrong, Lin-Manuel Miranda is an absolute mastermind in putting together this whole production, and he can actually act and rap and kind of sing as well. However, among an impeccable cast of amazing actors and spectacular singers, even to my rather tone-deaf ears, he is undoubtedly the weak Lin(k) in this particular cast. Although still good, being especially hoarse and somewhat overworked, Miranda’s voice is, regrettably, much worse in the on-screen version than on the cast recording (where he already wasn’t quite top notch in the first place).
Even so, this on-screen version of the original Broadway cast of Hamilton managed to exceed all my excessively high expectations and provide an exceptional (and a little emotional) experience. As a filmed live production, Hamilton measures up much better than other well-regarded musicals, far surpassing the original or anniversary versions of longstanding favourites like Phantom of the Opera or Les Misérables that just don’t quite seem to translate out of the theatre. All in all, it is an amazing way to spend three hours (provided you kind of like musicals or could maybe stand piecing together the whole story from clever but convoluted lyrics if you aren’t already familiar), and it is definitely something I’ll be watching again.