It was recently announced that Broadway is shut down until at least January 2021 due to COVID-19. The news comes on the heels of Cirque Du Soleil filing for bankruptcy, and the continued postponements and cancellations of artistic events nationwide, leaving artists everywhere unsure of how the industry will recover. But on July 3, music fans, theatre fans, history buffs and well, pretty much everyone craving the arts, got a treat – “Hamilton” started streaming on Disney+.
A cultural phenomenon
Lin-Manuel Miranda’s hit Broadway musical was arguably the first show since “Rent” to become widely celebrated outside the theatre community, and its reach has certainly surpassed Jonathan Larson’s 1996 rock opera. The difference is that many people have seen “Rent” on Broadway, where it ran for twelve years, in regional productions, or in the more recent Fox live TV production. By contrast, the vast majority of “Hamilton” fans had only the cast album to go on because high ticket prices and availability made seeing it live an impossibility.
The filmed version of the musical is available indefinitely on the streaming platform, which costs $6.99 a month, a much more manageable price for most people. And although some of the bigger musical numbers with lots of dancing take a bit of a hit due to the closer, more specific views provided by the cameras, the end result is stunning. “Hamilton” packs an emotional punch just listening to the cast recording, but with this film, we get to witness what live audiences were fortunate enough to, and even some things they probably didn’t.
This more detailed look at the show only enhances it; we see things that even lucky theatergoers may not have fully noticed or appreciated. We see Lin-Manuel Miranda as Alexander Hamilton, tearing up at the end of “Yorktown”, and we note leading performers dancing as part of the ensemble during numbers they aren’t featured in, or performing abbreviated choreography up on the wrap-around ‘balcony’ across the back and sides of the stage. We are allowed to be surprised by a few small, poignant scenes that were left off the cast album (the show is sung-through, meaning that 99% of the vocal performance is on the cast album) – get your tissues ready for the tiny but heart-wrenching moment right after the final notes in the show have been sung.
The film gives us the chance to go back and watch “Hamilton” multiple times while paying attention to different aspects with each viewing. Miranda’s crackling score and lyrics, Tommy Kail’s precise, firm direction, Alex Lacamoire’s nuanced orchestration and musical direction, David Korins’ stark but warm set design (complete with a turntable!), Howell Binkley’s beautifully imaginative lighting design, and Andy Blankenbuehler’s unbelievably specific, electric choreography all more than hold up under the closer scrutiny the film allows us, as does the incredible work by the cast.
Miranda himself is an understated but fiery Hamilton, dogged in his intent to write and think his way to better circumstances for himself and his country. A perfect foil to Miranda is Leslie Odom Jr.’s Aaron Burr, just as passionate but keeping things under the surface, simmering. In the few moments Odom Jr. does let loose, it’s made more powerful by the control he’s maintained throughout the rest of the musical. Renée Elise Goldsberry steals the show as quick, wry Angelica Schuyler – her vibrant performance of “Satisfied” will give you chills and blow your hair back.
The moral center of a show full of complicated characters is a hard line to walk, but Philippa Soo gives Hamilton’s wife Eliza such heart and purity that we immediately fall in love with her, too. Christopher Jackson is magnificent and honey-voiced as stoic, formidable George Washington. Anthony Ramos (John Laurens/Phillip Hamilton), Daveed Diggs (Lafayette/Thomas Jefferson) and Okieriete Onaodowan (Hercules Mulligan/James Madison) are each flashy, funny and moving in their dual roles. Jasmine Cephas Jones’ petulant Peggy Schuyler and seductive Maria Reynolds show off her impressive range, and as King George III, Jonathan Groff is a riot, milking his nine minutes onstage for everything they’re worth. The subtle, graceful, distinct dancing of the ensemble is captivating – I could watch the entire musical several times only focusing on them.
A musical for our time
“Hamilton”, a story of an immigrant who worked his way into the “room where it happens” and created legislature and financial systems that shaped America, was culturally and politically relevant when it premiered on Broadway in 2016, but in 2020, it speaks to us in new ways. It’s hard not to feel something when Anthony Ramos shouts “Rise up, when you’re living on your knees you rise up”, or the poignant refrain “History has its eyes on you”, which is repeated several times throughout the show. It’s also very moving, during continued Black Lives Matter protests, to see so many men and women of color onstage singing and rapping about freedom, equality, justice, family, love, and so much more.
“One Last Time”, in which George Washington reveals he won’t run for president again, never fails to make me cry, and I know that watching it now might make some of us cry partly because we’re thinking of another presidency which ended the year “Hamilton” opened, and of what has happened in our country since. “Hamilton” shows us the ups and downs of creating a nation in a modern, invigorating way, and it just might inspire us to continue to fight through America’s flaws and past mistakes, and build something even better.