Written by: Christopher Llewellyn Reed | July 2nd, 2020
Hamilton (Thomas Kail, 2020) 3½ out of 4 stars.
Who in 2020 has not heard of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Pulitzer- and Tony-Award-winning musical Hamilton? Since its first performances in 2015, it has taken not only the theater world by storm, but the larger culture, as well. Based on historian Ron Chernow’s biography of Alexander Hamilton, our nation’s first Secretary of the Treasury (and inventor of our banking system), as well as author of most of The Federalist Papers, Hamilton interprets the man’s life through song and hip hop, featuring a cast comprised of black, brown and Asian actors. It’s a brilliant conceit, made all the more so by the otherwise mostly faithful reenactments of the historical record. “Immigrants … we get the job done,” say the Marquis de Lafayette and Hamilton, together. Yes, they do. What better rebuke to today’s white supremacists than this vibrant work, which simultaneously embraces and refutes the myth of the American dream.
Now, for all who have never seen the show, whether by reason of its astronomically priced tickets and/or the sheer unavailability of such, there comes a wonderful treat, dropping on Disney Plus on July 3: a filmed version of the original Broadway cast performing Hamilton in June, 2016. Though offering very few cinematic innovations beyond the simple act of recording the event (in and of itself a worthy endeavor) – despite occasional overhead shots, a variety of angles and many close-ups – this 160-minute moving-image document of one of the premier theatrical presentations of our time is well worth seeing. And it’s a lot cheaper than seeing it live.
I am one of those unlucky souls who never was fortunate to catch Hamilton on stage. How lucky I therefore am to have now seen it, and with these actors. Miranda (Mary Poppins Returns) plays the title role, supported by, among others: Philippa Soo (CBS’ The Code) as his wife, Eliza; Renée Elise Goldsberry (Waves) as her sister, and Hamilton confidante, Angelica Schuyler; Leslie Odom Jr. (Harriet) as Aaron Burr, the man who eventually kills Hamilton in a duel; Daveed Diggs (Blindspotting) as both Lafayette and Thomas Jefferson; and, for delightful comic relief, Jonathan Groff (the voice of Kristoff in the Frozen films) as England’s King George III. Together, they sing powerful ballads, rap and dance their way through the years leading up to the founding of the United States, the writing of its constitution, and formation of its government. Though the hero must die, his legacy lives on, with this musical injecting new vigor into the narrative.
Unlike almost all the other founding fathers of this country, Hamilton did not come from the landed gentry. Born in the Caribbean in 1755 or 1757, out of wedlock, to a poor mother, and orphaned early on, Hamilton had to survive and make it in the world on his own merits. Arriving in the American colonies at a time of seething discontent with the British crown, he ingratiated himself with one George Washington, who took him under his wing and thereafter proved his mentor and protector. A sharp soul with an intense work ethic, he made himself indispensable as he went along, eventually leading men to victory at the decisive revolutionary Battle of Yorktown. He then promoted the adoption of the new constitution through the aforementioned Federalist Papers, advocated for a strong centralized government, and made as many friends as enemies along the way. One of those who started out as a friend and became an enemy was Aaron Burr, Vice President at the time he shot Hamilton.
All of this is recounted, with an infectious beat, in the show, bringing history to life in an exciting, present way. Split into two acts (with, here, a one-minute intermission), the show moves along at a brisk pace, despite its length. This presentation may not be epic cinema, but it is certainly epic spectacle. Watch and learn.