Writer: Lin-Manuel Miranda
Director: Thomas Kail
The hit musical and theatrical phenomenon, Hamilton has wowed critics and audiences alike since it appeared Off-Broadway a little over five years ago. Half a decade of sold-out performances and multiple international productions led to it not only entering immediately into mainstream popular culture, but also launching its writer and original leading man Lin-Manuel Miranda’s career into the stratosphere. Post-Hamilton, Miranda has been involved in several high-profile Disney projects including the male lead in Mary Poppins Returns and contributing songs to both Moana and the upcoming live-action The Little Mermaid. This all makes the appearance of the filmed stage performance on Disney+ slightly less incongruous, although apparently his history with the studio has nothing to do with Disney being the distributer. Instead, Disney won a bidding war with its rivals and paid a reported $75M for the rights to show the film. Although originally slated for a 2021 cinema release, in response to the ongoing pandemic the studio made the decision to instead premiere it on their streaming service in time for the USA’s Fourth of July weekend.
Filmed in 2016 with the majority of the original cast, this is an almost unedited version of the stage show (Miranda agreed with the removal of a few expletives to ensure a PG rating). The show chronicles the life of American Founding Father Alexander Hamilton using musical influences from hip-hop, R&B, soul, pop and traditional musical theatre, and features a cast of largely non-white performers. The story, based on Hamilton’s biography by Ron Chernow is crammed with drama, tragedy and intrigue, and sprinkled with just the right amount of comedy to counterbalance the drama. In fact the entire show, from the opening bars to the final bows is utterly absorbing.
One of the USA’s Founding Fathers that led the revolt against the British, and the original Secretary of the Treasury, Hamilton’s life had enough ambition, lust, blackmail, betrayal, loss, grief, and tragedy to make this the perfect subject for a musical. Miranda milks this tale for all its worth to create a densely scripted (via the lyrics as this is entirely sung/sing-spoken) and fascinating history lesson that not only demands repeat viewing to capture all of its nuances, but also triggers a desire to learn more about this era in America’s history.
The cast, led by Miranda himself as the titular character is superb. Miranda shows excellent range in a role that requires everything from levity, through earnestness, to outright trauma. Leslie Odem Jr plays Aaron Burr, Hamilton’s friend-turned-rival-turned-eventual-killer (no spoiler – this is revealed within the first few minutes of the show). Odem also takes on the role of occasional narrator and has the fantastic vocals and dramatic abilities that this demanding role requires. Christopher Jackson is the stoic George Washington, Daveed Diggs makes a hilariously strutting Thomas Jefferson, and Jonathon Groff threatens to steal the entire show in the relatively small role of King George III. Phillipa Soo is a stand-out as Hamilton’s wife Eliza, also being required to move from girlish infatuation to eventually delivering the show’s heart-breaking final moments.
Judging from this filmed version, Hamilton certainly deserved its 11 Tony Awards. The staging is simple but extremely effective with a fixed set enhanced with minimal dressing to create multiple locations. This is helped with a revolving stage which is used to its full advantage, and top-notch lighting design that adds to the drama as well as transferring emotion and mood to the audience.
Unusually for a filmed stage production, the camera is always in the right place. Close-ups capture the drama but the viewer is always fully aware of the action as it fits within the entire staging, and Andy Blankenbuehler’s energetic choreography is fully captured and showcased.
Hamilton is contemporary and exciting, and with many parallels with Les Miserables both narratively and conceptually, even musical theatre traditionalists are sure to be won over by its numerous charms.
Hamilton is on Disney+ now