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Hamilton (2020)

DIRECTOR: Thomas Kail

CAST: Lin-Manuel Miranda, Leslie Odom Jr., Christopher Jackson, Phillipa Soo, Renée Elise Goldsberry, Daveed Diggs, Jonathan Groff

REVIEW:

Counting Hamilton as a “movie” is using the term loosely, rather a live film recording of the original run of the 2015 Broadway musical featuring its original cast, but while no filmed recording can fully recreate the immersive nature of seeing a show live, Hamilton‘s release on online streaming service Disney + (following Disney outbidding all competition to call dibs on the film rights) gives a chance for those who missed or could not afford the opportunity to buy Broadway tickets, or those who wish to revisit the play’s original run with its original cast, a chance to experience the phenomenon for themselves. A musical adaptation of Ron Chernow’s 2004 biography of American Founding Father Alexander Hamilton, with Broadway star Lin-Manuel Miranda composing the songs, writing the lyrics, and starring in the title role, Hamilton deserves its success and popularity. While non-musical fans might not be converted, for those to whom the medium appeals, it’s a lively, lavish, passionate production of the highest quality combining rap, pop, and showtunes to turn a biography into an engaging and energetic modernized history lesson that both educates and entertains.

The story sketches out the life and times of Alexander Hamilton (Lin-Manuel Miranda) from his origins as a penniless orphan from the Caribbean island of Nevis, to a Revolutionary War hero, the United States’ first Secretary of the Treasury, and one of the American Founding Fathers. Hamilton comes to New York City in 1776 as the American Revolution is brewing, and falls in with a band of revolutionaries including Aaron Burr (Leslie Odom Jr.), who starts as a comrade but will become Hamilton’s long-standing nemesis. The intellectual and fervently ambitious Hamilton quickly becomes a rising star and advances himself through two important alliances: becoming the right hand man of General George Washington (Christopher Jackson) and marrying into the wealthy Schuyler family through Eliza (Phillipa Soo). Hamilton’s career has ups and downs. He falls out of favor with Washington after participating in a duel, but is brought back for the decisive Battle of Yorktown. Post-war, Hamilton plays a key role in the founding of the fledgling United States government and becomes the first Secretary of the Treasury under President Washington, but runs afoul of future president Thomas Jefferson (Daveed Diggs), and both his political career and marriage are dealt blows by an extramarital affair. Meanwhile, his increasing rivalry with a jealous Aaron Burr eventually leads to a duel which will cut Hamilton’s fast-rising life short.

While more a filmed recording than a “movie”, Hamilton makes some prudent concessions to the medium in which it is being viewed. This isn’t just a high-quality version of someone recording the play in the audience with a camcorder; multiple cameras were used to give more angles and variety, and the final product is a combination of footage from two live performances coupled with close-ups filmed specifically for the movie (the actors performed excerpts from the show with cameras onstage to provide these shots). Everything blends together seamlessly and director Thomas Kail, who oversaw both the stage show and the filmed composite, does a smooth job selecting which shots and edits to include, and the result makes Hamilton feel more “cinematic” than just someone setting up a camera at a static position in the theater seats and letting it roll.

On its own stage merits, Hamilton is a production of the highest order. The elaborate choreography—aided by a spinning stage floor— is used to most striking effect in an almost cinematic flourish where a wedding celebration is interrupted to “rewind” to show events from another character’s perspective (keep in mind, in a stage show, this is only done through elaborate choreography on the cast’s part with no room for mistakes and retakes in front of a live audience, not any special effects trickery). The songs—which are many, with little spoken dialogue—are lively and catchy, blending rap, pop, and showtunes and casting a wide net to give at least something for almost everyone in the audience to bob their head to regardless of their musical tastes, as well as enlivening what could otherwise have at times been a dry history lesson (a Cabinet argument between Hamilton and Jefferson, for example, is acted out as a rap battle, complete with mic drop). Much has been made of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s color-blind casting choices, casting black and brown actors, including Miranda himself, in roles that would normally be reserved for white men (a controversial approach that has faced criticism from both the political left and right) but if it’s momentarily jarring to have a black man as George Washington, the show is sufficiently compelling and absorbing (and Christopher Jackson’s presence forceful enough) that one quickly gets over it. And, while it goes without saying that a show telling the life story of Alexander Hamilton through rap battles and showtunes and starring black and brown actors as America’s Founding Fathers is not meant to be strictly rooted in reality, Hamilton (while not without a little historical fudging) provides an accurate and informative enough overview of the life and times of its title character that—apart from a little profanity—one could easily see it being used as an educational tool in classrooms (studies have shown information is often more readily absorbed through the power of music). The formidable 160 minute runtime, with only a sixty second “intermission”, seldom drags thanks to a compelling narrative and relentless pace. If anything, the fast pace and dense exposition worked into some of the songs—at times delivered as rapid-fire rap numbers—might make closed captions advisable for first time viewers or those unfamiliar with the lyrics; there’s a lot to absorb.

On the whole, the cast is exemplary, though it’s a bit unfair to compare this kind of stage acting to film acting (by its very nature, this kind of lavish stage musical acting is “bigger” and more broad and ostentatious than the often subtler, more nuanced style of film acting). With few spoken lines, the performances are as much about singing and choreography as emoting and reciting dialogue. Actually, an argument could be made that Lin-Manuel Miranda himself is more impressive behind the scenes than on the stage. Miranda is fine, but is often upstaged by the supporting cast, with Christopher Jackson’s George Washington and Renée Elise Goldsberry’s Angelica Schuyler being especially forceful presences, with Jackson giving a particularly memorable characterization of Washington as both a commanding and larger-than-life, and very human and sometimes vulnerable figure, never better than in his moving and passionate rendition of his farewell song “One Last Time”. Leslie Odom Jr. gives an impassioned portrayal of Hamilton’s nemesis Aaron Burr, especially in his renditions of “Wait For It” and “The Room Where It Happens”. He’s a bit of a Salieri to Hamilton’s Mozart, but while a more simplistic version of the story might cast him as the “villain”, Hamilton doesn’t make it that simple (for that matter, the relentlessly hyper-ambitious and opportunistically self-advancing Hamilton is no saint himself, and both he and Burr have positive and negative qualities). Phillipa Soo gives a poignant rendition of her big number “Burn” (the ever-faithful Eliza, whom Hamilton first cheats on, then publicly humiliates by brazenly admitting to his affair in public to deny his political opponents the blackmail material, is arguably the most sympathetic character in the story). Also, as is often the case in the theater, there’s a few instances of double casting, including Daveed Diggs playing both Marquis de Lafayette and Thomas Jefferson (the latter of whom is portrayed unflatteringly as a fatuous, preening narcissist), and Anthony Ramos playing both Hamilton’s wartime friend John Laurens and later his son Philip. Diggs is deliciously over-the-top as Jefferson, especially in his big introductory number, “What’d I Miss?”, with the other most overt “comic relief” coming from Jonathan Groff as a foppish King George III (by Miranda’s own admission, King George’s three tongue-in-cheek numbers, directed toward the rebellious colonies, were styled as breakup songs).

Whether viewed live, or in this filmed recording, Hamilton‘s verve, exuberance, and top quality production values are quickly obvious, and the 160 minutes breeze past with a compulsive watchability that prove how compelling and absorbing the material is in Miranda and cast and crew’s hands. It’s an invigorating and innovative way of teaching history, wrapped up in an eminently entertaining gloss, and well worth the price of admission (or streaming).

* * * 1/2

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