July 6, 2020
Rated ‘PG-13’ for language and some suggestive material.
Stars Lin-Manuel Miranda, Leslie Odom Jr., Daveed Diggs, Phillipa Soo, Christopher Jackson, Jonathan Groff, Okieriete Onaodowan, Anthony Ramos, Renée Elise Goldsberry, Jasmine Cephas Jones.
Disney’s decision to release a recording of Hamilton through its streaming service has undoubtedly clued in millions of viewers about why the popular stage musical has become such a massive hit with the audiences who had a chance to see it live. Writer and star Lin-Manuel Miranda has crafted a mesmerizing ode to one of America’s most notable founding fathers.
Famously described as “America then, as told by America now,” Miranda treats the production like a re-imagining of the founding of the United States, with minority actors playing the key roles of the American icons. The casting also fits Miranda’s musical sensibilities, with performers well-suited for the infectious, hip-hop infused soundtrack that relates the story of Hamilton’s rise and fall in American politics.
The story is structured as a series of intertwining rivalries, centered on the dual narrative of the lives of Hamilton (Miranda) and Aaron Burr (Leslie Odom Jr.), who eventually kills him in a duel.
The fresh-faced idealist Hamilton arrives in colonial America with hopes of joining the budding revolution, while Burr is painted as a power-hungry opportunist who advises the young upstart not to make his beliefs too well known lest they get him into trouble. Hamilton eventually becomes a confidante of George Washington, establishing a centralized U.S. treasury and clashing with Thomas Jefferson, who prefers to give more deference to the individual states.
A second aspect to the play focuses on the love story between Hamilton and his wife, Eliza (Phillipa Soo), and her futile efforts to convince Alexander to make his family the priority of his life rather than his role in forming a new nation.
Pieced together from several 2016 performances at the end of the run of the original cast, the filmed version of the production is impeccably shot, showcasing complexly choreographed musical numbers and the ingeniously designed stage with spinning floors and detachable staircases that can be reconfigured as needed. Particularly interesting is the way the ensemble uses dance and music to simulate modern filmmaking techniques such as slow motion and replay.
Ironically, Miranda’s soft-spoken portrayal of the title character is often overshadowed by some of the play’s more colorful characters, particularly Daveed Diggs, pulling double duty as both Jefferson and the Marquis de Lafayette.
Miranda’s depiction of Hamilton as a scrappy upstart is a compelling one, despite his dubious and repeated proclamation of Hamilton as an immigrant, given that he was a British subject relocating from one British territory (the Caribbean island of Nevis) to another (New York), making him as much of an immigrant as someone moving from Nebraska to Hollywood. Still, Hamilton’s Caribbean roots resonated with Miranda’s consideration of his own Puerto Rican heritage, providing the genesis to explore how this man could rise from such obscurity to get his face on the $10 bill.
The songs have been meticulously constructed to resonate throughout the story, with Hamilton’s early anthem of “not throwing away my shot” taking on the double meaning of figuratively seizing the opportunities before him, as well as the literal action in a duel of missing on purpose. The concept of the duel is also central to the play’s layout, as three are featured, allowing the audience to fully understand what is taking place in the climax.
Hopefully the play will inspire viewers to look into the real story of Hamilton and the origins of the United States, rather than accept the historical assertions in the play at face value. (Among other conflations, the play offers a very messy summary of the election of 1800, presenting Jefferson and Burr as rivals for the presidency when they were, in fact, running mates, and also omits key details as to what motivated Burr to challenge Hamilton to a duel to begin with). Then again, this is a piece of artistic performance, not a college course, lest anyone believe George Washington’s cabinet meetings were actually conducted via a series of highly entertaining rap battles.
Fortunately, the play does a nice job shining a light on some of Hamilton’s lesser-known contemporaries, such as John Laurens and the spy Hercules Mulligan.
The Disney+ presentation also includes access to a 33-minute featurette of interviews with the cast conducted by The Undefeated, an ESPN-owned website that deals with the intersection of race, sports and popular culture.