Cast: Lin-Manuel Miranda, Phillipa Soo, Leslie Odom Jr., Renée Elise Goldsberry, Christopher Jackson, Daveed Diggs, Okieriete Onaodowan, Jasmine Cephas Jones, Jonathan Groff
Director: Thomas Kail
Writer: Lin-Manuel Miranda
One of the main themes of Hamilton is that of legacy and how you do not get to control how your story gets told or who gets to tell it. This applies as much to the show’s creator Lin-Manuel Miranda as it does to its subject Alexander Hamilton. Now that the show is out there for anyone (with a Disney+ subscription) to see, it falls onto the viewing public to interpret and judge the work on their own terms (such is the contract that every artist makes with the audience). All art is subject to the context in which it was originally created, the circumstances in which it is experienced, and the mentality of the individual consumer. Miranda understands this, of course, and the text of his work affirms it. Hamilton doesn’t get to decide how he is remembered any more than Miranda does how his remembrance of the man’s life is received. The point is relevant here because the hit hip-hop/rap musical is being shown in a different form to a different world than when it took Broadway by storm in 2015. A show that was originally conceived and designed for the stage is today being viewed in a filmed form on TV and computer screens and the optimism of the Obama Era has been replaced with the cynicism and disillusionment of Trump, Brexit and COVID-19. Things have changed, but the sun comes up and the world still spins.
Hamilton was filmed in July 2016 in the Richard Rodgers Theatre in New York when the production still had its original cast and had yet to expand to other cities and countries. Back then the show was playing to an America that hadn’t seen the result of that year’s election or the fallout since. Four years later it is opening to a world in which the systemic murder of black people is being met with furious protest and the statues of men who owned and traded in slaves are being opposed and removed. A play that ultimately reassures the viewer of the promise of the American experiment now finds itself playing to an audience that is less certain of the nobility and virtue of their history and has less faith in the systems and hierarchies that have enabled men like Trump to rise to power. A show that recasts the USA’s founding fathers as people of colour, thereby making a statement on who gets to tell the story of the country’s origins, plays differently when the audience is more conscious of their legacy as slave-owners. A musical that ties together such a variety of historically black genres as hip-hop, R&B, and jazz feels somewhat sanitised by the realisation that it has been repackaged for a predominantly rich and white theatre audience. But then, these are ideas that the musical itself contends and grapples with.
As a work of musical theatre, to say that Hamilton lives up to the hype would be an understatement. After having listened to the album a couple hundred times, I got to see the West End production in 2018 and was wowed by the marvellous staging, the dazzling choreography and the wonderful performances (especially Giles Terera as Aaron Burr, Rachel John as Angelica Schuyler and Michael Jibson as King George). As director of both the original show and its filmed rendition, Thomas Kail’s task was to convey that spectacle in a form that could be showcased on the screen. Since Hamilton is a theatrical work first and foremost and the point of this movie is to provide the experience of watching the show to those who couldn’t see it themselves for financial or geographical reasons, it’s probably not fair to critique it as a work of cinema. Never the less, the reality is that unlike in the theatre where you can see all the action unfold before your eyes, deliberate choices had to be made here over which aspects to focus on in a given moment. While it is fundamentally the same performance as you would see on stage with the same live audience reactions and all the same songs (give or take a couple of “fucks” that were censored to secure a PG-13 rating), it is a different experience.
The result is both better and worse than what you would get from being in the room where it happened. Filmed over the course of two live performances, Kail was naturally limited in how much material he could film and the variety of ways in which he could film it. Cameras could not be placed anywhere or perform any movements that would be disruptive to the performance. The film is therefore mostly made up of eye-level medium shots from diagonal angles with occasional close-ups, wide shots, low-angle shots and overhead shots at key moments. The cuts between shots occur at a regular pace, as they would in a real film, allowing the viewer little time to look around and take in the bigger picture as they would in the theatre. The close-ups allow the audience to appreciate details that would be imperceptible from the theatre-goer’s seat like the wistful look of longing and regret on Angelica’s (Renée Elise Goldsberry) face during her show-stopping turn in ‘Satisfied’, but while the camera is fixed on her you miss out on much of the sparkling choreography on display as the actors around her act out the previous routine in reverse. There is a give and take that had to be negotiated by Kail and his team in the editing room; for all that the show gains in subtle nuances, some of the spectacle had to be sacrificed (and vice versa).
There are moments, usually in the quieter, less crowded scenes, where the film captures it just right. In the reprise of ‘The Story of Tonight’ (omitted from the album) where Hamilton (Lin-Manuel Miranda) learns that fellow soldier Laurens (Anthony Ramos) has died (spoilers), Hamilton listens to his wife Eliza (Phillipa Soo) read the letter while Laurens, bathed in a ghostly blue light, stands in the foreground and sings of the promise that died with him (“Tomorrow there’ll be more of us”). Another example are the scenes with King George (a spit-tacular Jonathan Groff), whose performances provide perhaps the best example of what there is to be gained from a showing of Hamilton that you cannot get from simply listening to the album. The menacing glare, the primadonna walk, the spittle that erupts from his cartoonish screams; these things cannot be heard, they can only be seen. Since he’s usually on stage by himself, Kail cannot really go wrong with these scenes. All he has to do is point the camera and let Groff do the work. It’s during the busier scenes when there are more characters and interactions on the stage that he seems at a loss about who or what to frame. At times he’ll employ rapid cuts of a scene from different angles in an attempt to capture the many intricacies, but this can have a disorientating effect where the viewer loses track of the physical space within the scene.
Five paragraphs in, it suddenly occurs to me that I haven’t done the thing where I explain what the film is actually about and who’s in it. Hamilton is about the life and times of the “ten dollar founding father” Alexander Hamilton. Told from the perspective of Aaron Burr (Leslie Odom Jr.), the “damn fool that shot him”, the show chronicles Hamilton’s life from the moment he set foot on the harbour in New York to pursue a career in law and join the revolution to his dying moment in a duel with the Vice President of the country he helped build. In that time he rises above his station as a “bastard orphan immigrant” to become right hand man to George Washington (Christopher Jackson), woos and marries the trusting and kind Eliza, becomes the country’s first Secretary of the Treasury, suffers and endures personal tragedy and professional scandal and builds a legacy that lives on to this day. The story is split into two acts with an intermission in between; the first set during the Revolutionary War against the British and the second in the years of the Washington and Adams presidencies. In placing its focus on two protagonists in Hamilton and Burr, we are treated to a story of jealousy between a cautious, entitled dignitary and a reckless, ambitious upstart, a philosophical conflict between an idealist and a pragmatist, and a cautionary tale of two men who both feared dying without leaving something behind.
As I said at the start, legacy is a major theme in Hamilton and the play is in many ways a comment on how we romanticise and mythologise our history. In the USA the founding fathers tend to be remembered as a coalition of nobles, heroes and scholars who opposed tyranny and together created a nation founded on the ideals of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. The play however understands that these men were far from perfect and that the country they built failed to live up to its own ideals as soon as it came to existence. For all their talk of freedom, the United States is still a country that was founded by slave-owners. Hamilton himself, for all his ideals, was a petty and combative man who was unfaithful to his wife and wrecked his marriage in order to preserve his reputation. There are for sure criticisms to be made from a historiographical perspective. Hamilton, for instance, was far from the abolitionist that the play portrays him to be and his political beliefs were much more authoritarian than the show can bring itself to admit. Meanwhile the play is happy to call Jefferson (Daveed Diggs) and Madison (Okieriete Onaodowan) out for owning slaves but never does so to Washington, the one founding father it cannot bring itself to demythologise. Furthermore, while slavery is brought up as a blemish on the country’s record, nothing is made of the genocide of the indigenous Americans.
While the play’s relationship to history is a spot of contention that requires far greater insight and expertise than I can offer to adequately cover, its effect as a work of drama is not to be denied. You care about what happens in the story, not because of the politics and history, but because of the characters and the actors who play them. In ‘Dear Theodosia’, which takes place after America’s victory against the British, we see Hamilton and Burr, both of them orphans, sitting side by side to celebrate the births of their children. It’s a song about the future of the nation they both plan to help build, but it’s founded on their own personal hopes and fears. Miranda, while not exactly the best singer in the troupe, is a force of nature in the title role; although the character is destined to be played by better actors and singers for years to come, it’s hard to imagine anybody matching Miranda for sheer passion and utter sincerity. Odom Jr. is a wildly charismatic performer who can convey anything from effortless charm to wounded pride to sly cunning in just the way that he smiles or composes himself. He is one of the performers who benefits the most from being filmed. Their portrayals may well be idealised, but they also work.
Frankly, you’d be hard-pressed to find a weak link in the entire ensemble. Soo, as the indomitable Eliza, brings such tenderness and anguish to the role that her arc as a neglected figure who takes control of her own destiny is perhaps the most moving in the entire show. The part that always gets me any time I listen to the album is when she forgives Hamilton for his misgivings. Even though that moment has the chorus sing what is quite possibly the most useless lyric in the history of musical theatre, her affectionate delivery of “It’s quiet uptown” still gets me choked up. Accompanying her is Goldsberry as Angelica, a character who remains composed at all times even when she’s anxiously falling apart inside, and Diggs as Lafayette and Jefferson, oozing of irresistible charm in every scene he’s in. And then there’s Jackson as Washington, the firm father figure that the orphaned Hamilton needs whose eventual retirement in ‘One Last Time’ is a bittersweet moment of parting and abandonment for Hamilton, a man who lost every guardian in his life before he came of age. Jackson holds himself high, exuding the dignity and gravitas of a great leader and authority figure. While the play is guilty of idolising Washington to the detriment of its own message, it’s hard not to get swept up in the myth of the man the way that Hamilton does.
It’s sometimes odd to consider how one’s relationship to a given work of art can change over time. Two years ago I would not have hesitated in giving Hamilton total, uncritical praise. Today I still consider it an all-time favourite and I was as swept away by the filmed recording as I ever was by the album, but my feelings have grown more complex as I’ve matured and seen the world around me change in such drastic ways. I’ve come to regard the reassurance and complacency of the Obama Era, under which this play came to fruition, as naiveté and ignorance just as I’ve grown more aware of the play’s limitations and shortcomings. And yet I still don’t find myself in conflict with the text of the show and what it ultimately stands for. Hamilton is the story of a country trying to reconcile its own bloody history with the ideals upon which it was founded. It’s a play which understands fully well that the present we live in isn’t perfect, but it still believes that a better future is possible. This musical, with its impossibly intricate rhymes and lyrics (seriously, just look at something like “the gossip in New York City is insidious” or “ingenuitive and fluent in French”) and fresh sounds, is a singular work of art that deserves to be scrutinised, analysed and debated. The film doesn’t capture everything that’s great about it, but it does capture enough and even reveals a few things you might not have noticed otherwise.