‘Hamilton’ Review: Grab a Seat in the Room Where It Happened
On the same day that Broadway announced it would remained closed at least through the end of the 2020, I watched the film version of Hamilton, Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Tony-winning musical about the life of patriot, statesman, and American Founding Father Alexander Hamilton. This movie was first scheduled to open in theaters on October 21, 2021. After the coronavirus pandemic shut down the entire live theater industry — not to mention movie theaters — Disney convinced Miranda and his collaborators to push the film up by over a year, and to debut it on the Disney+ streaming service.
It would have been nice to watch Hamilton on a big screen, where seeing it with an audience might have replicated a little of the incredible energy in the Richard Rogers Theatre, the show’s New York home. On the other hand, it’s nice to have Hamilton to watch right now while Broadway’s been snuffed out, at least temporarily. Be aware, though, that this isn’t a Hamilton adapted from the stage to the screen; it’s a recording of the show, and not an especially novel one at that.
The press releases from Disney about this Hamilton touted how it “combines the best elements of live theater, film and streaming to bring the cultural phenomenon to homes around the world for a thrilling, once-in-a-lifetime experience.” In practice, the “Hamilfilm” looks a lot like every recording of a Broadway show. It was shot “over just three days in June 2016, shortly after the Tonys and shortly before Miranda and several other performers departed from the [original] cast.” Nine cameras were installed in the Richard Rogers to capture the action at a Sunday matinee and a Tuesday night performance. On the Monday in between, the cast performed “13 of the 46 numbers, but this time with onstage equipment — a Steadicam, a crane and a dolly-mounted camera — for close-ups and overheads.”
The close-ups add an intimate texture when they appear — but as the statistics above suggest, they’re infrequent. Most of the show is captured in medium shots focused on the singers, making it a little tricky to bask in Hamilton’s impressive choreography (by Andy Blankenbuehler) and lightning and scenic design (by Howell Binkley and David Korins, respectively). All in all, any hoopla about this movie combining the “best elements” of different media is just that; an impressive-sounding pitch to help sell a fairly ordinary movie version of an extraordinary stage musical.
It is an extraordinary stage musical, though, and if you’ve never had a chance to experience it, Disney’s Hamilton makes a fine introduction. (The film presents the entire show, minus a couple F-bombs that had to be trimmed out to secure a PG-13 rating.) Miranda plays the title role, the brash immigrant driven to prove his worth and help launch the American Revolution. He repeatedly crosses paths with fellow Founding Father Aaron Burr (Leslie Odom Jr.), who’s driven less by ideology than naked ambition. Hamilton becomes George Washington’s (Christopher Jackson) right-hand man during the war, then joins his cabinet as the first Secretary of the Treasury. Later, he spars with Thomas Jefferson (Daveed Diggs) over the direction of their young country, and deals with the fallout of an affair that could ruin his marriage to the infinitely patient Eliza (Phillipa Soo).
I saw Hamilton in November of 2016, only a couple months after this movie was recorded and most of the original Broadway cast had departed. By that point the show was already a phenomenon — and somehow it lived up to every last bit of hype. Watching the movie, I found myself constantly comparing the production I saw with the movie that Thomas Kail directed for Disney+. (Kail also directed the Broadway production.) It’s a treat to see original cast members like the clarion-voiced Renée Elise Goldsberry as Hamilton’s sister-in-law Angelica Schuyler, whose performance of “Satisfied” might be the emotional highlight of the entire film. Still, there are some performers that I saw four years ago who might even be superior to the actors they replaced. I thought Brandon Victor Dixon made an even more tragic Aaron Burr than Leslie Odom Jr., even if the latter won the Tony for Best Actor for the role.
There’s absolutely nothing wrong with Disney+’s Hamilton. The performers are at the top of their game and the material — music, lyrics, and book by Miranda, based on a Hamilton biography by Ron Chernow — is as powerful and catchy as its reputation. It would have been nice to see a movie version of that material that was as unique as the material itself. Perhaps someday, we’ll get one. In the short term, while Broadway remains closed, this is a solid substitute. But it’s not a replacement for the real thing when the Richard Rogers Theatre reopens its doors, whenever that is.
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