Anyone heard of this scrappy little play, "Hamilton"? Turns out it's pretty good!
A joke, of course, because this critic never had a chance to see "Hamilton" on Broadway, or on any other stage. But it was impossible to escape "Hamilton"-mania in 2015 and 2016, as the writer and star of the production, Lin-Manuel Miranda, shot to instant fame, the musical scooped up 11 Tony Awards, a Pulitzer Prize, and the cast album won a Grammy. Snapshots of the Richard Rodgers Theater marquee with a well-placed program became a social media status symbol.
But now, the great "Hamilton" equalizer arrives in the form of streaming service Disney+, premiering a filmed production of the musical featuring the original cast. Filmed over the course of several performances in June 2016, the production is much more dynamic than the usual filmed stage play, with roving Steadicam shots picking out distinct close-ups of the actors on stage, and sophisticated editing toggling between views from the balcony to the orchestra pit, picking out specific interactions and looks among the performers. We're up close and personal with the actors, experiencing their sweat, their spittle, their stage mics.
In an introduction, Miranda and director Thomas Kail share a few words about the continued resonance of "Hamilton" when we're grappling with what it means to be American, and how history is told. Indeed, the repeated thesis of the play is, "Who lives, who dies, who tells your story?" For the Founding Father Alexander Hamilton, the person who tells his story is Miranda, inspired by a hefty biography written by Ron Chernow. Miranda, already a Tony Award-winning writer and star of "In The Heights," was inspired by the daring Hamilton's life: his humble beginnings as an orphan and precocious clerk on a tiny Caribbean island, a Revolutionary War fighter under George Washington, a ferocious writer who helped to shape the Constitution and Treasury Department, and a man killed before he was 50 in a duel with Aaron Burr.
His is the ultimate American story: an immigrant, a dreamer, a striver, an ambitious man with only his talent to keep him warm. It makes perfect sense Miranda would execute the story with that uniquely American art form, rap. And that Miranda would assemble a diverse cast of predominantly Black and brown performers to portray the upstart Americans, people from other places landing in this place and seeing what kind of country they can make of it. Miranda positions the Revolutionary War as a turf war, spins Constitutional debates into rap battles. It's a modern telling, but decidedly historical, inserting people of color into the founding of this country, where they should be.
Miranda is one of the best performers of his own rapid-fire, wordy, hooky material, bringing the necessary earnestness and enthusiasm the lyrically packed songs demand. Although he's the star of the show, he happily lets his cast of budding superstars steal the spotlight. If you've seen "Blindspotting," you're familiar with the powerful presence of Daveed Diggs, who plays the French Gen. Marquis de Lafayette in Act One, and Thomas Jefferson in Act Two, with his loose 'fro flowing, clad in purple velvet, swaggering like Little Richard in a honky tonk. Yes, he won a Tony.
Another cast member who took home a Tony was Leslie Odom Jr., who gives a stunning, show-stealing performance as the antagonist Aaron Burr, who grows more and more bitter and jealous of Hamilton. Odom Jr. rocks two of the musical's most bombastic numbers, "Wait for It" and "The Room Where It Happens." Even if you have the soundtrack memorized, there's nothing like witnessing Odom Jr. sneer and stalk the stage in "Room Where It Happens," the lighting and choreography hitting every beat.
The other Tony-winning performer is Renee Elise Goldsberry as Angelica Schuyler, Hamilton's sister-in-law and confidant. From the time the Schuyler sisters explode on stage in a burst of pastel satin, there's no taking your eyes off Goldsberry, who croons beautifully sad songs, belts ballads and raps with the speed of Diggs. She's simply a phenomenon, and it's clear no film role yet has truly harnessed her power.
The production is a hefty two hours and 40 minutes, with a short intro and one-minute intermission break. But it demands your attention and full focus to follow the dynamic hip-hop flow and each song (there's no spoken dialogue). The performers whirl around a rough hewn stage, the set minimal but often exploding into motion, a series of rotating circular sections of the floor animating a sense of movement and place, or serving to slow or even rewind time.
What more can really be said about "Hamilton"? It's one of the greatest achievements of history-telling and history-making art of our recent era. And yet it also feels like a throwback to another, more innocent time, when something like this seemed possible. Hopefully, we'll fight for our present history, like a young immigrant from the Caribbean did for his own history, and for his adopted country. One thing's for certain: We cannot throw away our shot.