Hamilton is incredible. I know. The hottest take of 2015, coming at ya fast.
It’s hardly breaking news, but it’s what arrives at face value with the filmed version of the musical, releasing on Disney+ this Friday.
Even if, like me, you haven’t been able to afford a ticket or logistically plan the years in advance required to nab one, you know this. You’ve heard the incredible music. You’ve seen the incredible performances on TV. You’ve weathered the shrieking chorus of those who have seen it going on (and on) about how incredible it is.
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That incredibleness was never going to be at risk in this film, no matter the inherent shortfalls of capturing a live staged performance on camera. And if the energy that manifests in a live staged performance—in the room where it happens, if you will—fizzles when filtered through a TV screen, what leaps out in its place is meaning.
What Hamilton means and says about theatre, about history—about us—has been inextricable from its entertainment value for going on six years now. Its streaming premiere at a time of a national reckoning with the very history it depicts begs for that kind of cultural dissection.
Its themes and its lyrics distill the founding of the country down to human principles, the truths not necessarily self-evident as inked in the Constitution.
The president today is playing a game of roshambo with our lives—paper trumps rock; the economy trumps lives—and here is an epic musical refocusing the idea of patriotism, what we owe our country, and what our country owes us. It would be ridiculed for being too on the nose had it been written today.
Even its debut on a streaming service a full year and a half before it was initially planned to play in cinemas is political, endemic of the auspicious times it’s now airing—on Fourth of July weekend, no less.
In a taped introduction to the film, which was shot with the Broadway production’s original cast at the Richard Rodgers Theater in June 2016, creator and star Lin-Manuel Miranda says, “So much of what Hamilton is about is how history remembers, and how much that changes over time… I think it takes on a different meaning when you see Black and brown performers telling the origin story of our country.”
Adds Thomas Kail, who directed both the stage version and the film, “I’m proud of Hamilton because I feel like we made something that spoke to the moment when we made it, and also can speak to the moment now.”
I’d say so. It’s not about rewriting history as much as it is about re-righting it. Correcting it. Or, in some cases, acknowledging it in the first place, an experience Americans are having by watershed right now. It’s about how history is what we choose to remember, what we decide to teach and learn from—but what actually defines us is what gets swept under the rug or erased.
We’re in a moment when we’re talking about who gets to tell their stories. Hamilton raises that one further: who gets to tell our collective story?
“You want a revolution? I want a revelation.” How do you not internalize lyrics like that right now? And scrutinize them? Feel them? Live them? When the audience at the film’s taping erupts in applause at the line, “Immigrants, we get the job done,” you won’t even realize that you instinctively started clapping, too.
These conversations and talking points are galvanizing when you turn on Hamilton this Friday.
That’s because the show itself is missing the electricity of live theater—a power outage, it has just been announced, that will extend at least through the rest of the year, with Broadway officially keeping its doors closed until January 2021 at the earliest.
The lyrical wordplay is as good as you already know it is. The music is as stirring as you already know it is. Renee Elise Goldberry, Leslie Odom, and Phillipa Soo are as vocally powerful as you already know they are.
This is to say there is already so much about the quality of Hamilton that you already know. To some extent, that lessens the impact of an endeavor like this.
There’s so much that’s special about theater that a film can’t transmit. It can’t replicate the feeling of actors’ voices bouncing off your skin, or the way that foot stomps in choreography echo in your ears, or how Jonathan Groff’s spittle as he sings as King George makes you giggle in a certain kind of awe, or how the lighting cues somehow sync up with your biology for the three hours you’re in a theater, controlling your breathing with every blackout.
Revolutionary as Hamilton may be, this film is not a revolutionary idea. PBS regularly airs taped versions of some of the American stage’s best performances. In recent months, we’ve revisited taped versions of Falsettos and The King and I, both sensational productions and fine-enough filmed replications.
If you’re any sort of musical history historian, you’ve seen Angela Lansbury’s Mrs. Lovett in the filmed Sweeney Todd and Joanna Gleason’s perfect Baker’s Wife in Into the Woods, grateful that the brilliance has been captured for prosperity, yet knowing full-well that it pales in comparison to what it was like live.
Did the Rent movie filmed on sterile studio lots and with a cast a decade too old to play the parts disappoint you? There’s a totally adequate taped version of the final days of the Broadway run ready to make amends. And before there was a butthole version of Cats, there was just normal Cats—well, as normal as Cats can be, anyway.
A staged production, no matter what is being filmed, just becomes monotonous, through no fault of anyone and entirely owed to the constraints of what is being captured.
“Revolutionary as ‘Hamilton’ may be, this film is not a revolutionary idea.”
There’s no element of surprise. There’s no opportunity to lavish fleeting attention on a corner of the stage or a chorus performer that catches your eye, or to get lost in the magical portal to the wings as the cast enters and exits. The peaks and valleys as everyone’s energy escalates in tandem during a show flatten to a stagnant pace. An entertaining pace, yes. But a static one nonetheless.
Kail, who won an Emmy for his direction of Grease Live!, has revolutionized the live musical experience, finding a way to imbue the sporadic outings with a breathless, kinetic energy somewhat replicative of a “putting on a show,” brassy gumption. But here, he’s hampered by a proscenium.
All of the clever camera angles and cinematic ambition can’t elevate this production much above a performance on The Tonight Show With Jimmy Fallon. But that, too, is a bit of the point. We’re not transporting Hamilton, this legendary stage production, to a different kind of medium, or interpreting it in a new way. We’re documenting it for it was, and inviting even more people to bear witness.
Theatre is a privilege. It’s a privilege of economics, yes. Hamilton tickets were the Lamborghini or Hamptons summer home of status symbols, with people in cities across the country paying exorbitant membership fees to local theatres in exchange for early access to tour tickets.
But it’s also a privilege of experience. Make all the “room where it happens” jokes you want, but that room is a sacred space. You’re lucky to not just be in it, but to feel what takes place there.
For all the debate over when movie theaters will, or should, reopen, and all the prognostication over how at-home releases of new movies will impact the industry, there’s something so egalitarian about bringing a modern phenomenon on the level of Hamilton to a streaming service that costs just $5 for a subscription, that it almost exists entirely outside of those conversations.
It’s akin to a cultural stimulus check, theater’s hottest ticket brought to the masses.
So yes, what remains and what is constant is that Hamilton is incredible. (I mean, to have that stretch of “Alexander Hamilton” through “Wait for It” stacked with so many unbelievable numbers—“My Shot,” “The Schuyler Sisters,” “You’ll Be Back,” “Helpless,” “Satisfied”—may be an unrivaled feat.) What’s always in flux in the short amount of time since Hamilton first came onto the cultural scene is how we think about ourselves in relation to it, what is gleaned from watching it in the context of whatever time we’re in.
It is a show about moments and opportunities: “I’m not throwing away my shot.” Watching Hamilton right now? Shots fired.