Hamilton has rightly earned its acclaim as game-changing and renegade theatre. With its eighteenth-century Founding Fathers rapping their way through the construction of America and a cast that is largely made up of actors of colour. The musical was a smash on Broadway and the West End alike winning every major award going, including a record-breaking 16 Tony nominations. Its creator Lin- Manuel Miranda won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama. But can a recorded version capture the magic of the theatre?
Hamilton, on paper, may seem like a dull and dreary history lesson, charting the life of one of America’s lesser recognised Founding Fathers, Alexander Hamilton (Lin-Manuel Miranda) ‘embodies hip-hop.’ From the first song which practically charts Hamilton’s full life, we see that this man has overcome insurmountable odds and that this ‘bastard, orphan, son of a whore’ deserves the recognition Miranda bestows upon him. But with catchy songs from its opening, it diverges into hip-hop, rap, beatboxing, jazz, soul and power ballads that chart the highs and the lows of Hamilton’s life. From being a ‘young, scrappy and hungry’ revolutionary, to the ‘genius’ who designed America’s financial system, to his untimely death at the hand of his frenemy Aaron Burr. Miranda is a skilled writer; his careful handling of a plot that could have become bogged down in the sheer amount of history that occurred during this period. Juggling multiple themes such as politics, love, scandal and the importance of a legacy. Death is an ever-looming presence all through song and rap keep the play interesting, and never allows it to linger on one theme for too long keeping the play in a constant state of motion.
The performance offers the full theatre experience from the snarky voice of King George III ordering audience members to turn off their phones, and that no filming is allowed to take place (ironically), offers a sharp reminder that whilst #Hamilfilm may have been trending, this is not a film but a theatre experience. The director is clever. He does not simply plant the camera at the back of the theatre, it weaves its way through the performers of the brilliant and wildly talented ensemble cast, transitioning to beautiful close-ups, that are used to remarkable effect. These shots are particularly impactful during powerful moments such as during Angelica Schuyler’s heartbreak during
‘Satisfied’ allowing the audience to feel her heartbreak and Aaron Burr’s (Leslie Odom Jr) remarkable performance of ‘Wait for It’ that is hugely important for his character. Whilst Miranda is best known for his rapping abilities he also has the skill to emote beautifully, which is shown in close detail during ‘It’s Quiet Uptown’ exhibiting the heartbreak of a parent grieving for his child. The camera also allows remarkable shots that just wouldn’t be possible in the theatre such as the beautiful overhead shots that exhibit the hard work of the ensemble and the choreographer. The beauty of not having paid a small fortune for a ticket is that allows for the appreciation of the ensemble cast who undoubtedly elevate this performance. Additionally, the freedom to watch it multiple times allows you to appreciate the small details that make this production extraordinary, having watched Satisfied at least twelve times, you realise they have perfectly recreated previous scenes, right down to having the same actor take and give Angelica her glass back showing the meticulous attention to detail.
With that being said the cast is jam-packed full of talent. As writer and protagonist himself, Lin-Manuel Miranda juggles the pressure of being a leading man who has to flit between vulnerability, political hardness and jovial freestyler. During a cabinet meeting we see a man as humble in skill at performing as the man he is portraying, who is never happier on stage than when spitting rhymes.
Jonathan Groff very nearly steals the show as King George III, who speaks of loving his subjects, whilst giving a strange unblinking assurance of his love, who goes from charming to angry in a split second, with his catchy tune, and maniacal laughter. Daveed Diggs shines in two roles in the play, the first as our ‘favourite fighting Frenchman Lafayette’ who impressively raps 19 words in 3 seconds, and as Hamilton’s enemy in the second act as boisterous Thomas Jefferson. The Schuyler Sisters (and Peggy) are all brilliant, Angelica (Renée Elise Goldberry) is powerful and heart-breaking as the woman in love with Hamilton, but who is sassy and ends up calling out Hamilton for his stupidity. Eliza (Philippa Soo) is delicate and heart-breaking but also powerful and has a silent force behind that is appreciated in the finale when we discover she ensured Hamilton’s legacy. Burr shines as a man haunted by the importance of creating his legacy and the knowledge that the audience already views him as a villain, and his reflective final song comes to the realization that there was room for ‘both Hamilton and me’ realising this tragedy.
The play spoke to America at the time of its initial release, but Disney’s choice to release this now is undeniably deliberate, given the outpouring of protests in support of the Black Lives Matter Movement. There is something truly moving about witnessing these rogue heroes embody the Founding Fathers whilst being played by actors of colour. This is important as we see these renegades fight against an oppressive system that attempts to subdue them and rob them of their rights, this portrayal of the Founding Father could be anyone who protested in the name of freedom and tolerance for all. This is powerful and timely, it also allows a whole new audience to witness this redefining cultural moment at home without the Broadway ticket price tag, because ‘this is not a moment, it’s the movement.’ It also serves as a secondary reminder of the importance of the arts in creating these cultural moments. As coronavirus continues to see theatres shut, with very little help from governments, the arts are severely threatened. The sharing of this highlights the talent of the cast, the ensemble, the lighting and everyone backstage and the thought that they may not work again is truly horrifying
The film whilst brimming with history, intrigue, sex, scandal and politics that feel strangely familiar (‘immigrants we get the job done’) whilst the audience laughs knowingly shows that political troubles are shared across the Atlantic. The film also is incredibly poignant at this moment in cultural history, as Hamilton questions “What is a legacy?” Whilst this is a very present issue America is contending with as many of the Founding Fathers while freeing America, were made wealthy from the labours of slavery. It is a powerful piece that leaves the audience feeling fulfilled, heartbroken and wondering what the world could have been like if Hamilton hadn’t been killed and questioning like Hamilton and Burr, what legacy we’d like to leave upon this world because ‘history has its eyes on you’. Hamilton is now available on Disney+.
By Phoebe Walker
Images courtesy of Bad Feeling Magazine & Deadline