Updated: Jul 13
In 2015, the play Hamilton burst onto the theater scene. A musical about founding father Alexander Hamilton, it became an instant sensation. It was so popular that very soon people who knew little about theater were aware of it (such as myself). Now comes the movie Hamilton, which edits together three different performances of the show taking place from the Richard Rodgers Theatre in New York City in June 2016.
The play itself is fascinating. A peek at the beginnings of America mostly told using hip-hop, it brings the men who built this country into current times, using contemporary language and musical styles, while also placing them firmly in their own time. The movie seems to do the production justice, making it feel like we are sitting in the front row. It captures all of the staging, choreography, passion and drama. I am not sure if I will ever have the chance to see Hamilton in person, but this is a tremendous substitute.
The play covers Hamilton’s life from his arrival in New York City in 1776 through his marriage and complicated political career, all the way to his death in a duel in 1804. Lin-Manuel Miranda, who stars as Hamilton, was inspired to write it after reading the 2004 biography Alexander Hamilton by Ron Chernow. What he has created is something that uses modern ideas to tell Hamilton’s story.
He has certainly used artistic license to ensure he gets across what he wants to say (condensing events or emphasizing things that may not have been as important in reality; besides, you know, Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson probably did not have a rap battle). That has no doubt angered scholars. What I see when I watch it is not an attempt at a straight biographical musical about Alexander Hamilton. He has used a diverse (largely non-white) cast speaking the language of today to reflect on what this country can be and the opportunity it presents to its people. In that way, even with historical inaccuracies, Hamilton is about America just as much as it is about its title character.
As someone who spends a lot of time watching movies/tv and basically no time watching theatrical productions, one thing that always jumps out to me when viewing a filmed play is the staging and the way it is enhanced by the filming. To put it mildly, I was impressed by Hamilton in that regard. The camera of director Thomas Kail is intimate without being intrusive. You can see the intensity, desperation, sweat, on the actors’ faces as they perform. There is constantly a sense of the stage, the orchestra and the audience (though you cannot really see them, you can definitely hear their applause). Yet it does not feel confined by space. Nor is there any distance between the stage and the movie audience.
A lot of the credit goes to the production crew. However, an equal amount should go to the performers. Hamilton is Miranda’s triumph and he rightfully gets a ton of praise for the lyrics, as well as his performance. His Hamilton is brilliant, self-assured, opinionated, caring and sometimes foolhardy. It is not long before Miranda is able to take command of the role; he is charming even when insulting his adversaries.
As good as he was, I was blown away by Leslie Odom Jr. as his chief rival, Aaron Burr. He is a very ambitious man who does not comprehend why people would choose the divisive Hamilton over him. He does not give the one-note performance that sentence might imply. He brings so much life to what could have been a forgettable foil.
In fact, the entire cast is great. It is interesting to watch this now and see actors I am familiar with whose big screen careers took off due in part to these roles. Miranda (Mary Poppins Returns), Odom Jr. (Harriet), Daveed Diggs (Blindspotting), Anthony Ramos (A Star is Born), Jonathan Groff (the voice of Frozen’s Kristoff) and Renée Elise Goldsberry (Waves). They each get to play spins on historical stereotypes (the only character who does not quite rise above that is George Washington, still played well by Christopher Jackson). If I had to choose standouts from the supporting cast it would be Diggs’ smirking Thomas Jefferson, Groff’s really funny King George and Goldsberry’s devastating Angelica Schuyler.
Since this is my first time experiencing the play, it would not be right if I finished my review without mentioning the songs. Miranda’s lyrics are excellent, establishing a unique voice for every character. The word choices, the cadence of the music, the types of songs they sing; it is easy to understand who these people are even if you came in with no knowledge of them. Clearly, thought was put into how everyone should sound, as well as the most effective way to portray each event and conversation. That kind of precision and confidence is there throughout Hamilton. It is a beautiful, powerful celebration of America and what it means to be an American.
4½ out of 5
Lin-Manuel Miranda as Alexander Hamilton
Leslie Odom Jr. as Aaron Burr
Daveed Diggs as Marquis de Lafayette/Thomas Jefferson
Anthony Ramos as John Laurens/Philip Hamilton
Phillipa Soo as Eliza Hamilton
Christopher Jackson as George Washington
Okieriete Onaodowan as Hercules Mulligan/James Madison
Renée Elise Goldsberry as Angelica Schuyler
Jonathan Groff as King George
Jasmine Cephas Jones as Peggy Schuyler/Maria Reynold
Directed by Thomas Kail
Written by Lin-Manuel Miranda