In the quarter-millennium since “ten-dollar founding father” Alexander Hamilton took a bullet for his beliefs — if a senseless death by duel can reasonably be described in such idealistic terms — America has fought pandemics and wars, prejudice and inequality, inching slowly toward a more perfect union. The year 2020 finds our country embattled once again, and while so much of the popular arts have been put on hold by a crippling coronavirus outbreak, Lin-Manuel Miranda’s electrifying Broadway musical “Hamilton” finds its way into American homes just in time for Independence Day weekend — more than a year ahead of its intended big-screen release.
Consider this a gift from Miranda — a populist poet laureate for the Obama generation — and distributor Walt Disney Studios, which opted to release “Hamilton” via streaming to all those stuck at home. Overseen by Thomas Kail, who also directed the show on Broadway, this direct stage-to-screen version of “Hamilton” isn’t a filmed adaptation but a “live capture” — a dynamic record of the musical as it appeared in New York, featuring the original cast. Covered over multiple performances by six cameras, the 2 1/2-hour feature is edited like the world’s longest Super Bowl halftime spectacular, which differentiates it from those stuffy theatrical productions aired on PBS, as if everything else about it weren’t entirely unique already.
For those fortunate enough to see “Hamilton” onstage, this will be a welcome reminder of being among the first to witness such a revolutionary piece of American theater. And if you couldn’t get tickets at the time (or anywhere in the foreseeable future, with Broadway dark through the end of the year), this faithful release represents an incredible equalizing moment: All you need is Disney Plus, which, let’s be honest, is still a limiting factor for some.
Even just half a decade after its debut, “Hamilton” suggests a fossil imprint of a more optimistic time. Inspired by social progress, financial opportunity and the second term of the United States’ first Black president, Miranda dared to make history relevant and exciting for those who didn’t necessarily identify with Anglo-looking heroes sporting wooden teeth and powdered wigs. Miranda rewrote the country’s origin story, recast its Founding Fathers not as self-serving white supremacists but as idealistic people of color, and remixed the nation’s musical identity — away from the classical influences of Sousa or Sondheim toward a more radical vernacular, that of hip-hop, which resonated with young people and shook up the Broadway paradigm.
Here was a different kind of patriotism, one that projects a more egalitarian notion of “We the people” than the male-dominated Eurocentric version taught in schools. Through the combination of colorblind casting and an intricately rhyming hip-hop libretto, Miranda foregrounds the Latinx and African American representation all but missing from the standard curriculum. And by seizing on the title character’s immigrant roots (he was born a “bastard, orphan, son of a whore and a Scotsman” in the West Indies), the show’s creator and star reminds that this country, which now erects walls to keep foreigners away, was colonized by outsiders.
“Immigrants … we get the job done!” exult Hamilton and the Marquis de Lafayette (one of two characters, along with fast-rapping Thomas Jefferson, played by Daveed Diggs, whose mischievous glint and mile-a-minute delivery have made him every bit as difficult as Miranda to replace in subsequent ensembles). Likewise, the women reclaim their place in history. “Let me be part of the narrative,” sings Hamilton’s future wife — and eventual widow — Eliza Schuyler in “That Would Be Enough,” foreshadowing the role she will play in documenting her husband’s accomplishments after his death.
Hamilton’s demise is perhaps the only thing many Americans know or remember about this impactful co-author of “The Federalist Papers” (he penned the majority of those essays himself) and co-architect of a strong central government and banking system. Miranda teases the tragedy that awaits from the opening number, in which political rival Aaron Burr (Leslie Odom Jr.) gets the first word. “I am not throwing away my shot!” an ambitious and idealistic young Hamilton announces early on, and the musical proceeds to fill in how much the man achieved in his 40-odd years. What hardly anyone knew prior to the 2015 show’s success were the facets of Hamilton’s personal life that made him such a rich character: the unrequited love for his wife’s sister Angelica (Renée Elise Goldsberry), the way in which the death of his son Philip (Anthony Ramos) mirrored his own.
Thanks to Miranda’s refashioning of history, Alexander Hamilton now seems like the American hero least likely to topple amid the recent efforts to tear down statues of figures now deemed “problematic” — and yet this telling conveniently overlooks Hamilton’s slave-trading activities, casting him as an early abolitionist. Is it fair for Miranda to take such creative license? Why, of course: The United States’ history has been written by hagiographers all along, who routinely whitewash the sins of its founders. Among Miranda’s many innovations with “Hamilton” has been a constructive alternative to erasing the country’s troubled past, whereby the exploited and overlooked “rise up” (to appropriate one of his catchier calls to action) and retell things from their side.
Seeing “Hamilton” on-screen, as opposed to from a fixed seat in a high-priced theater, is a completely different experience. While there are many who’ve worn out the official cast recording in anticipation of their first viewing, plenty among the Disney Plus audience will be coming to “Hamilton” having had zero exposure to this Tony- and Pulitzer-blessed phenomenon. For them, the movie lacks some of the excitement of discovering the show onstage — the collective electricity that passes through a crowd energized to see so many conventions upended at once, all in service of American history. But it compensates by taking them into the proscenium itself.
It’s rare that the camera shoots from the audience’s perspective, cutting frequently from different angles of the action. Director Kail intermixes Steadicams and cranes with fixed cameras, ricocheting the audience from one side of the stage to the other, ignoring the 180-degree rule, and trying to find a slightly different approach for each number — which frequently has the effect of distracting from Andy Blankenbuehler’s choreography and the defining gimmick of the stage production: an elaborate double turntable, in which characters dance and walk in circles as they sing.
The film aims to be more intimate (Jonathan Groff’s incredulous King George appears close enough to spot his spittle), but it frequently deprives audiences of the show’s ingenious spatial design. Still, this original cast is so charismatic — and Miranda’s ultra-dense, dizzyingly clever book and lyrics are so effective — that they maintain our attention even when the edit feels like one of those live sporting events in which a producer hovers over the control booth switching between cameras on the fly, rather than planning out the shoot in advance. That strategy may not be the most cinematic, but Kail and the performers knew the material so well by the time they shot that the approach slaps a certain energy back into the equation.
A modern take on our collective, complicated history, “Hamilton” finds fresh relevance in the Black Lives Matter protests and this divided political moment. It’s that rare work of art that celebrates diversity while urging us to put aside superficial differences, using Hamilton’s tragic outcome as a kind of warning, and his accomplishments as inspiration. Best of all, it leaves room for some future adaptation of Miranda’s brilliant musical to break free of the stage and find new, big-screen expression down the road — at which point it may resonate in entirely different ways.