Synopsis: Filmed stage production of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s musical about Alexander Hamilton and his rise from poor orphan to major player in the American Revolutionary War and the nascent United States of America’s government.
‘How lucky we are to be alive right now’ with Lin-Manuel Miranda’s brilliant musical Hamilton out in the world.
Miranda’s musical reputation in the theater world was already rising with his Tony Award-winning production In the Heights, when news circulated that he was writing a hip hop musical inspired by Ron Chernow’s acclaimed bio Alexander Hamilton. Hmm… rapping about the United States’ first Secretary of the Treasury? Well, that’s one way to teach the kids American History. Further shaking things up, Miranda, who would play Hamilton, cast POC for most of the cast. He explained that black and brown-skinned people are today’s underdogs, just as American revolutionaries were underdogs to the British Empire’s might. ‘Young, scrappy and hungry’ indeed.
Skipping ahead…Hamilton went on to make history on Broadway, selling out the show for months, and receiving a record 16 Tony nominations, with 11 wins. It won Best Musical (2016) –as if anything else stood a chance! Further icing on the cake, it was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Drama (2016). What’s more, the show dominated cultural discussion and people’s playlists for more than a year.
The filmed version of the stage production was filmed in June of 2016 with rights to streaming purchased by Disney+.
Let’s walk through some Hamilton HIGHLIGHTS…
- The phenomenal music begins with a traditional-esque Broadway opening number, “Alexander Hamilton”, that involves the entire cast onstage all singing at once, at the top of their lungs, as thirty-something Lin exits a ship in New York. He’s supposed to be a teen, but when he declares himself as ‘Alexander Hamilton’ we believe him. The producers obviously decided to edit out the audio of the audience participation, because when I saw it (before the filmed production), the audience was cheering and whooping Lin for a few minutes before it quieted down enough for him to continue.
- Leslie Odom Jr. is a force as Hamilton’s rival, Aaron Burr. That voice! I know that Lin is the creative genius who did the dang show, so how could anyone know their character better than he does? But Leslie O. is a stronger actor. One of the best things about the filmed show is that we get some face close ups of the actors enabling us to better see their facial expressions. Mr. Odom manages a big performance while delivering on all the human subtleties that we expect in onscreen movie performances.
- We meet the Schuyler sisters in the song of the same name. Angelica! Eliza! and Peggy! Lin gives them all verve and personality in this song and the other girl group style piece “Helpless.” Powerhouse Renée Elise Goldsberry delivers the most impressive vocals as Angelica, the oldest and most ambitious sister. Phillipa Soo is lovely as an angel as Eliza, the devoted wife of A. Ham. The youngest sister, Peggy (Jasmine Cephas Jones) is a frothy daddy’s girl who tries to keep up with her sisters.
- Alexander is exhaustingly ambitious in America; working, attending college and doing whatever he can to “rise above his station.” He sings about his plans in “My Shot” while he darts around the stage. The revolution gives Hamilton a chance to vault ahead, as does his marriage to the socially prominent Eliza Schuyler.
- Early-on we’re introduced to a big spinning circle in the middle of the stage that the performers navigate without a whiff of motion sickness. The spinning circle is heavily used while the Schuyler sisters are at a party where they meet A. Ham for the first time. He’s busy trying to find a hook-up. First we see the scene from Eliza’s POV and then in “Rewind” the cast goes spinning around the stage backwards and we watch the same scene from Angelica’s POV. In “Satisfied” she belts out about how she’s thirsty for Alexander, but she knows her sister Eliza is too. She’s also figured out that he’s penniless and and she needs to marry for money because she has no brothers to make connections. (Lin’s poetic license; Angelica had four sisters and three brothers.)
- Boo! the reappearance of the malicious, ambitious Aaron Burr. He gets jelly as can be when George Washington (Christopher Jackson, who presents with impressive gravitas) favors A. Ham as an aide. Daveed Diggs as Frenchman Lafayette arrives to assist the Americans and we are treated to his stupendous rapping in “Guns and Ships.”
- Lots of feverish dancing ensues with rifles twirled about until the Americans win their independence.
- The big flourish before intermission is kind of anti-climactic. There’s some singing about what a big deal it is that Hamilton did a lot of essay writing when he wasn’t practicing law. Granted, he did write most of the Federalist papers (arguments in support of the Constitution), but scream-singing about him staying up late writing doesn’t seem as dramatic as maybe a song about kicking Royalist butt or leading the new nation .
INTERMISSION (They give us a measly minute for a bathroom break and getting refreshments and snacks! I realize we can pause the program– but, still!)
- Jefferson shows up looking suspiciously like Lafayette (same actor), but the French accent is gone and he wears his hair loose instead of pulled back, which is a good look for him. He’s all cocky after having spent the war in France and sings “What’d I Miss?” How dare you, Mr. Jefferson! Also, he’s so out of touch with the times that he is singing a little ragtime tune whilst all of the colonists have moved on to hip hop. Fool! (Lin’s poetic license: Jefferson’s personality wasn’t so extroverted, but he was a prime maneuver-er.)
- Hamilton becomes Treasury Secretary and starts putting together a financial system that, I think, is okay’d because it’s too brilliant for anyone else to understand and argue against.
- Hamilton and Jefferson go on to have many rap battles in front of George Washington and the chorus in order to decide important State matters.
- In the soaring and sweet “Take a Break” A.Ham’s wife Eliza and Angelica want him to take the summer off and head up to Albany with them. I don’t know that a visit to Albany from Manhattan has ever been much of an inducement, and he declines the invitation.
- We all get angry with A. Ham now! While he is working ever so hard in the city, he takes an interest in a local harlot, Maria Reynolds. (To be fair, she is poor and needs his, ahem, patronage.) Wait, she looks familiar… is that Peggy? Yes! The caterwauling lady is the same performer. No trouble telling them apart because Maria is dressed in scarlet w shimmery eye shadow that wholesome Peggy wouldn’t leave the house in. Hamilton goes on to sing about how he doesn’t “know how to say ‘no’ to this.” Lie! He cavorts while his wife is upstate with their many children. (Lin’s poetic license: their son Philip appears to be their only child. But we know that, owing to no birth control, women of child bearing age in olden times (and still plenty of places today) will keep having children until menopause or death during childbirth. Eliza and Alex actually had eight children together; Philip was their firstborn.)
- After the standout “My Shot” in the first act, Lin gets to deliver another show stopper with “Hurricane.” He basically makes a terribly destructive decision to save his professional reputation at a great cost to his marriage. He reflects on a hurricane that devastated his home island in the Caribbean when he lived there as a child. The odds were against him surviving that and, arrogant bastard that he is, he figures he’ll sail through this too. While he foments his plan with a fevered gleam in his eye, the chorus dances around him in slo-mo making furniture “fly” through the air. Dramatic!
- Get ready to have your heartbroken and cry, cry, cry! Lin gives his best performance of the night as an aging Alexander, when he implores his wife for forgiveness for ANOTHER terrible betrayal involving their son through some tremendous cry-singing. I don’t think there’s anything on Broadway, past or present, that delivers the emotion of “It’s Quiet Uptown.” And, yes, my friends, two hundred years later, it is still quiet uptown. Why do you think that the denizens of NYC’s most densely populated borough haul themselves up to the Cloisters on weekends?
- BIG Drama Ahead… The Duel between Burr and Hamilton. Damn you, Burr, Damn you to hell! (said through angry tears.) (Lin’s poetic license: Lin has Burr’s character expressing remorse, but IRL, Burr actually bragged about his malfeasance.)
- All good things must come to an end…the show closes with all of the performers reassembling as Eliza sings “Who Lives, Who Dies, Who Tells Your Story.” You won’t want the show to end. At the theater, they would make you leave at the finish, but watching it from you own place, no one can make you get up and leave. In fact, you can watch it again right now! But it’s a long show, so best to have a bathroom break and a kitchen run before you begin Hamilton again.
Movie Loon had the great and good fortune to see Hamilton in its last week of preview before its Broadway premiere at the Richard Rodgers Theatre. (Something I never fail to bring up in conversation, btw.) It was A M A Z I N G. The film version, featuring the original cast and directed by Thomas Kail, captures the beauty and excitement of the onstage musical.
Movie Loon’s Movie Review Shortcut:
Cut to the Chase: Magnificent in every way.
Humor Highlight: I suppose, Jonathan Groff as King George III. There are a lot of close ups of his spittle-producing singing technique.