Review: Hamilton

Hamilton

Trailer

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Time to take a shot

When it was announced that Disney+ had found the means/inclination to accelerate their release of the only legitimate filmed adaptation of Hamilton, it’s probably the most excited I’ve been about a production in a few years. I adore Hamilton, and have done from the very first time that I got the soundtrack up on my Spotify account after seeing the name mentioned a few times. I know that soundtrack by heart now. I’ve had the opportunity to see the show in the West End (and yes, it was amazing) and my appreciation for Lin-Manual Miranda has helped open a gateway into other musicals that I find myself listening to almost more than regular music nowadays.

A filmed adaptation of Hamilton was absolutely inevitable, but it is far from guaranteed to be a success. This is a recording of the stage show with much of the original cast, not a production made exclusively for the medium of film: it is not a certain thing that such a recording will facilitate a working bridge between the stage and the screen. The theatre experience is not the streaming experience, to put it another way. Hamilton is already a piece of art that has well-earned the moniker of being a cultural phenomenon: but this project set the bar high in terms of artistic challenge. Did it do justice to Hamilton, or did it throw away its shot?

In 1776 a would-be revolutionary (Lin-Manual Miranda) arrives in the United States, and embarks on a journey that takes him to the heart of America’s struggle for independence and then its struggle to establish itself as a free nation. Along the way he will find friendship with like-minded men like John Laurens (Anthony Ramos) and the Marquis de Lafayette (Daveed Diggs); love and affection with the Schuyler Sisters Eliza (Phillippa Soo) and Angelica (Renee Elise Goldsberry); respect and a path to power with George Washington (Christopher Jackson); enmity with political opponent Thomas Jefferson (Diggs); and a fateful confluence with the patient, calculating Aaron Burr (Leslie Odom Jr). Whats your name man?: Alexander Hamilton.

Where to start? I genuinely think that Hamilton is a show/film that displays a genius-level understanding of character, plot, pacing and the inter-meshing off all three. There isn’t a wasted song, line or breath in this piece of media that does not advance the story, say something intrinsic about the characters or make you ponder about the deeper meaning behind it all.

I could go on and on, and I will. Here’s just some bullet points of the ways that Hamilton is great:

-The amazing introduction of the title song, summing up so much of Hamilton’s life so quickly and so effortlessly, from his parental struggles to how surviving a hurricane catapulted him to the United States. And in quick, easy statements, much of the character of others in the show are laid down to, right down to Aaron “The damn fool that shot him” Burr.

Hamilton does great work with the idea of the defining statement for numerous characters, that serve as a verbal motifs. You have Hamilton’s proud declaration that he will make the most of his opportunities in “I am not throwing away my shot”, that also serves as some potent foreshadowing to when he will do just that; “Talk less, smile more” being the perfect encapsulation of Burr’s philosophy on life and politics, all the way up to his populist extravaganza in 1800; Angelica’s constant refrains on being “satisfied”, both in relation to herself and Hamilton, a word that subtly conjures up a whole wealth of possibilities from the emotional to the sexual; or Eliza’s quiet, almost meek, plea of “That would be enough” as she forms the antithesis to Hamilton’s endless quest for greater prestige.

-The dichotomy of the Hamilton/Burr journeys, how they intersect, and how each sends the other down a different path, is so well thought out here. I speak of the way that Burr gradually comes to admire, then envy Hamilton, how Hamilton goes from seeing Burr as a friend to an enemy, how Burr’s final murderous act sees him come so far from the man in ultimate control of his own destiny earlier in the show, even while Hamilton betrays the ethos of “My Shot” by essentially accepting his own death. It may not be accurate in many ways to the historical record, but it is a hell of a duality in narrative, character and themes.

-The black comedy masterclass of King George (Jonathan Groff) and his three interludes gives the show some much needed pep, with songs that come off like blackly humoured Beatle rip-offs, a white intrusion into an otherwise POC environment. They also has some of the most thoughtful lyrics: “I will kill your friends and family, to remind you of my love” is a perfect summation of of the contradictions in counter-insurgency.

-Obviously the show is part-and-parcel of “the movement”, which can call civil rights or Black Lives Matter, but which amounts to an angry cry that enough is enough with the inherent equality in American society: as true in 1776 as it is in 2020. I’ve always thought that the simple “Not yet” in “Yorktown” is the best example of this in the show, as Washington, played by a POC, refuses to believe that victory there has brought freedom “for black and white soldiers”.

-The savage heartache and foreshadowing of “Tomorrow They’ll Be More Of Us” cannot be underestimated. The little vignette is absent from the album but is included here, and Ramos’ delivery of the title line hits like a hard right-cross.

-The way that duel roles for actors symbolise the difference between Hamilton’s rise surrounded by friends and Hamilton’s fall surrounded by enemies is a brilliant decision, and makes the absolute best use of people like Daveed Diggs. That, and Ramos playing two people close to Hamilton who died far before their time is an evocative way to emphasise the tragedies of the title characters life.

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I know who I married

-One of the things I have always loved about the show is the three-dimensional character building of Hamilton as a deeply flawed human. Aside from his impetuosity, his temper and at times self-serving ambition, you also have the weak, excuse-making adulterer that emerges in “Say No To This”, so desperate to play off his “past-time” with Maria Reynolds as a result simply of stress, but instead coming off as a guy all-too happy to re-live days as a tomcat while his wife is away.

-The way that Hamilton turns a dull historical event like the Compromise of 1790 into the rip-roaring razzmatazz show-tune commentary on backroom politics “The Room Where It Happens” is nothing sort of miraculous: one of the best numbers in the production, that manages to outline the details of the Compromise in an entertaining way while taking the opportunity to push Burr, openly jealous of Hamilton’s influence and access to power, into a new character level, no longer willing to just “wait for it”.

-Expanding on that last point: this is a musical about the first Treasury Secretary, that takes in cabinet meetings, financial systems and exchanges of letters over years, and somehow comes out with one of the most dynamic, toe-tapping stage productions ever created.

-One can’t help but appreciate the way that Hamilton’s deeply seeded insecurity leads to his fall while attempting to control the narrative of his affair, suitably countered by his wife’s vicious, yet controlled rejection of his obsession with legacy in “Burn”. That song is amazing in the way that Eliza goes for the jugular not by criticising Hamilton for his moral failings, but by criticising Hamilton’s prose in the Reynolds Pamphlet in comparisons to his earlier works, and how it all comes back to his own selfish need to look good to everyone but his wife.

-The subtle manner in which dueling, and the language around dueling, forms the backbone of the entire production, is another great motif, from the main lyric of “My Shot” to the details of “Ten Duel Commandants” right down to the finale of “The World Was Wide Enough”.

-The drama of the Hamilton/Burr duel being framed as one man coming to terms with what he has accomplished with a life spent trying to accomplish something, and the other losing control having been so strenuously in control for so long is one of the best narrative constructions I have ever had the delight in experiencing. It’s packed with memorable moments, like Burr’s final pre-shot denunciation of Hamilton, Hamilton’s other-worldy glimpse of “the other side” and Burr’s final mournful regret that he is now doomed to be “the villain in your history”.

-And lastly there is the final haunting question posed to the audience, as to how much control they really have over “who lives, who dies, who tells your story?”. Even here, at the death, Hamilton both builds on what it introduced earlier through Washington’s warning in “History Has Its Eyes On You” and adds a new layer, getting the crowd involved directly in what it is trying to accomplish: to consider their lives, their legacy and how little direction they are able to exert on either in the long run.

I must stop myself, or will have written an essay on how Eliza is an under-rated character with more agency than you think, or something about how “The Election Of 1800” is a piercing stab at modern electoral behavior, before I know what has happened. Instead, let’s talk specifically about 2020’s Hamilton. The footage taken from three performances of the show, it’s a complete version of the musical, curse-words and all, and isn’t that a Disney first?

Those expecting total musical perfection will be disappointed because this is audio from those performances. So sometimes lyrics are a tiny bit off-key, or not quite in line with the music, or just not as you might be used to from the highly-polished studio recordings. But this is not really bad thing. If the goal is to make the viewer think they have the best seat in the house for a performance of a stage musical, then mission accomplished on the auditory front, a goal helped by the fact that you can hear the audience’s interjections, such as cheers for the famous “Immigrants, we get the job done” line. And even with the reality that this is just the best of three versions of each song, the cast still brings it: you can hear Miranda’s passion of “My Shot”; Goldsberry’s wearied regret in”Satisfied”; Diggs’ flamboyance in “What’d I Miss?”; Soo’s piercing anger in “Burn”; and the company’s skill and comfortableness with their craft in the ensemble pieces, from “Alexander Hamilton” to “Who Lives, Who Dies, Who Tells Your Story”.

The nature of a filmed production means that this can be more of an actor’s show than it previously was. Director Thomas Kail is not shy about bringing the lens onto the stage, getting up close to the cast, and often slowly circling them at crucial moments. Emphasis on slow: this does not have the frenetic pace of a Michael Bay. This allows for members of the cast to occasionally sell the emotion of what is happening with means other than their voice, such as when we witness Hamilton’s anguish when Angelica announces her departure in “Non-Stop”, or Washington’s emotion upon his departure from office in “One Last Time”, or in the slow collapse of Aaron Burr’s smile upon Hamilton’s endorsement of Jefferson in “The Election Of 1800”. Getting to see these things a bit more clearly than you might have done from the bleachers adds another level to the experience of Hamilton, and makes you appreciate the cast in a whole new way.

If used to Spotify, getting to see the musical play out will offer new perspectives all over the place. Cases in point include the cast clicking their fingers for the backing of “Alexander Hamilton”, or tapping on a table in “Aaron Burr, Sir”; the way that spotlights focus attention, or in certain hues provide for soliloquys or comedy (King George’s “I’m so blue” switch especially); Hamilton’s speech-making in “Non-Stop” actually having an audience, or the manner in which he gets in ahead of Washington to shake Jefferson’s hand first in “What’d I Miss?”; the literal “Hurricane” of “The Reynolds Pamphlet”; or Hamilton reaching out to the ghost of Philip on the line “We were near the same spot my son died” in “The World Was Wide Enough”. An album will never be able to get across the full range of a show’s power, and seeing Hamilton and listening to it are two very distinct experiences.

And there is more to it then that as well. The choreography of dancing is fantastic, most notably in those scenes packed with moving people and parts, like “Yorktown” or “The Reynolds Pamphlet”. Kail makes sure to intermingle light and shadow very well, most notably in “That Would Be Enough”. And there is a practiced synchronicity to it all throughout, as a well-established cast take their final bows on a production that they made famous.

And then, of course, there is the music. I’ll try and restrain myself, but this is a good enough musical that every song, all catchy, all notable, all great in their own ways, deserves some line of commentary (to say nothing of the score, which is good enough of its own accord that they released an instrumental version album).

I’ve mentioned the expository genius of “Alexander Hamilton” already.  “Aaron Burr, Sir” is a great introduction to Burr, and features a wonderfully shy performance from Miranda. “My Shot” is undoubtedly the entire shows major song, and is a majestically powerful ode to ambition, Black Lives Matter and youthful idealism. “The Story Of Tonight” is a quieter ode to male camaraderie along with the previous themes, and together the two form an incredible dichotomy. The opening section of the show concludes with “The Schuyler Sisters”, a great introduction to Angelica, Eliza and Peggy, and a powerful depiction of feminism in a time when such an idea was almost non-existent, relatively speaking.

Another potentially tired historical footnote is turned into a wonderful back-and-forth duet in “Farmer Refuted”, which comes off as a sort of play on Les Mis’ “The Confrontation”, just with more bite. There follows King George’s first amazing interjection with “You’ll Be Back”, and what a way to frame that whole dimension, of an abusive spouse insisting that the abused will come crawling back soon enough. Hamilton steps up to the mantle of leadership afterwards, in the brilliant “Right Hand Man” that introduces the powerful figure of Christopher Jackson’s perpetually beset Washington and gives us the show’s first demonstration of how to effectively showcase military action on stage through lyrics and choreography.

The next sequence pivots to the personal. Burr and Hamilton playfully carouse in “A Winter’s Ball”, before the focus shifts back to the Schuyler Sisters. Eliza gets her moment in “Helpless”, perhaps the most traditional song in the show in terms of romance plots, but one that sets up much that is to come. Its riposte is the utterly amazing “Satisfied”, a time-bending Rashomon-esque look back at the events of “Helpless” through the eyes of frustrated Angelica, that probably features the best choreography of the show alongside Angelica’s tortured regrets. “The Story Of Tonight” is reprised for a well-placed comic interlude before Burr gets the chance to bare his soul, and his philosophy for life, in the excellent “Wait For It”, a song where he is effortlessly painted as more than just a mere bystander to events.

Hamilton’s frustrations grow in “Stay Alive”, a song that is swept along with a well-built sense of tension between Eliza’s titular refrain, George Lee’s acrimony and the situation at the Battle of Monmouth. It leads to “Ten Duel Commandants”, at once the show’s most unique – what a way to outline the rules and customs of dueling – and most derivative songs, taking much of its make-up from “Ten Crack Commandants” by Notorious B.I.G. It is followed by the emotionally charged argument between Washington and Hamilton in “Meet Him Inside”, where Hamilton’s insecurity over his past is so vividly realised over his objection to the use of “son” as a familiar term. Eliza establishes her own role as the counter to legacy obsession in “That Would Be Enough”, a beautiful tribute to the idea of simply being happy with your family over the idea of trying to become a national icon.

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My first friend, my enemy.

Daveed Diggs steals the show in the incredible rapping tour de force of “Guns And Ships”, which turns so quickly into the thoughtful refrain of  “History Has Its Eyes On You”, where the final theme of the show is first posited seriously. “Yorktown” is a major set-piece, overflowing with memorable dancing, fantastic applause-worthy lyrics and a “hairs will stand up” finale based around “The World Turned Upside Down”. King George is here to spoil things afterwards with another brilliant comic effort, “What Comes Next”, asking the critical question of how America will now get on with no outside force to blame for its problems.

The first act begins to wind down with “Dear Theodosia”, a heart-felt ode to fatherhood that again ties Hamilton and Burr together in their separate arcs. Laurens departs the stage in the brief but oh-so-powerful “Tomorrow They’ll Be More Of Us” that sets up much of Hamilton’s coming fall with the simple line “I have so much work to do”. That work is the territory of the Act One finale “Non-Stop”, a whirlwind of a medley through the years of Hamilton’s apogee legally and politically, even while the people closest to him are increasingly frozen out.

Diggs establishes himself as the ensemble’s secret weapon in “What’d I Miss?”, sauntering onto the stage as a foppish, yet vicious, Thomas Jefferson. In “Cabinet Battle #1” the battle lines are drawn, with the debate over Hamilton’s financial plan framed as a rap battle: it couldn’t have done better, and was so good the show does it again only a short time later.

Hamilton’s fall takes centre stage next. In “Take A Break” his family urges him to step back from the precipice before it is too late, and while much of it is framed in a somewhat comedic fashion, the dark undercurrent is already apparent in Hamilton’s obsession with work. There follows the character-defining “Say No To This” where Hamilton gives into his baser instincts, and in one stroke sets the stage for the destruction of his political career and his marriage: not to mention establishing himself as a fundamentally weak man prone to making lame excuses for his own misbehavior.

What could just have been portrayed as Hamilton’s moment of political triumph is instead centered on Burr in “The Room Where It Happens”, another major set-piece that sets Burr on the road to that final duel through the equal motivators of jealously and ambition. He starts off in “Schuyler Defeated”, antagonising the increasingly bereft Hamilton, before witnessing “Cabinet Battle #2” a song wherein the smallest movements of Diggs’ body serve to draw the comparison between Lafayette and Jefferson. Hamilton’s enemies coalesce in  the jaunty, yet eerily unnerving “Washington On Your Side”, that transforms late-on into a dedication to early American political factionalism. Washington has enough in “One Last Time”, satisfying himself with one more message to the American people, in a powerful Jackson performance that gets across the President’s exhaustion, admiration for Hamilton and desire to build a country. This section is capped by King George’s final interjection, “I Know Him”, where he gleefully anticipates the break-up of the US, now forced to suffer under the amazingly described “little guy” John Adams.

“The Adams Administration” is the song that can be probably be labelled the show’s most prominent skipping of history, dealing with several crucial years of Hamilton’s life in a few lines, but it can be forgiven. “We Know” sees Jefferson at his bitter best, painted as the hypocritical gossiper-monger, and loving it. “Hurricane”, wherein Hamilton commits to writing his way out of trouble one more time is amazing, at once a powerful testament to Hamilton’s will, and a subtle denunciation of his reckless one-track mind. The result, in “The Reynolds Pamphlet”, is another darkly comic interlude in some ways, but is best for its lead-up to “Burn”. I’ll never have enough good things to say about that song, a charged take-down of so many aspects of Hamilton’s character, and a more concrete rejection of pandering to history.

The tragedy at the heart of Act Two begins in “Blow Us All Away”, a song that is mostly call-backs, but effective ones, wherein Anthony Ramos becomes a victim twice over, now as Philip Hamilton. We experience the full reality of his untimely death in a reprise of “Stay Alive”, before the heart-breaking grief of “It’s Quiet Uptown”, where the Hamilton’s learn to love each other again through their shared mourning, a terribly sad, yet moving, manner of doing so.

The finale gets into gear with the great “The Election Of 1800”, where populist campaigning is in the cross-hairs and Hamilton gets one last chance to be a man of integrity. But it’s to the detriment of Burr, and so the escalating exchange in “Your Obedient Servant”, that might play fast-and-loose with history but serves as a thrilling set-up for the show’s final moments. “Best Of Wives And Best Of Women” is a brief final beat between Hamilton and Eliza, before the three-pronged wonder of “The World Was Wide Enough: Burr’s loss of control, Hamilton’s final chance to comment on his life, and Burr’s stunned regret. The show ends with the unexpectedly mournful “Who Lives, Who Dies, Who Tells Your Story”, at once an effort to get the audience actively engaged in the final message of the show, and a final spotlight for arguably the story’s real hero, Eliza, whose last reward is a glimpse at the other side.

My last piece of commentary must be on the relevance of Hamilton. The show shines a glaring spotlight on aspects of America’s past, that resonate strongly today: the lingering stain of slavery and the racial inequalities that persisted from it, the dangers of populist electioneering over substance, the insidiousness of gossip, rumour and quid pro quo politics. It is important not to overstate the case: Hamilton does not go on and on about racial inequality, and the real Hamilton, while being comfortably classed as an abolitionist, was not in the same league as, say, John Laurens on the subject. Jefferson is criticised heavily for being a hypocritical slave-owner, but Washington’s slave ownership is not mentioned once (perhaps excusable if we view the show as being from Hamilton’s perspective). Yet, if Hamilton’s bonafides on approaching the topic of historical slavery are a bit questionable, it cannot be denied that the show’s subtext, on today’s American situation regards race, is thought-provoking and impactful: This is not the moment, it’s the movement. No one should go to see Hamilton expecting a lecture on history.

I suppose that I should draw things to a close. It should be obvious to those that have stuck with me this long that I love Hamilton, and have done since I first heard that booming intro to “Alexander Hamilton”, and all the way to Eliza’s final gasp in “Who Lives, Who Dies, Who Tells Your Story”. Seeing the production in this format only makes me like it more, with so much additional aspects to consider and savour, whether it is the ability of expression on the casts’ face, the seamless choreography of the larger ensemble or the idiosyncrasies that can only occur with a live performance. And that is before you consider the larger majesty of Hamilton itself: its brilliantly skewed POC take on a critical figure and critical period in American history, the depth it displays at every turn and the music that so powerfully drills into your soul and lodges itself there. I was unsure how I should rank a film as unique as this, but there can only be one spot. Raise a glass to freedom. Highly recommended.

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Hey, hey, hey, hey, hey, hey

(All images are copyright of Disney+).

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