Summary: America, the musical.
Mmmm, Hamilton. You all know what it is- the founding of the United States, in musical format! I genuinely adore this show, having listened to it first (I’m not exaggerating when I say I listened to the Original Broadway Cast recording at least twice a day for about a year and a half) and then seeing the US tour back in 2018. It’s well worth every penny. Aside from being exceptionally [insert chef’s kiss here!], Hamilton is a work that can be studied from several different angles for many, many years. It’s THE great work of the past decade and perhaps of the century that will transcend far beyond its mere existence on stage. It serves as political, social, economic discourse, not just because of its content, but also due to its development and behind-the-scenes story. There’s not much I can say that hasn’t already been said or interpreted so I’ll refrain from repeating the same old arguments. But I can ooze!
Having familiarity with Hamilton didn’t diffuse my excitement when it was announced a filmed version of the original cast existed and would eventually be making its way to Disney+. Sure, I’ve seen it, but this version would be the production of a historical, groundbreaking work of art, including several Tony winners (Leslie Odom, Jr., Daveed Diggs, Renee Elise Goldsberry) and the show’s creator, Lin Manuel Miranda. I wouldn’t be in the balcony, but up close and personal. I’d be able to watch it and study it, as it should be studied. I planned on devoting a few viewings to this.
For the first one, I just wanted to watch. I wanted to be enamored. I put off listening to the soundtrack for a good month or so. (I recommend removing familiarity if you want to give your favorites some love- it will make you fall in love with things all over again.) I got my snacks, hid my phone, turned off the lights, and just let myself be absorbed. I clapped, I laughed, I cried. It was just as good as I thought it would be. Honestly- it’s astounding how good everyone is in their roles, with the exception being Miranda himself. He’s not bad but everyone else is a singer whereas Miranda identifies as a lyricist. It’s noticeable. Otherwise, his rapping and acting are great.
Leslie Odom, Jr. as Hamilton’s nemesis Aaron Burr on the other hand- well, he’s just exceptional. Odom, Jr. gives an incredible acting and vocal range. I was exhausted seeing watching him quickly switch between emotions. He needs to be in more- any movie or show he’s in, I will watch. And I know, everyone loves Satisfied, but Wait For It will always be my favorite. In every musical, you have that one song that encompasses the entire show. While songs like Non-Stop are more plot-pointy, Wait For It sums up the complexity of the relationship between Burr and Hamilton. It perfectly entails how they are opposing forces and the driving motivations behind each of their actions. I also have a theory that Wait For It is basically Burr in the form of a song, but watch it first and get back to me. Maybe I’ll rank them at some point.
The only thing I wish was that we got more wide shots, to really show the big numbers in all their glory. There is a lot of detailed choreography and painstaking staging that goes into Guns and Ships, The Battle of Yorktown, and The Room Where It Happens (just to name a few). With all the close-ups and focus on the characters, the effect of seeing the full stage and the scale of the scenes gets a little lost. Not to mention, there are callbacks to certain movements, stage placements, and specific dancers, which can easily be overlooked simply because they can’t be seen.
Those are the kinds of things I’d say are fun to notice on the first time around, and a lot of fun to keep your eye out for on repeat viewings. And it’s not just the dancing- phrases and the music all appear more than once throughout the show and like the Rains of Castamere, they’re indicators of what is about to happen, people to expect, or the emotions of the characters. Just listen to the distinct melody of the Ten Duel Commandments and how it creeps back into various numbers to evoke death. Listen for Burr’s repeated use of “wait,” Angelica’s use of “satisfied”, how Jefferson and Washington each go “home”, how Madison and Jefferson muse “It must be nice” with Burr. Hamilton is mindblowing the first time around and only gets better with the more you know and recognize. If it’s your first watching, I recommend captions- it moves really fast. (Yet another reason I’m glad to have it streaming!)
Part of this very high score is that I think Hamilton can swerve the traditional movie musicals and give us more stage-based productions or at least I’m hoping they will. I’m hankering for seeing musicals with their original casts and productions, even if it’s a few years after their debut. Hamilton was incredibly special for its time and I get that not every show will have its impact or value. But for the sake of the stage and for live theater- preserve the work. Let it be studied, examined, admired. Let it serve as a piece of art for its time.
I think a lot of the general thoughts are that if it’s on streaming, people won’t pay to see it live, meaning Broadway loses business; and then there’s also the thought that theater, of all the mediums, is meant to be a fleeting moment in time. But if anything, filming a stage production like this can remind us what makes the theater so special, as well as serve as part of a time capsule. I don’t think every single version of every cast needs a recording but runs of productions could certainly benefit from being more widely accessible- it would be wonderful to see how productions of The Color Purple or Les Miserables have changed between the years. And I’m betting that the majority of people will still pay good money to see so-and-so in such-and-such. Most importantly, there’s no reason to leave kids who don’t have the means to get to Broadway out in the cold from seeing these things. Maybe the logistics are too much- how do you compensate the performers? If someone really famous comes along, is that something to be recorded? How much time after a premiere should the filming be made available? All questions that can be answered with more thoughtful discussions instead of shutting down the idea entirely; and if this past year has shown us anything, it’s that people will respond. My fingers are crossed.
If you’re interested in studying how these were presented throughout the show- the casting, the musical decisions, the details in the lyrics, in the staging, in the choreography- I highly recommend the amazing Hamilton: The Revolution stage book with several contributions from the show’s creators, cast, and crew. (The link leads to a website which supports local bookstores, which are in need. Please consider using them over Amazon, if you can.)