Quarantined America earns a lovely July 4 present as Disney+ presents “Hamilton,” the stage sensation, this weekend instead of making us wait until the fall of next year to see what all the hoopla’s been about.
This is the show, with the original cast, just as it appeared on stage in 2016, a filmed-performance from the summer after the show opened. And while filmed plays are always anti-cinematic and are usually the province of PBS’s “Great Performances,” it beautifully preserves a multi-cultural musical in its moment and of its moment.
Lin Manuel Miranda hasn’t so much reinvented the form as taken it further down the road to its next logical step. And he didn’t really rewrite American history so much as reclaim it for “all the people.” The hip hop-influenced score and choreography of this 2015 play are a playful delight, the stagecraft busy, populous and fun.
It’s a brisk and breezy dance through one Founding Father’s life, presenting first Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton (Miranda) as the original “American Dream” striver, a young man on the make, hellbent “on not throwing away my shot.”
Color-blind casting gives the show a “re-appropriation” vibe, flying in the face of rising American (and global) xenophobia.
“Immigrants (We get the job done)” isn’t just a break-out song from the show, it’s an ethos.
The story has a built-in tragedy to its central pairing, Hamilton meeting, re-meeting, befriending and rivaling his Princeton contemporary, Aaron Burr (Leslie Odom Jr.), a fellow striver and future vice president increasingly embittered by Hamilton’s machinations to stand in his way. Many others — Gore Vidal among them — have seen Burr as the truly tragic figure in this clash.
But “Hamilton” sinks its hooks in us long before it stage-marches into their date with destiny, the play’s poignant denouement. It gallops and giggles out of the gate, through the “bastard son’s” early years. We sense his eye for the ladies as he flirts with “The Schuyler Sisters” (Jasmine Cephas Jones ,Renée Elise Goldsberry) courtship and later marriage to his wife, third sister Eliza Schuyler (Phillipa Soo), the daughter of a rich landed-gentry general, Philip Schuyler, infamous for “losing” Fort Ticonderoga.
The “Rise Up!” Revolution is treated by Hamilton as a cause to embrace, and an opportunity. The college-educated lawyer with trade and mercantile (logistics) experience turns down aide duties with other generals, holding out for becoming the right arm of THE general, George Washington (Chris Jackson).
He befriends the equally bold, impulsive and full of fight Marquise de Lafayette (Daveed Diggs), finally gets a taste of combat — and when the war is over, takes up the law, again picking his spot to shine when the infant nation realizes “Articles of Confederation” won’t do, that it needs a Constitution.
The sometimes bitter debate over Federal authority and early American foreign policy priorities and “revolutionary” limits is delightfully dealt with via Hamilton’s rivalry with “The Virginians,” easily the play’s comic highlights and stand-out performers.
The stolid James Madison (Okieriete Onaodowan) would write his share of the pamphlets arguing for Federalism, “The Federalist Papers.” Paired with the brilliant, mercurial “Declaration of Independence” author, and rakishly just-returned Ambassador to France, Thomas Jefferson (Daveed Diggs again), they would give Hamilton fits and steal his thunder, just as Diggs and Onaodowan steal the show.
This is “Hamilton” at its most brilliant. Re-casting Jefferson as a dashing dandy is inspired. As a swaggering, singing African American romantic, revolutionary and idealist, the character strips the white supremacy from the smartest and most idealistic Founding Father and makes him fun.
And that comical high sets the stage for the tragedies — many self-inflicted — of Hamilton’s later years.
Filmed stage shows are myopic and stiff, missing the essence of cinema. In a play, whatever the author’s intentions, there’s so much going on that the viewers’ eye decides what to focus on. This is a very busy, multi-level theatrical production, with a lot of distractions that can feel like “spectacle” when you’re in the theater, but look like clutter as a film.
Movies, by design, are a close-up medium, where the filmmaker chooses what you focus on at every moment. This filmed-played has a few close-ups, and while the acting is good and the singing generally grand (As “Mary Poppins” proved, that isn’t Miranda’s strong suit.), it’s a story we embrace at arm’s length. It never lets you forget the proscenium, the artifice of the art form.
But any doubts that this show has cast its limelight far and wide in the culture is evidenced by the “research” it encourages you to do after watching it. Every principal in this larger story’s Wikipedia page has been broadened to include Miranda’s spin on their life and place within American history.
It isn’t literal history, and for all the work Miranda did adapting Ron Chernow’s Hamilton biography for the stage, he crosses the line from “historical liberties” taken for the sake of streamlining the story, to simple boners built out of his need to get a rhyme.
No, Washington’s rival for command of the American Army, General Charles Lee, wasn’t a bad general due to “inexperience.” He served in the British Army in the French and Indian War, was an officer in the Polish military in the years after that, and served in the American Army for a couple of years before blundering at Monmouth Courthouse. He was a bad general because he lacked nerve and was better at grabbing credit than seeing a battle through to its conclusion.
Miranda chooses to call the election of 1800 “a landslide,” when it was a helluva lot more complicated than that, and misses the chance to explain further Hamilton’s fears of Burr’s ambition and character and Burr’s grievances against Hamilton.
Will “Hamilton” transcend its “of its moment” status and join the Great American Musical canon? Only time will tell. But if “Rent” did, after a fashion, why not?
This filmed staging, which wouldn’t have “played” well on the big screen, is as rich with cinematic possibilities as it is musically. If millions find and love this version on the home screen, perhaps this “Hamilton” will encourage Disney to properly adapt it for the big screen down the road. I’d pay good money to see that.
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for language and some suggestive material
Cast: Lin Manuel Miranda, Phillipa Soo, Leslie Odom Jr., Daveed Diggs, Chris Jackson, Okieriete Onaodowan, Anthony Ramos, Jonathan Goff and Renée Elise Goldsberry
Credits: Directed by Thomas Kail, book, words and music by Lin Manuel Miranda, based on the Ron Chernow biography. A Disney+ (streaming) release.
Running time: 2:40