In case you’re coming to this unclear on what actor/playwright Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton is about, the play follows significant moments of Founding Father Alexander Hamilton’s (Miranda) life from surviving severe illness as a child; coming to American from the Caribbean; meeting fellow revolutionaries Aaron Burr (Leslie Odom Jr.), John Laurens (Anthony Ramos), the Marquis de Lafayette (Daveed Diggs), and Hercules Mulligan (Okieriete Onaodowan); working for George Washington (Chris Washington) in the war and in the Washington’s presidential cabinet; all the way to his death in a dual. The first act is the incredible rise, while the second act speaks more to his personal and professional fall.
This may not sound like a riveting, tear-inducing, quickly-turned sing-a-long of an experience, yet Miranda’s storytelling, the performances from the entire cast, the precision of the staging, and the ear-worm song composition will make even the least interested in history tap their toes by the end of the opening number. The show itself has so many moving pieces that it’s hard to pin-point a singular aspect that will pull audiences in. One might enjoy it for Miranda’s compelling composition of historical events, tweaked and adjusted for dramatic effect, but mesmerizing nonetheless. Another might for the way Miranda interlinks Hip Hop with Blues with Rap with Pop with Musical Theater to create songs you’ll put on an endless loop. There are a myriad of reasons to enjoy Hamilton, but, until Disney inked a deal with Miranda, only the lucky few could see the play with tickets selling out quickly in each town the show visited. A true artist, Miranda proves time and again that art belongs to the masses and this deal ensures that the best seat in the house always belongs to you.
Let’s presume for a moment, though, that you aren’t coming to Hamilton blind, that you’ve listened to all the music, the remixes, watched every HAM4HAM, and passing of King George’s crown. Why should you be excited for Hamilton on Disney+? How well does it capture the feeling of the live experience?
Director Thomas Kail (Fosse/Verdon) captures everything that makes going to see a Broadway show wondrous while using the tools of cinema to make watching Hamilton immersive. In some shots, you’re viewing the stage from the audience’s perspective, then it shifts perspective to a close-up, or extreme close-up, ensuring that at any given moment, your seat at home is the best one in the house. As audiences find themselves evoking the Founding Fathers in near every conversation these days related to government, being able to see Hamilton at home offers a chance to get another perspective of the Giants of America as entirely human: problematic, prideful, angry, and yet hopeful for a better tomorrow. As someone whose only ever heard the soundtrack, watching the performances made me realize just how much of the story is missed when you can’t see it. It’s not just that the vocal performance on the official soundtrack is cleaner and more produced, it’s that the live experience gives you the physicality to go with the words, which lets you see just how pent up Burr is during the first part of “Wait For It” as Odom Jr. is so incredibly restrained only to break out by the end of the song. You can’t comprehend the physical release when you listen, whereas seeing it happen is entirely overwhelming. Or perhaps you enjoyed the jaunty “What Did I Miss?” sung by Diggs as Thomas Jefferson at the top of Act II, snapping your fingers along to the beat. To see Diggs dancing across the stage, high-kicking backwards as he bounces across the stage is something a soundtrack can’t capture. Or, even better, the devilishly small movements by Jonathan Groff’s King George which would go otherwise unnoticed or unknown without seeing his wry smile, prancing steps, or enraged spittle. This, of course, doesn’t even account for the marvelous production itself, utilizing one set with a dual-multidirectional rotating floor and movable balconies in order to recreate a variety of moments in history without so much as a curtain change. The end result is something so pure, so original, and so moving, that I wept more than a few times from the experience. Thankfully there’s a one-minute intermission included so that I had a moment to compose myself and blow my nose.
It is, of course, the soundtrack that most audiences are aware of, so it would be unfair to continue without mention that the audio on Kail’s recording absolutely blows you away. Watched on a 5.1 surround system, I was transported into the play. No longer an audience member, I felt like it was being performed just for me. It’s a selfish and indulgent notion, but when Hamilton is being performed privately in your home, it’s a fair descriptor to use. They nailed the balance in the audio mix so there’s not a single red-lined or out of tune moment to remove the audience from the magic of the production. Unlike being in the theater where you have to deal with issues of audio reverb or the cochlear blowout from the intense stereo equipment, every line comes through clear and without distortion and you can moderate it to your pleasure. It’s a particular bonus because, unlike in the theater, you’re free to sing as loud as you want, giving you the opportunity to join in with the chorus, do a duet with Eliza, or stand tall with Burr. Speaking of, though Miranda’s deal with Disney did require two “fucks” to be removed from the presentation, audiences only familiar with the soundtrack will be delighted to learn there is a new, albeit brief, song only heard during performances featuring Ramos as John Laurens titled “Laurens’ Interlude.”
If there is any kind of problem with the theatrical edition of Hamilton, it comes in two places with the exact same problem: blue stage lighting. In both Odem Jr.’s “Wait For It” and Phillipa Soo’s haunting “Burn,” the blue light that shines down upon them makes each look part Smurf. The blue covering Odem Jr.’s head like a Smurf cap and Soo appearing as though her right side is dipped in blue latex. Neither terribly ruins the moment narratively, but it is a touch distracting. More than anything, it’s a helpful reminder that what we’re watching is a live production, capable of the kinds of unfortunate accidents or incredible spontaneity that theater is known for.
History is one of the trickiest subjects we’re likely ever challenged with in school. Unlike other subjects, everything we discuss feels so far removed from personal experience as it’s funneled into a series of dates and events we have to memorize that the ability to connect with the material almost entirely dooms us all to make the same mistakes over and over again. Then the unthinkable happened. One of the less widely known Founding Fathers of the United States had a play made about him. Not just a play, but a musical. Not just a musical, but one in which the music is non-stop and blends hip-hop, ‘60s pop, traditional musical theatre, and more. Not just an amalgamation of music, but one which transforms the story of the American Revolution, the formation of the American government, the first few presidencies, and the infamous death of Alexander Hamilton, into a display of diversity that empowers audiences around the world to rethink how we conceptualize our history as unimportant and meaningless. Thanks to Lin-Manuel Miranda’s deal with Disney, we can rise up at our discretion and enjoy our favorite Hamilton moments with a few clicks. Debuting alongside the filmed edition of the play will be a behind the scenes documentary including interviews with the original cast titled Hamilton In-Depth With Kelley Carter. If you’ve never seen Hamilton, now’s your chance. Don’t throw away your shot.
Available for streaming on Disney+ beginning July 3rd, 2020.
Final Score: 5 out of 5.