Let’s have another round tonight. And heck, why not tomorrow night, too? Pour as much “Hamilton” as your heart desires, now that Disney Plus is streaming a masterly film of the smash Broadway musical, recorded on the stage of the Richard Rodgers Theatre, with its peerless original cast.
I’m not in the habit of hawking subscriptions to digital platforms. But the movie version directed by Thomas Kail – assembled from two regular live performances in June 2016 – is from an economic as well as an aesthetic standpoint well worth the outlay. One of the few consistent knocks on Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Tony- and Pulitzer Prize-winning musical, an account of the rise and demise of Alexander Hamilton in warm tones of rap, rock, jazz and traditional show tunes, has been outrageous ticket prices. Online starting July 3, the show allows itself for $6.99 a month to become, at last, a truly populist piece of entertainment.
Filmed theater inevitably loses something in the translation: that electric sense of human energy, the ineffable appeal that actors make, as they reach out to you, and seemingly only you, beseeching your eye and your approval. But Kail, who won a Tony for his direction of the Broadway production, finds other means of expressing the intensity of the “Hamilton” experience, through close-ups and overhead shots and a camera moving through ensemble numbers like a rush-hour rider through a turnstile. (Kail supplemented the live footage with onstage cameras when there was no audience present.)
The visual boundaries of the film are the dimensions of the Rodgers; this is a movie in the passionate thrall of the stage. The head of conductor-orchestrator Alex Lacamoire pops out of the orchestra pit; Howell Binkley’s lighting sprays beams onto David Korins’s warehouse set and the tasteful opulence of Paul Tazewell’s costumes. You can hear the reaction of the audience, so that you’re spared the hollow ring of performance into a theatrical void. You’re aware, too, that actors are going all-out, as on any given night at an ecstatic hit. You may even notice remarkable Renée Elise Goldsberry, the production’s Angelica Schuyler, wiping away tears at the tumultuous curtain call.
The added advantage for a viewer is a camera that can stop and study Miranda’s face as Hamilton submits to the anguished judgment of his betrayed wife, Eliza (Phillipa Soo), or isolates the seductive showmanship of Leslie Odom Jr. as Aaron Burr, romancing the lens all through the sultry chords of “The Room Where it Happens.” Andy Blankenbuehler’s choreography, an amalgam of military, martial arts, capoeira and break-dance gestures, aids immeasurably in conveying the fluidity of the musical’s episodes. It culminates in a stunning stop-action staging of the Hamilton-Burr duel. Kail doesn’t edit out some of the blemishes either: One can’t help but notice Jonathan Groff, in his uber-witty rendition of a resplendent King George III delivering “You’ll Be Back,” singing with an overabundance of spittle.
As a result, though, the film is at times deeply moving and, for a show that is virtually all song and no dialogue, extraordinarily character-rich. Soo’s genteel soulfulness, highlighted in “Helpless,” her amorous ballad in the style of an Ashanti and Ja Rule collaboration, provides the musical with a core of vulnerability; Daveed Diggs, doubling as Revolutionary War hero Marquis de Lafayette and Thomas Jefferson, invests a certain headliner vanity in his assignments, especially for Jefferson’s flashy welcome-home-from-France number, “What’d I Miss.” And how is it that etched into my consciousness now as the father of our country is not the face on the dollar bill, but Christopher Jackson’s? The aspects of natural command and virile decency in his George Washington give credence to King George’s noting that “Next to Washington they all look small.”
“Hamilton” is at its heart an all-American patriotic pageant, a marriage of hip-hop to the Stars and Stripes. Miranda, who wrote the book, music and lyrics, is a master-includer. Not only did he reimagine most of these historical figures – drawn from Ron Chernow’s 2004 biography of Hamilton – as characters to be played by actors of color. His score also pays homage again and again to musical-theater legacies and traditions, by quoting Gilbert and Sullivan, Rodgers and Hammerstein, even the lyrics of another history musical, “1776.” (“Sit down, John!” an irked Hamilton declares of John Adams, invoking a line from that 1969 Broadway show.)
And while the rivalry of Miranda and Odom’s characters provides a tragic trajectory, the buoyant and mournful moments apportioned to the rest of the cast help to create the epic impact. Anthony Ramos, Jasmine Cephas Jones and Okieriete Onaodowan, in other vital supporting roles, supply further emotional texture for this roiling tapestry.
“Hamilton” is a uniquely joyful achievement. But escapism it’s not. It’s a show that points out, in this frightening time of pandemic and portentous moment for democracy, how messy and fractious and chockablock with volatile personalities is the origin story of our shared American birthright. Even if you watch it with the shades pulled down and lights turned off, you won’t be able to shut history out.