‘Hamilton’ (Review)

Hamilton
Disney Studios

Directed by: Thomas Kail
Written by: Lin-Manuel Miranda
Starring: Lin-Manuel Miranda, Leslie Odom Jr., Phillipa Soo, Renee Elise Goldsberry, Christopher Jackson, Daveed Diggs, Okierte Onaodowan, Anthony Ramos, Jasmine Cephas Jones, Jonathan Groff

Few musicals have had the impact on the entertainment world at large as Lin-Manuel Miranda’s musical Hamilton has. What began as a concept album soon morphed into a work of theatre that has won 10 Tonys and a Pulitzer Prize, and has catapulted Miranda into superstardom. Hamilton has become such an accepted touchstone of pop culture that it can be difficult to recall how revolutionary Miranda’s musical was when it debuted in 2015. In creating a musical centered mostly around hip-hop, and in casting persons of color to play the Founding Fathers, Miranda used the words and people of America today to create a portrait of America’s past. His choice was a brilliant one, as it highlights the ways in which America has changed and the ways it, unfortunately, hasn’t.

I managed to catch the show when it came to San Francisco during a tour, and it remains one of the most profound theatergoing experiences of my life. It was one thing to listen to the album enough times to memorize nearly every song as I had. It was something else entirely to witness the minute choreography in the play’s titular opening number, “Alexander Hamilton.” Or to see the nuances that went into each actor’s performance when they interacted with one another on stage. That experience is one that’s impossible to replicate, but this filmed version of Hamilton, directed by Thomas Kail, gets pretty darned close.

The musical tells the story of the United States’ first Secretary of Treasury, Alexander Hamilton (Miranda), and follows his life from when he joins the Revolutionary Army in 1776 to his fatal duel with his bitterest political rival, Aaron Burr (Leslie Odom, Jr.). Along the way, Hamilton establishes himself as George Washington (Christopher Jackson)’s right hand man and as a foe to just about every other Founding Father, including future presidents Thomas Jefferson (David Diggs) and James Madison (Okieriete Onaodowan). 

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But it isn’t just Hamilton’s story that’s the focus here. Burr, the self-described “damn fool that shot him,” functions as the story’s narrator. Burr is a brilliant man, but more self-possessive and restrained than Hamilton, the kind of person who would rather wait for an ideal opportunity than create one for himself. As Hamilton encounters success after success, the smile Burr wears for most of his narration gradually shifts from one of admiration to one of contempt. Rather than his brilliance, Burr slowly comes to be defined by his anger, his resentment, and his jealousy towards Hamilton. In other words, Burr functions as the play’s most human character.

For underneath all of the bombast and power of Hamilton, it’s in its characters’ most private moments that the work finds its heart. It’s when Washington tells Hamilton in “One Last Time” that he is willingly stepping down from the presidency that we see the character’s true nobility shine through. Or in “Satisfied” when Angelica Schuyler (Renee Elise Goldsberry) laments the life she will never have with Hamilton while toasting her sister’s wedding. 

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Hamilton functions on one level as a celebration of the achievements of Alexander Hamilton, and on another as a showcase for the brilliant songwriting talents of Lin-Manuel Miranda. But it remains with viewers long after it’s over for one reason: in showing the faces of men and women who shaped the world, it allows viewers to see themselves.

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