For a lot of starved theatregoers at this time of plague, Disney’s acquisition of Hamilton was manna from heaven and the music of the spheres. This wasn’t just a one-week or one-day streaming of a play from Britain’s National Theatre or an opera from the Met in New York; this was access to what had been the hottest ticket on Broadway, and then in London, for years.
Hamilton is Lin-Manuel Miranda’s spectacularly successful musical about Alexander Hamilton, the American founding father who established the United States Treasury and was killed in a duel by his political rival, Aaron Burr. It is performed with pretty dazzling skill by a cast led by Miranda, who wrote it and stars in the title role, and they deliver with plenty of energy and elan.
Hamilton is one of the biggest musicals since God knows when – probably The Phantom of the Opera if not My Fair Lady. It assimilates rap and hip-hop to the world of show-tune melody and, with the exception of George III, all the characters are played by actors of colour. It has every chance of fascinating, if not thrilling, every kind of audience, if you allow for the fact that Hamilton’s reputation is so gargantuan that nothing could quite live up to the expectations it raises. And there is the added complication that the Billboard chart-topping original cast recording – which is complete – is intimately known to diehard fans, rather in the way Jesus Christ Superstar and Evita were when those early Andrew Lloyd Webber musicals were only concept albums in search of a staging.
It’s also worth bearing in mind that this version of Hamilton, for all its multiple cameras and the skills of cinematographer Declan Quinn, is essentially a transcription of the stage show, edited together from a couple of performances at the Richard Rodgers Theatre in June 2016. Although it is done at the highest level, it does use precisely the same techniques as NT Live and Live at the Met and, in that sense, it is by necessity a filmed stage show, not a film of a musical in its own right.
You can, of course, argue that musical drama is exceptionally difficult to film anyway. That Joseph Losey’s film of Don Giovanni or even Zeffirelli’s Otello has a stilted grandiosity of effect that dwarfs the work, and that only Ingmar Bergman’s film of The Magic Flute actually does the trick of cinematically dramatising the effect of seeing Mozart’s folk romp of merriment and high mystery in the theatre.
But perhaps that’s overly severe.
In practice, Hamilton would be a challenge to fully film, a bit like Lloyd Webber, although Joel Schumacher’s The Phantom of the Opera succeeded more than most. The reason musicals are the unique American dramatic form, and the reason they can be the supreme test for a stage director – hence the legendary reputations of the Hal Princes and Trevor Nunns, the Julie Taymors and Susan Stromans – is the need to make the translation from speech to song look natural rather than strained. Hamilton, by contrast, is sung through, even allowing for the fact that its rap elements have a sprechgesang element. If Hamilton were ever to be really filmed, it would have to be more naturalistic than this very tightly packaged piece of histrionics that the world has been captivated by.
And Hamilton has been captivating a world in Covid-induced captivity, one that has also been vivified by political voices associated with the Black Lives Matter movement. Well, it does represent the most comprehensive attempt that has ever been made to be at once colourblind and diversity-conscious in a theatrical context. But it also stands as a concerted attempt to re-appropriate the history and mythology of the War of Independence and the formative days of the republic, and in this could be read as the antithesis of the cancel culture movement, which has also seen its own reanimation in our present moment.
It’s not the first musical to do so. In 1969 there was 1776, which is – with a comparable degree of improbability – focused on the Continental Congress and the lead-up to the Declaration of Independence, with leading roles for John Adams, Benjamin Franklin and, needless to say, Thomas Jefferson. It may sound now a bit like the decadence of the old-style “literate” Broadway musical. Hamilton sounds to the interested bystander like the voice of just now – perhaps as Hair did to the elders of the hip generation who inspired it and turned their noses up at it 50 years ago.
But Lin-Manuel Miranda has done a stunning and splendid job of turning a momentous and intensely dramatic slice of America’s history into a continuously interesting story, which absorbs and transfigures its documentary elements. The question of whether in the process it minimises the iniquities of the past –Jefferson’s slave-owning receives no great emphasis – is probably not really a fair one. However much we turn Walter Benjamin’s great adage that the history of civilisation is always at the same time the history of barbarism into a cliché, it is salutary to remember that every aspect of our history, including the history of leftism and radical liberalism, is strewn with corpses and iniquities.
It’s also inevitable some people will see Hamilton as a kind of out-of-date homage to the Yes-we-can-ism of Obama’s America – Obama even came to the show as Miranda’s guest in July 2015 – but is this such a bad thing as Trump appals everyone with his response to the Covid-19 crisis?
Miranda projects his vision with remarkable authority. The dramatic idiom is the free and easy, cheap but clever, rhymester rhythm of rap, but it’s remarkable how much he packs into it as the action follows its sinuous but dramatically variegated line and Hamilton progresses from a Caribbean immigrant, a nobody, to the man who gets the Treasury. And who is, at the same time, the author of passionate letters to his wife’s sister, the father of a son who dies, a never less than impressive figure whose death, at the hands of Aaron Burr, is announced at the show’s outset like an impending horror of Greek tragedy.
The lyrics that constitute the sung-through book of Hamilton are brilliantly effective for the complex dramatic purposes Miranda effects. They constantly echo, sometimes coruscatingly, the history of the musical – for instance the “You’ve got to be carefully taught” acknowledgement of racism in South Pacific.
The language is not Shakespeare but then neither was Sondheim’s when he gave Bernstein those lyrics for West Side Story. Miranda is effective in a quite comparable way and the lineage via Sondheim to Hammerstein is perceptible.
On top of this, Thomas Kail’s production, at the end of the day, is as good as you could hope for, bearing in mind the transcriptive nature of the endeavour – for which Disney paid a cool $US75 million with everyone thinking it wouldn’t be shown until October 2021. But it does mean aspects of the show will inevitably seem too big, and Andy Blankenbuehler’s choreography inevitably looks a bit basic and a touch camp.
It doesn’t matter. Lin-Manuel Miranda may have a singer-songwriter’s voice – so did Noël Coward, so does Bob Dylan – but he has a peculiar authority as the hapless political genius with a tragic fated streak. And Hamilton is studded with great performances.
Renée Elise Goldsberry is superb as the eldest Schuyler sister, Angelica, and Phillipa Soo has her own kind of poignancy as Hamilton’s wife, Eliza Schuyler.
Daveed Diggs is wonderfully charismatic and French as Lafayette – and his lyrics echo the “C’est Moi” ode to Lancelot’s narcissism in Camelot – but he has a scathing brilliance as Jefferson, Hamilton’s rival, so that we are aware of two completely individuated performances issuing from the same actor. Anthony Ramos looks resplendently hot as John Laurens.
At the same time, Christopher Jackson has just the right kind of embattled authority as Washington, and Leslie Odom Jr is a perfect fit for Burr, plumbing the depths of a hopeless malcontent who becomes the emissary and the agent of tragedy. Then there’s Jonathan Groff as the wonderfully over-the-top George III, his voice a delicious parody of what the Americans hear as a “masterpiece theatre” English, his eyes goggling with the fun of cruel delight.
You don’t have to be tutored in the new musical to be won over by Hamilton. As someone who delighted in The Book of Mormon but has only remote memories of Jonathan Larson’s Tick, Tick… Boom! and Rent – if admiring ones – I have to admit to feeling delighted and instructed. Hamilton lives up to its reputation, and what a boon in a grim time.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jul 25, 2020 as "Worthy of the raps".
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