My 2 Cents on Hamilton

What’s new, readers? Amazon recently pulled Washington Redskins merchandise from its website, following in the steps of Nike, Target, and Walmart. At the same time, FedEx, Bank of America, and PepsiCo are all leaning on the NFL to change the name. Oh, so now we’re realizing how awful it is to use a racial slur for Native Americans in the branding of a football team. It calls to mind the situation with Aunt Jemima, Eskimo Pie, Cream of Wheat, Uncle Ben’s, and so on. On the pandemic side of news, Walt Disney World just reopened in Orlando, Florida, even though COVID-19 cases have spiked in the state (and throughout the entire nation) over the past few weeks. But hey, as long as the park can get back in business, it’s infinitely worth it for children and their families to head in there and turn it into a microbial hellhole.
Speaking of Disney (segue!), let’s talk about Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton: An American Musical, the 2015 Tony-winning Broadway musical that dropped on Disney Plus on July 3. I’ve been highly anticipating this ever since Disney announced it would bring a recording of the live stage performance to its streaming service. Having obtained global rights to Hamilton earlier this year for a whopping $75 million, Disney initially planned to show it in theaters in October of 2021. Thank god they decided to premiere it now in the midst of COVID-19, a move echoing their early release of Frozen 2 on Disney Plus (and now it replaces Artemis Fowl as the last thing I saw on the app—good heavens, what a bunch of crapmuffins that was).
I haven’t seen Hamilton live, and before it started streaming, I hadn’t even listened to the songs. But I knew about Miranda through his brilliant songwriting in Moana, and I knew that he composed the lyrics and the music and that he starred as U.S. founding father and the country’s first treasury secretary Alexander Hamilton. I also knew everyone gave Hamilton effusive praise—all which I can declare is well-earned after seeing it on Disney Plus. I can’t overstate what a luminous experience it was to watch the hip-hop interpretation of Hamilton’s life story. Everything is top-notch—the production design, the soundtrack, the narrative, the cast, the choreography. We take the musical’s knockout reputation for granted now, but back then it was an ambitious and unconventional endeavor—because of the protagonist (most of us only knew Hamilton as that guy on the ten dollar bill), the vibrant R&B mood woven into his story, and the casting of ethnically diverse actors to play white historical figures.
Tommy Kail, director of both the live show and the recording, and cinematographer Declan Quinn do such a spectacular job translating Hamilton into this streaming incarnation. They utilize multiple camera angles ranging from wide shots to close-ups to capture the energy and emotion of the hypnotic performances carried out by everyone in the original cast. They actually combine recordings from two separate live performances—one with an audience and the other without, the latter which they used to set up cameras for the close-ups (that’s how we’re able to see Jonathan Groff’s enthusiastic spit takes as King George III). It never cuts to the audience for their reaction, but it wisely includes their laughter and gasps and cheers. This immerses you, while you’re streaming from home, in the palpable emotions that are imperative for molding the live theater experience.
Inspired, stirring, phenomenal—those adjectives are apt for describing the playlist. Moana made me excited to see what Miranda would bring on the lyrical and musical composition front, but I didn’t expect this to shatter my expectations the way it did. Every track is just so damn strong. “Alexander Hamilton,” the opening song, is marvelous at setting up the hip-hop/rap tone for the rest of the show, especially for two of my favorite tracks, “My Shot” and “Satisfied.” Groff’s “You’ll Be Back” brims with 60s Britpop à la the Beatles, and I couldn’t help but think of him singing Frozen 2’s “Lost in the Woods,” which has the sound of a 70s pop-rock ballad by Journey or REO Speedwagon.  I love the breezy jazz pop of Daveed Diggs in “What’d I Miss,” the heartfelt eloquence of Phillipa Soo in “Helpless” and “Burn,”  the vulnerable poignance of Leslie Odom Jr. in “Wait For It,” the deep anguish of Miranda in “It’s Quiet Uptown,” the tender homage to parenthood in “Dear Theodosia,” and the rap battles in “Cabinet Battle #1” and “Cabinet Battle #2.” The soundtrack also has the advantage of fluent and fast pacing, since the musical has almost no dialogue and it transitions so effortlessly from song to song. It still astonishes me that Miranda wrote every one of them and was able to take so many creative influences from the genres of hip-hop, rap, R&B, and pop. Seriously, he is a pure genius.
The original cast of Hamilton elevates it to an even higher degree of quality. Soo and Renée Elise Goldsberry are absolute powerhouses as Eliza Hamilton and Angelica Schuyler, respectively. Diggs is insanely charming as Marquis de Lafayette and Jefferson, and I can’t wait for him to play Sebastian in the live-action Little Mermaid reboot. It’s crazy how the cast explodes with tremendous talent, ranging from Groff as King George and Odom Jr. as Aaron Burr to Christopher Jackson (he played Moana’s dad!) as George Washington and Anthony Ramos as John Laurens and Philip Hamilton. Admittedly, Miranda is the weakest member of the cast, which I feel a little guilty admitting when he composed the musical. But he also surrounds himself with such a stellar ensemble and gives it umpteen opportunities to show off its flair.
Hamilton definitely needs to be called out for its historical inaccuracies regarding black slavery and its hagiographic attitude towards the founding fathers. At the same time, we can still appreciate Miranda’s work as a declaration to maintain a constantly evolving awareness of our copiously racist history and the concept of the American Dream in a way that gives a voice to marginalized racial groups. Hamiltonachieves this by featuring so many people of color to depict the national character of America, a country that was stolen from them by racists and is currently being torn apart by Trump and his sycophants. To quote Miranda, “This is a story about America then, told by America now.”
It’s notable that the number of Disney Plus subscribers increased 74% after Hamilton debuted on the app. Of course, this adds to the debate of whether digital release is as viable an option for Hollywood as the traditional channel of theatrical release. Trolls World Tour and The King of Staten Island are good examples of the former strategy, while Tenet, Mulan, Pixar’s Soul, Wonder Woman 1984, and various other big-budget movies are waiting for the theater. It’s reasonable to believe digital release can’t compensate for the cash they could haul in at the box office, but it’s not like they can go to theaters anytime soon while daily coronavirus cases keep climbing in our country. It certainly won’t improve enough for people to be able to see Tenet and Mulan in August. In my opinion, the studios need to either stop delaying the theatrical releases every few weeks and just push everything a year back, or go the straight-to-digital-release route so we can rent their offerings now for twenty bucks.
It’s easy to picture a scenario where we get a film adaptation of Hamiltonakin to Les Misérables or Cats. Who knows, maybe that would have been okay, but I’m glad we have this recorded show instead. I’ve heard people debate whether this is eligible for a top-ten-movies list at the end of this ridiculous year, and personally, I think the answer is a hard yes. Technically, it’s a different format, but this radiant and riveting musical truly hits the spot, and it’s hard to believe anything else this year (except Tenet) will top it. Besides, it doesn’t have much competition so far—Sonic the Hedgehog (still have to watch that, it looks like it might be pretty fun), Artemis Fowl (excuse me, I just found out my father is missing and I’m dropping a milk bottle in slo-mo), Capone (and now I must go defecate and mumble incomprehensibly).
All my love and prayers go to you, readers. Stay strong, stay healthy, and keep fighting for Black Lives Matter and wearing masks.
Windup score: 99/100

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