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edge staff writer


‘Hamilton’ gets the job done

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If you were even remotely connected to the theatre world five years ago, you were aware of the phenomenon that was “Hamilton.” Adoring fans were shouting the praises of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s hip-hop Founding Fathers opus from the rooftops. The soundtrack was everywhere. Tickets were impossible to come by.

Now, a half-decade later, the masses who to this point were unable to see the show have finally gotten their chance.

A filmed version of the show, as directed by Thomas Kail and recorded back in 2016, was supposed to get a theatrical release this year. Instead, it made the move to streaming, landing on Disney+. And if social media buzz is any indication, a LOT of people watched it. That’s no surprise.

What is a surprise is how great it is.

Now, that’s not meant as a slight to the show itself. The plaudits and accolades speak volumes regarding the quality of the experience. No, what I’m talking about is the fact that filmed plays almost always fail to fully resonate. Best case, you get a dull, flat rendering of an experience meant to be energetic and visceral. Worst case, you get something effectively unwatchable.

Yet this film somehow blows away that best case. I can say with confidence that this version of “Hamilton” is far and away the best filmed representation of a stage play that I have ever seen. Granted, there’s a fair amount of production value here, but the fundamental staginess of the show remains intact. You never once forget you’re watching a play, and yet … it clicks on the small screen to a remarkable degree.

It’s utterly unlike anything I’ve ever seen.

On the off chance that there are still people out there who don’t have at least a baseline awareness of what “Hamilton” is, I’ll give you the gist. It is a hip-hop-driven musical retelling of the story of Alexander Hamilton, from his early days as a penniless immigrant all the way to his tragic demise. Inspired by Ron Chernow’s extensive biography of Hamilton, with book, music and lyrics by Miranda (who also originated the role and plays it here), it tells the tale of Hamilton’s role in shaping the nation that America would become in its earliest days.

The first act is Hamilton’s rise. We see him make his way up the ladder during the Revolutionary War, serving directly beneath General George Washington (Christopher Jackson). He befriends notable figures such as John Laurens (Anthony Ramos), Hercules Mulligan (Okieriete Onaodowan) and the Marquis de Lafayette (Daveed Diggs); in addition, a real rivalry begins to develop between Hamilton and Aaron Burr (Leslie Odom Jr.). He also meets the brilliant and beguiling Schuyler sisters. First comes Angelica (Renee Goldsberry), who puts aside the attraction between herself and Hamilton to introduce him to her younger sister Eliza (Phillipa Soo), who he will eventually marry. Hamilton fights to be given his own command, the only way a man without financial or familial means can truly advance.

Act II is the governmental Hamilton, the man whose ideas about governmental finance led to his being named the first Secretary of the Treasury in Washington’s cabinet. Of course, a man of import is going to face some opposition. There’s the aforementioned Burr, of course. He also runs up against a couple of other guys whose names might ring a bell: Thomas Jefferson (Diggs) and James Madison (Onaodowan). Meanwhile, Hamilton’s personal life takes some less than savory and ultimately tragic turns. And all the while, he is moving inexorably toward the confrontation that, for many, is one of the few things we still remember about this intellectual and political giant.

There’s a reason “Hamilton” exploded onto the scene the way that it did. It was a theatrical experiment and experience unlike anything audiences had seen before. By incorporating the musicality and themes of hip-hop into this retelling of America, Miranda created a compelling and emotionally compelling theatrical event, one in which once-silenced voices were allowed to tell the tale in their own way. This blend of sensibilities seems counterintuitive – people of color representing the all-white cohort – but in practice, it is a seamless and fascinating commentary on the origins of America and the dreams that its birth allowed to come true.

And then there’s the music. High-minded ideas and ideologies are important to quality theatre, but if your musical doesn’t have great music, you’re dead in the water. “Hamilton” has great music; Miranda has folded hip-hop sensibilities into a musical framework in a way that no one ever has. Make no mistake – this is still very much musical theatre. It’s just a different flavor, one that tastes all the better for its unconventionality.

(There are seriously a LOT of killer songs here. “Alexander Hamilton” and “My Shot” are noted bangers. “Guns and Ships” and “The Room Where It Happens.” The bounce of “Washington on Your Side” and the pathos of “It’s Quiet Uptown.” The haughty hilarity of “You’ll Be Back.” Oh, and Cabinet debates rendered as rap battles, which is one of the most inspired things I’ve ever seen onstage. And on and on and on – it’s the sort of show where every song is someone’s favorite.)

The performances are incredible across the board. Miranda is the right blend of bold and broken as Hamilton; his command of the stage and the story is total. Odom does masterful work as Burr, finding great ways to bear his heavy share of the storytelling load. This show made Diggs a star; his dual turns as Lafayette and Jefferson are jaw-dropping. His preening, self-assured, superior Jefferson is phenomenal – the energy in his Cabinet face-offs with Hamilton alone is worth the price of admission. Soo wrings real heartbreak and pathos from her turn as Eliza; it’s a remarkable performance. Ditto Goldsberry. Jackson’s Washington crushes. Onaodowan spits hot fire throughout; his Mulligan goes HARD. And Jonathan Groff is a highlight among highlights as the mincing, arrogant King George. But here’s the thing – literally everyone is amazing. Every member of this ensemble works as part of this gorgeous, gliding machine.

“Hamilton” succeeds because it doesn’t try to hide the artifice of the theatre. Instead, it embraces it. It works on film precisely because it doesn’t seek to be a film. It uses the tools of one medium in order to allow us to experience another – and shockingly little is lost in translation. This show is a remarkable accomplishment, powerful and provocative and unabashedly itself. And the fact that we can watch such an effective version in our own homes, well … that too is remarkable.

History has its eyes on you.

[5 out of 5]

Last modified on Sunday, 05 July 2020 12:30


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