“We have to make this moment last,” Lin-Manuel Miranda sings near the beginning of “Hamilton,” referring to revolutionary fervor but also apparently youthful vigor; then he immediately corrects himself: “This is not a moment, it’s the movement.”
Now that the splendidly edited film of the still-powerful stage musical has started streaming on Disney+ this Independence Day weekend, this theater about the “ten-dollar Founding Father without a father” embodies for me three moments that feel like movements.
There is of course its chronicling of the moment a new nation came into being, a sweeping story that Miranda chooses to tell through the life of Alexander Hamilton – a wise choice.
“In all probability, Alexander Hamilton is the foremost political figure in American history who never attained the presidency, yet he probably had a much deeper and more lasting impact than many who did,” Ron Chernow writes in his 2004 “Alexander Hamilton” a 700-page biography that inspired and informed Miranda’s musical.
Right-hand man to George Washington during the Revolutionary War, the first Secretary of the Treasury, the main architect of the American banking system, Hamilton had his hand in so many national events in the three decades between his arrival in New York as an orphaned teenage immigrant from the Caribbean right before the American Revolution, and his death by duel in 1804, that the musical can’t even include all of them. (He also founded both the United States Coast Guard and the New York Post, for example)
But many people now know all this about Hamilton – thanks to the five years that “Hamilton” has been embedded in American popular culture, a presence so powerful that it upended the federal government’s plan to replace Hamilton’s face on the ten dollar bill.
If it’s striking that a Broadway musical charging as much as $1,000 a ticket would so thoroughly enter the public consciousness, it speaks to the moment in which it was born. Recall that Miranda’s first public performance of what became the opening number of “Hamilton” was in the White house in front of Barac Barack and Michelle Obama four months after Obama took office. It feels like more than a coincidence that it was in the Obama years when the casting of this new musical primarily with performers of color – many descended from slaves, portraying America’s founders, many of whom owned slaves — signaled in effect a new generation saying: We’re America too.
A century and a half after Walt Whitman proclaimed “I hear America singing,” Hamilton and his peers were singing a generous mix of American music – rap, yes, but also pop, jazz, r&b, Broadway ballads, even a sampling of operetta
Even the willingness to incorporate straight-ahead civic lessons into a popular entertainment — rap battle about the national debt! – speaks to a moment that promised more widespread civic engagement.
Now, we are in a new moment. There is a lot going on these days, but let’s focus on the timing of Disney’s launch of this film, live-captured from the stage of the Richard Rodgers Theater in three days in June, 2016, with the original Broadway cast still intact. At first scheduled for a release in movie theaters in October, 2021, the pandemic changed the plan. It is now up a day before the Fourth of July, but, equally significant, presented four months after the shutdown of physical theaters, into world in which “online” and “theater” have become synonymous.
This online presentation of “Hamilton” hardly pioneers the genre of online theater: Theater artists have been experimenting fruitfully since March, and films of stage musicals have been presented on Web-based subscription services like BroadwayHD for years. This doesn’t even include National Theatre and Canada’s Stratford Festival which have routinely videotaped their productions, and have been putting them online for free during the pandemic. But in offering this massive Broadway hit online, “Hamilton” gives the genre great attention and remarkable validation.
It’s arresting how much hype and genuine enthusiasm has been generated because this five-year-old musical has gone online – how many new articles have been written and read…including by me!
I stayed up late to catch “Hamilton” right when it debuted online at 3 a.m., although I first saw it live on stage Off-Broadway in February, 2015, then a couple of times with the original Broadway cast
my video review in 2015
and last saw it on Broadway in March, 2019
It was jarring to see at the outset of the Disney+ screening the Disney castle logo with the animated fireworks, and the PG-13 rating, but Disney disappears right away.
I can report that some things are better about seeing it online, some worse, but it definitely holds up.
What’s most gained by putting “Hamilton” online comes from the close-ups and the captions.
In the number “Satisfied,” after Angelica Schuyler in effect has given up Alexander Hamilton to her sister Eliza, the close-up of Reneé Elise Goldsberry’s face drives home what this has cost her.
Indeed, though I always grasped that the musical toggled between the personal and the political, the close-ups somehow make the personal feel more prominent than they seemed on stage, especially the relationship between Hamilton and Eliza, and among the Schuyler sisters.
The editing here is generally first-rate, but the use of these close-ups largely assigns the ensemble’s thrilling and inventive choreography to the periphery. Perhaps this is unavoidable, but it’s a loss.
Having the easy option of captions allowed me not just to follow every word – including the famous three-second rap explosions from Daveed Diggs as the Marquis de Lafayette (“I’m never gonna stop til i make ‘em drop, burn ‘em up and scatter their remains, I’m….”)– but also to register in real time some of the many clever samples and allusions…to Macbeth and the Bible, Gilbert and Sullivan and Biggie Smalls.
I plan to see “Hamilton” again, soon (another advantage of its being online.) In the meantime, a confession: I cried. And not just at the sad parts, but in the opening number! I’m not sure why. Maybe it was in recalling those two previous moments (now both historical) that it embodies; maybe because I’ve been cooped up too long; maybe because it opens up a new moment of possibility for theater.
Hamilton on Disney+
Written by Lin-Manuel Miranda; Inspired by the book “Alexander Hamilton” by Ron Chernow
Directed by Thomas Kail
Choreography by Andy Blankenbuehler
Cast: Daveed Diggs,Renée Elise Goldsberry,Jonathan Groff,Christopher Jackson,Jasmine Cephas Jones,Leslie Odom, Jr.,Anthony Ramos, Phillipa Soo
Carleigh Bettiol, Ariana DeBose, Sydney James Harcourt, Sasha Hutchings
Thayne Jasperson, Emmy Raver-Lampman, Jon Rua, Austin Smith,Betsy Struxness, Ephraim Sykes
Running Time: two hours and 40 minutes (That includes a one minute intermission, and nine minutes of curtain call and credits.)