It’s the Fourth of July; the celebration of America’s founding that continues to be a unifying moment in time for Americans from all walks of life. Traditionally we celebrate with parades, fireworks and outdoor activities and barbecues. But, the COVID-19 pandemic of 2020 has put a halt to most of our traditional celebratory events, as social distancing remains crucial to stopping the spread of the disease. Couple this with a political climate that is at it’s most divisive that we’ve seen in quite a while, and many people are questioning if such a celebration is worth it in this time in our history. Though it won’t stop people from spending modest 4th of July caterings with their small collective family and friends, cooking on a barbecue and launching a few fireworks, some of the bigger expressions of American patriotism are going to be noticeably muted this year. That’s not to say there isn’t a lot still out there to help boost the patriotic spirit of the national holiday. There are literally dozens of films and television specials devoted to celebrating the Spirit of America, and they all come in a canvas of different shades that reflects the diverse character that is America today. Whether it’s with watching a gritty war film like Patton (1970) or Saving Private Ryan (1998), or an inspiring underdog story like Rocky (1976), or a passionate cry for justice like Selma (2014), you can find so many movies out there that shows us the soul of America, and it’s unique place in the world. Even musical theater can grant us that special feeling of patriotic pride with the stories that it tells in song about the progress of America. Much of the great American songbook takes it’s selections from the Broadway stage, including from shows that make it a point to tell the story of America itself. The show 1776 did exactly that in another divisive period of time like right now, with Vietnam and Watergate dominating discourse, and told a compelling story of America’s independence. In this time of division, we need another musical to again lift up our patriotic spirit, and thankfully, that has finally come straight into our living rooms.
Hamilton: The Musical premiered on the Broadway stage in 2015 to overwhelming acclaim and record-breaking box office. The brainchild of musical virtuoso Lin-Manuel Miranda, Hamilton is the story of founding father Alexander Hamilton. Miranda was inspired to write and produce the musical after reading a biography on the historical figure by historian and author Ron Chernow. Within it, Miranda saw a story of an underdog immigrant who would go on to be one of the men who shaped America into what it is, a theme that resonated with the son of Puerto Rican-Americans who lived through their own immigrant experience. What it compelling about Lin-Manuel’s adaptation is that he set out to tell the story of America’s founding with a cast and style of music that is reflective of America today. Every role, with the exception of King George, is played by a person of color, which offers up a fascinating new perspective on figures enshrined in our history like George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Aaron Burr and of course Hamilton himself. Miranda would fill the title role himself, and the score was filled with the same Hip Hop and R&B melodies that he used to great effect in his Tony-Award winning debut, In the Heights. Hamilton far exceeded everyone’s expectations, and was heralded as an instant classic, winning everything from Tony’s, to Grammy’s, to even a Pulitzer. Naturally Hollywood would come a calling, but Lin-Manuel has resisted bringing the production to the silver screen just yet, stating that he wants to show to live on the stage for while. However, he did give in to having a filmed version of the stage show, helping to bring the show to the masses without paying an arm and a leg for the ticket price. But, what comes as a major chock to everyone is who he granted the rights to over everyone else: The Walt Disney Company.
Hamilton: The Film remains pretty much in tact from how it was first performed on Broadway when it opened. Lin-Manuel Miranda and most of the original cast had moved on after nearly a year of performing, but they returned for a week long engagement in late 2016 for the purpose of filming this specific version. An extra special treat for everyone who lucked out in getting a ticket to those exclusive shows, but having the show be filmed as it’s meant to be seen (performed on a stage in front of an audience) also grants the filmed version a level of authenticity that can’t be replicated in a movie studio. The play covers the defining years of Alexander Hamilton’s (Lin-Manuel Miranda) life. We see him in his early years fresh out of school where he would meet several men who would leave an impact on his life; John Laurens (Anthony Ramos), Hercules Mulligan (Okieriete Onaodowan), Marquis de Lafayette (Daveed Diggs), and most profoundly Aaron Burr (Leslie Odom Jr.). They all join the war for independence, serving under the command of General George Washington (Chris Jackson), who helps lead them and the new nation to victory; much to the consternation of pompous King George of England (Jonathan Groff). In the middle of service, Hamilton meets the wealthy Schuyler Sisters; Angelica (Renee Elise Goldsberry), Eliza (Phillipa Soo), and Peggy (Jasmine Cephas Jones). Though Angelica and Alexander develop a long standing bond, it’s ultimately Eliza who wins his heart and ends up wedding him. After the Revolution, Washington is made President of the new nation and he asks Hamilton to join his cabinet. However, Hamilton faces a new rivalry with Washington’s other cabinet secretaries, Thomas Jefferson and James Madison (Diggs and Onaodowan again, respectively). All the while, Aaron Burr continues to advance politically, becoming ever more resentful of Hamilton along the way.
For a lot of people, having the chance to finally see the show in it’s entirety after so many years is a godsend, especially with it’s premiere falling on the 4th of July weekend where everyone is stuck at home. During the show’s heyday, ticket prices would rise up into the hundreds and even thousands. Not only that, but demand was so high, that waiting lists would stretch beyond a year for some people. Even the touring version in select cities sold out well in advance, which just shows you how much of a cultural touchstone this musical was for many people. Though many couldn’t get into the show, there was still the album that was made available around the same time, which gives the listener a piece of the experience as the entire show is sung through entirely. And everyone, having watched the show or not, became familiar with it’s music. Even still, demand remains high for watching the show as it’s intended to be seen, live on a stage, and I for one have tried to make that my own personal goal. I struck out the first time that Hamilton came through Los Angeles on it’s first national tour in 2017. Luckily, another tour quickly made it’s way back to So Cal, and I managed to snag a ticket for it, and at a reasonable price as well. The musical was going to be staged at the legendary Pantages Theater on Hollywood Boulevard, right in the center of Tinseltown. I made it my own personal mission to make my first exposure to this musical phenomenon as a live theater experience. I never listened to the soundtrack, and I refrained from watching even the briefest of video teases. I wanted to experience the play without any preconceived expectations and just let the show speak for itself in it’s intended venue. Unfortunately, those plans did not pan out. The Pantages closed its doors mere days before the show’s run was about to begin in accordance with social distancing guidelines. Since my ticket was only a week or two later, it didn’t take long for that to get cancelled as well, for which I did receive a full refund. So, when I learned that the show would be made available to watch on Disney+ this weekend, it came as a mixed blessing. Yes, I could finally see the show in it’s entirety, but at the same time, I wouldn’t be getting that intimate live experience either. Even still, I had to give it a watch to finally understand what all the hype has been about.
Believe me, this show comes with extremely high expectations, and a part of me worried that it may not live up to the hype that I’ve been hearing about for the last 5 years. But, after now having watched Hamilton for the first time, I can definitely say that the hype is indeed justified. No matter what format it’s presented in, on the stage or on the screen, Hamilton is a masterwork. For one thing, it appeals greatly to my interest in History. I always admire the way that filmmakers and stage directors can bring historical events to life and make us feel like we are witnessing them in action. With Hamilton, the thing that struck me was just how incredibly well they are able to convey this epic story of the American Revolution and it’s founding fathers, with such a minimalist set. There are no extravagant backdrops or flat-board set pieces that the actors interact with. All that we see is a single wood scaffolding across the stage on which all the moments of the show are staged within. Following the Brechtian style of minimalist theater, the lack of a literal set puts more emphasis on the performances, and through the actors, we are given the full breadth of the story. I even admired how the show doesn’t even use a curtain to hide the stage between Acts or before and after the show. It’s all up to the actors, the costume department, and the incredible lighting to deliver a sense of the story’s epic scope. To the filmed version’s credit, it captures this craftsmanship perfectly, and gives the viewer at home a good sense of what they would see if this show was performed live in front of them. Indeed, given that Lin-Manuel Miranda supervised this filmed version himself, he was granted the creative freedom to recreate the stage show nearly as complete as he possibly could. Considering it went to Disney, however, he did have to make a compromise to bring it to a PG-13 rating. As he put it himself, he literally gave Disney two F’s, as the four letter word can only be used once to retain that more family friendly rating.
Also, it’s interesting that Disney of all people won out in landing Hamilton. In a way it does make sense; Lin-Manuel has had a strong working relationship with the studio since the premiere of Hamilton, having written songs for the movie Moana (2016), as well as performing a lead role in Mary Poppins Returns (2018). He also has a yet to be fully detailed animated film in the works with the studio which he supposedly has a chief creative investment in. So I guess it only made sense for him to give his blockbuster musical a home at Disney as well. Originally, the musical was to screen in theaters nationwide this fall in a limited engagement, but with the pandemic changing everyone’s plans, Disney instead opted to move the premiere of Hamilton to Disney+, with a special 4th of July weekend launch. It’s a shame that the theatrical experience had to be lost too, but even still, putting it on their streaming platform works to both build hype for the show as well as for Disney+ in general. Really, for right now, it is the only venue on which the show can be seen, as Broadway has shut it’s doors for the remainder of the year, which the Pantages in Hollywood is likely going to follow in suit. What I will say about watching the show for the first time in this way is that it hasn’t deterred me from wanting to see it staged live. Sure, I have lost my chance of experiencing it for the first time as it was meant to be seen, but this comes as a fine alternative. In fact, now I have something to contrast with once I do see the show live finally. It’s kind of like how watching the movie version of something like Les Miserables or The Sound of Music differs greatly from how it’s performed on stage. Sure those are movies, and Hamilton is a film of a stage performance, which is different. But, you don’t see edits or crane shots on a stage. Witnessing it in that respect may offer a different experience entirely once I finally attend a performance.
As far as the show itself as it appears on film, the experience is exhilarating. You come in close to the actors in a way that you certainly wouldn’t get in the theater; even if you were sitting in the front row. The subtleties that the actors work out in their performances really come through in their close-ups, and you have to marvel at just how much work they put into their facial gestures that probably wouldn’t register to all those people sitting up in the nosebleed sections of the theater. Lin-Manuel of course is stellar as Hamilton himself, balancing all the complexities of this extremely complex man. You have to wonder where he found the energy to write, orchestrate, and craft a performance all at the same time during the production of this musical. Many of the other actors excel as well, especially the ones playing dual roles. Daveed Diggs really shines in a Tony winning performance as both Lafayette and Thomas Jefferson. His flamboyant Jefferson may even be the highlight of the entire show. I was also impressed with Phillipa Soo’s soulful portrayal of Eliza Schuyler Hamilton, whose own story shines through in the narrative, giving her a historical spotlight that up until now has largely passed her by. And of course the music is every bit as perfect as you’d expect. It’s one thing to listen to it, but it’s another to see how it’s performed by the actors onstage. The music is playful, heartbreaking, inspirational, and passionate, but above all else, it is daring. You would’ve thought that telling the story of America’s founding with hip hop and rap was possibly sacrilege, but in the hands of a skilled artist like Lin-Maunel, it’s a perfect match. The cabinet debates are perfectly re-framed as rap battles between Hamilton and Jefferson, and it brings new life to the actual arguments that these great thinkers who built our nation put forth. Whatever creative spark Lin-Manuel received when reading from Chernow’s book proved to be a stroke of genius captured in a bottle. A hip hop musical about the most unlikely of founding fathers for this nation; it was a match made in heaven.
What is great now is that Hamilton is no longer an experience exclusive to the super rich or the super lucky; it belongs to anyone with access to a $7/month Disney+ subscription, where they can enjoy it for as many times as they desire. For less than the value of the currency that Hamilton’s face currently is enshrined ($10 bill), the musical Hamilton is now available to be seen by literally millions across the globe. And this film version also gives us the treat of seeing the show with it’s original complete cast. Many of the performers have since moved on from the show; some following in Lin-Manuel’s footsteps and making it out to Hollywood to pursue a film career. With this filmed version, their iconic performances will be forever enshrined. I do give Disney a lot of credit for pursuing this for their platform, even with it’s more adult themed subject matter and language. Even with some of the edits they made, the show remains around 99% in tact, and given the more family-friendly rating, it actually helps to make this more palatable for younger audiences. We may even see this filmed version of the play shown in classrooms in the years ahead. For right now, with the 4th celebrations being scaled down so much to keep families close to home this holiday, this premiere of the musical couldn’t be more welcome. Hopefully, watching this show again may become a new tradition for many Americans. I was really happy to have not been disappointed now that I’ve gotten my first taste of the musical itself. I get all the hype now, and recognize that it was all very much justified. I still wish that I had been able to see the show live in person first earlier this year, but that’s a choice that was completely out of my hands once the pandemic spiraled out of control. I hope to revisit Hamilton again soon; both live and on the small screen. For anyone with a Disney+ account right now, don’t miss your shot and watch it right now. Happy Fourth everyone, and stay safe and healthy.