- Directed by Thomas Kail
- Written by Lin-Manuel Miranda, based on the book by Ron Chernow
- Starring Lin-Manuel Miranda, Leslie Odom Jr. and Phillipa Soo
- Classification PG; 160 minutes
The marriage of Hamilton and Disney makes all the sense in the world. When the movie giant acquired rights to the mega-musical earlier this year – for a reported US$75-million – the pairing initially seemed odd. Here was Lin-Manuel Miranda’s genre-busting Broadway production, which felt ribald and ferocious and not exactly squeaky-clean when it debuted in 2015.
But scratch the musical's surface a bit, and let a few years of deafening cultural conversation quiet down, and Miranda's creation today feels like the perfect fit for the Mouse House: a wildly catchy blast of song and dance that smooths the bumps of U.S. history, streamed into households by the world's ultimate fashioner of warm-and-fuzzy Americana. If Disney World ever gets back to full strength, the theme park would be well within its rights to scrap its boring, non-rapping Hall of Presidents with an animatronic Lin-Manuel Miranda and call it a day.
This might sound like a knock against the pairing, but the partnership sits fine with me. In Disney, Miranda has found a safe and acquiescent collaborator that will more or less leave his work as he intended, while audiences around the world who couldn’t afford $500 Broadway tickets will finally – finally! – be able to actually watch what all the fuss was about in the comfort of their Disney+-equipped homes. And the fuss, by the way, is mostly warranted. This is a tremendously entertaining trip through the births of both America and the musical form, with each institution given a lightly revisionist torque by Miranda, who approaches the material with a scholar’s dedication to detail and a showman’s slick wit.
For those who have somehow avoided all things Hamilton up until this point: Miranda’s musical follows the life of “founding father without a father” Alexander Hamilton, who rose from poverty in the Caribbean to becoming a Revolutionary War hero, and the first Secretary of the Treasury under George Washington. But instead of pasting a history lesson against the expected warbles of American show tunes, Miranda refashions his tale as something ambitiously capital-N “New,” mining hip hop, pop, soul and the very tropes of Broadway to create a musical for a generation bred to dislike musicals. Add to this Hamilton’s casting of non-white actors to portray America’s Founding Fathers (and slaveowners), and the show is both postmodern critique and sensational gimmick.
For a small but dedicated corner of critics, Miranda’s fast-paced squishing of the past and present represents a vision more safe than subversive. But from my perch, it works brilliantly more often than not – and comes equipped with so many twisty earworms that I have no shame in admitting that my iTunes playlist circa 2016 was approximately 80 per cent Hamilton, 10 per cent Miranda’s previous Broadway show In the Heights, and 10 per cent audio reminders to book Hamilton tickets the next time they might be available (that never happened; though I did trek to Chicago to catch a Miranda-less touring production back in 2017).
The version of Hamilton that Disney+ will stream starting July 3 – neatly timed to Independence Day, but also a victim of COVID-19, given that this was supposed to be the studio’s big theatrical bet for fall 2021 – is the next best thing to hopping in a time machine. Edited together from three June 2016 performances at New York’s Richard Rodgers Theatre, the show features the original cast at the height of their powers, and live audiences primed for a talked-about spectacle, but not yet oversaturated with Hamilton hype that they know every beat. Every joke lands, every performance bounces off the other and every song hits hard – it is the platonic ideal of Hamilton. So long as you remember that this isn’t intended to be some grand cinematic reinterpretation, but basically an ultraglitzy American version of a National Theatre Live production.
Director Thomas Kail, who also helmed the Broadway version, deploys as many cameras as he can to add some movie-ready flair – a few overhead shots, a few extreme close-ups – but it quickly becomes clear that he’s more equipped and comfortable maximizing the space of the boards of a stage rather than the frame of a camera. It is neat, though, to see just how much spittle Jonathan Groff lets fly in his cameo as King George III.
Unfortunately, one by-product of Kail capturing Hamilton’s performers in their prime is realizing just how poorly Miranda measures up to his co-stars. The man is ferociously talented when it comes to crafting a musical – he’s just not a particularly strong actor or singer or dancer, weaknesses that are exposed rather harshly when captured on film, especially contrasted against the work of Daveed Diggs’s wiry and jaunty Thomas Jefferson, Phillipa Soo’s magnificent Eliza Schuyler Hamilton and the tremendous work of Leslie Odom Jr. as Hamilton’s archrival Aaron Burr. (The actor’s performance of Wait for It remains the show’s emotional high point.)
I could spend time bemoaning the choreography and costumes and set design and brief blips of Disney-mandated censorship (two instances of the F-word are muted), but I was mostly lost in the sound and fury and sincere pleasures of this particular version of Hamilton that obvious critiques melted away.
Here is the point in the review where I’d close things off with an attempt at an obvious song-title pun (initial choices were: “Finally, we don’t have to … wait for it!” and “Don’t throw away your shot … at streaming this!”). Instead, I’ll leave things with a simple recommendation: watch Hamilton, and take comfort in the fact that two towering American institutions have teamed up together for good, rather than evil. It’s a rare thing these days.
Hamilton is available to stream on Disney+ starting July 3.
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