What can I say about Lin-Maunel Miranda’s Hamilton that hasn’t been said? That it’s a faceted work of art and story and each viewing shows us another angle, another layer? That casting people of color as the colonizers, slave owners, and intelligentsia who shaped the foundation of the United States of America invites a necessary conversation about race and representation in art, in history, in media, and in our society at large? Yes and yes. That the film of the live play loses immediacy and connection of the live version? Don’t care, theater snobs. Most people that want to see Hamilton live haven’t and won’t get to as long as tickets are priced out of reach of us mortals. I, and millions of other viewers, are over the moon to see this production on Disney+. The soundtrack is in regular rotation here since Hamilton won all the Tony awards. I don’t care if it’s not live. Hamilton with the original cast streams directly to my living room on demand, a bright spot during these quarantimes.
Theater goers may have had the intimate experience of a live performance. But they missed the medium shots and close-ups that show the actors gags, reactions and connections. And they missed the overhead shots that put the choreography and music into a different perspective which enriches the experience. The cinematography is absolutely gorgeous. The songs are uplifting and relatable and the play makes workaday politics like cabinet meetings interesting.
(Below, I share plot details, otherwise known as colonial history. They happened over two hundred years ago so I don’t consider them spoilers. Please skip to the final two paragraphs if you do consider such details spoilers.)
Hamilton, looking past its hype and artistic merits to the story, can feel like two related one act plays and not a coherent whole at times. The first act’s theme is personal, focusing on the grit and determination of the founding fathers. The political underpins the personal motives and the action. Alexander Hamilton (Lin-Manuel Miranda) falls in love and marries Elizabeth Schyleur (Phillipa Soo) and never stops working to improve himself and his new nation. George Washington (Christopher Jackson) laments the focus on his public image instead of the task at hand and the lack of commitment from his troops. Aaron Burr (Leslie Odom Jr.) battles his jealousy and frustration towards Hamilton while protecting his own family’s legacy. The political mechanics occur in taverns, on the battlefield and off stage, in a tailor’s shop and by letter to allies.
In the second act, the war is over and political and social logistics rule. When politics, instead of action, are the focus of a narrative, some viewers get lost. The cabinet debates staged as rap battles provide some context for the average person but it’s not enough to carry the entire second act. Thomas Jefferson (Daveed Diggs) and James Madison (Okieriete Onaodowan) have the people skills and votes to further their agendas. Hamilton, the stubborn and mouthy immigrant, lacks the social graces to fully understand politicking and how to navigate the halls of power without making enemies. The second half of Act II picks up once the play returns to the personal motivations and Hamilton’s downfall. It’s a plot-heavy act instead of character driven, like Act I. He loses his standing when Washington retires. His son loses his life in a duel. His wife, broken by the loss, withdraws her support when one of Hamilton’s affairs comes to light. He and Burr engage in a series of letters that end in a duel.
Hamilton, while not perfect, is fantastic and great art encourages conversation and questions. It’s a living thing that way. My son asked me, “Is it okay for people of color to play white people from history?” Instead of answering his question, I asked him more to consider. “What does is mean when a Black man plays George Washington? Why is it significant that a Black man is playing Thomas Jefferson? How would Hamilton change if the whole cast were white performers?” I am glad that he’s considering and reflecting on these questions.
I’d recommend Hamilton for a family movie night, not only because it’s a moving and beautiful production, but for the questions and discussion viewers might engage in afterwards. We need beautiful art to feed our souls. And we need to undertake the difficult questions around the United States’ history and how those legacies still manifest.