We’re spoiled rotten, we ink-stained kvetches, we drama critics. We can bring a date. We get to skip the security line. We’re given the best seats in the house, often surrounded by patrons groomed to vouchsafe their enthusiasm lest we be uncertain in our own response to the work at hand. We dash out the minute the lights come up not, as in olden times, to make deadline, but to get a jump on the paying customers for the first taxi cabs. In exchange, we grouse, nitpick, find fault, suggest that playwright, producer and patrons alike are idiots should they ignore us.
Of course, occasionally we come to praise as well. Who else besides critics are prone to rave, are gobsmacked, dazzled, knocked out, blown away by game-changing shows we insist will leave you and the whole world marked forever? This latter category describes the general response of critics to Hamilton, Lin-Manuel Miranda’s musical account of the birthing of the United States as seen through the eyes of Aaron Burr and Alexander Hamilton, two of the least-known of the folks in the colonies where it happened. In this regard, I bow to no one.
Miranda based the musical on Ron Chernow’s sympathetic Hamilton biography, to which the composer-lyricist was mostly faithful, with one very big exception: Nearly all the important men and women in the story were portrayed by actors of color. Cunningly, Miranda, who wrote the show’s lyrics, music and book, also kept the title role, the juiciest part, for himself. Not only did critics rain down huzzahs and accolades galore, but the show was, and continues to be (time-out for the pandemic) possibly the biggest global hit of all time, vacuuming up a Pulitzer and Tonys and Oliviers by the sackful.
In his spare time, between playing the lead in his show and turning Hamilton into an extremely lucrative and socially conscious franchise, Miranda developed a relationship with the House of Mouse, penning a ditty for a Star Wars movie, composing the score for the animated hit Moana and co-starring in an update of the Mary Poppins myth.
None of this may have been why Disney won the right to fork over $75 million for the film rights to Hamilton, but it probably didn’t hurt. Now the film is here, streaming on Disney’s new premium cable channel, Disney+. You can probably guess what that means for Disney, in this time of shuttered movie theaters and playhouses. With 50 million subscribers even before the unveiling of Hamilton was moved up a year, I wouldn’t be surprised if the film becomes the most-viewed program in cable TV history. For the $6 monthly subscription fee, you can pack the TV room and watch the same show others have skipped mortgage payments, traded jewels and proffered their first-born in order to see. You can pee when you want, no restroom lines, though the film – as in Disney presentations of yore – even offers a brief intermission.
And you too will be gobsmacked and stunned, dazzled and blown away by a musical that has only revealed more strength with each viewing (yes, I have seen it several times). The virtues present from the very first performances at the Public Theater include a story that transports you on an electrifying wave of musical energy from the opening moments, when Burr (Leslie Odom, Jr.) wonders how the orphaned immigrant made his way to New York City and thence the heights of power during the American Revolution and afterward.
There is Miranda’s polymathic gift for deglazing Chernow’s complex ideas and plot points into perfect little gribenes of information bursting with the flavors of hip-hop, balladry, soliloquy, roof-raising chorales, etc. This gift for pastiche is the mark of the Broadway genius; Miranda has not-so-merely expanded the variety to include contemporary musical genres without blowing it all up, no mean feat.
Speaking of feet, the original staging and choreography, by Thomas Kail and Andy Blankenbuehler, drew on the cinematic examples – close-ups, panning shots, deep focus – refined by Harold Prince and Jerome Robbins, and so seemed a natural fit for the film. You get the best seat in the house, and one of the big payoffs is how smaller roles pop out in their own relief. I was especially impressed with the subtle work of Okriete Onaodowan in dual roles as Hercules Mulligan and James Madison, and of Jasmine Cephas Jones as Peggy Schuyler and Maria Reynolds. And the searching dignity of Christopher Jackson’s Washington is another big score.
My appreciation of the central Odom/Manuel dance of death has only heightened with each viewing, but to take nothing away from their performances, I must add that whenever Daveed Diggs and Renée Elise Goldsberry are onstage – he as the Marquis de Lafayette in Act I, Thomas Jefferson in Act II; she as Angelica Schuyler – it’s July Fourth and New Year’s Eve rolled into one; the stage just explodes with delight.
Do I have some reservations? You bet. I still want to know what the heck happened to Peggy Schuyler, but that’s an issue for Miranda. The palette of the show, from David Korins’ rough-hewn set to Howell Binkley’s moody lighting, is fine in the theater but too dark on screen. More important, for all the technical expertise behind the filming of two performances (with the original cast, in 2016) and a third session for re-takes, Hamilton the film doesn’t, and can’t, overcome the essential difference between watching a live performance and watching a film.
When I’m in that prized seat viewing the stage, my eye chooses who to follow, what to emphasize, what to block out. With a movie, that’s the director’s gig, and so filmed performances, no matter how well choreographed, make choices that can drive a person crazy. There are too many close-ups in Hamilton, too many times when I yearned to take in the whole spectacle and not the beads of sweat on an actor’s brow or the spittle forming on his lower lip.
And while it’s nice to be reminded of the audience’s presence once in a while (almost exclusively through applause), there is the inevitable lack of shared electricity and appreciation only a live performance can offer, no matter how many friends you’ve packed into the living room. Especially these grim days, when emptiness and absence are so much a part of our lives. But those are tradeoffs I can live with in exchange for expanding the astonishing circle of Hamiltonians. Believe the hype.