When it comes to writing about “Hamilton,” I am not throwing away my shot.
See, this pop-culture reference makes much more sense once you’ve actually seen Lin-Manuel Miranda’s game-changing Broadway musical. A filmed production arrives Friday on Disney+ as everyone’s Fourth of July entertainment in a locked-down world while also introducing the show to a huge population that’s never had the pleasure of seeing it.
That number includes me, though not for lack of trying. For the past five years, as “Hamilton” became a Tony-conquering phenomenon and the hottest ticket in New York (and everywhere a touring production might be in town), I avoided it. Never listened to the soundtrack, looked past memes, eschewed YouTube clips, stayed away from the Wikipedia page, all to have as fresh an experience as possible. After playing many ticket lotteries (always losing, of course), I finally had tickets to a Kennedy Center show until a pandemic foiled those plans, though it also shifted the “Hamilton” movie from theaters to streaming.
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So is it worth all the hype? Oh, yes. And then some.
“Hamilton,” which captures a 2016 performance by the show’s original cast, is a rousing history lesson about where we started as a country and a character study of young, scrappy and hungry immigrant Alexander Hamilton (Miranda), who became a revolutionary hero, Founding Father and tragic figure. Inspired by everything from hip-hop and R&B to jazz and Broadway standards, the songs fill you with life, and in between tunes, the dialogue – mostly rapped – is just as gloriously musical.
Every character has a vibrant quality. Imagine James Brown as Thomas Jefferson – that’s the showboating take created by Daveed Diggs, who also manages to imbue a second character, Marquis de Lafayette, with authentic rhyme-spitting soul. Leslie Odom Jr. makes Hamilton’s rival and frenemy Aaron Burr an antagonist you care as much about as Hamilton himself. Every time the Schuyler sisters (Phillipa Soo, Renee Elise Goldsberry, Jasmine Sephas Jones) appear, it’s a showstopper. “You’ll Be Back,” a “love” song by the irked and flamboyant King George (Jonathan Groff) to the rebellious American colonists, is the peppy and psychotic showtune you never knew you needed in your life.
Directed by Thomas Kail, “Hamilton” is obviously a showcase for Miranda. He’s become one of our great American creators, and it’s a joy to watch him craft Hamilton’s character arc through triumphs and travails.
There are wonderfully danced duels (spoiler alert for those who missed that day in history class), a vicious rap battle between Hamilton and Jefferson over the government assuming states’ debts, and ultimately an emotional conclusion, about the power of telling one’s story. (This version of the story also omits a couple of F-bombs from the original show but, speaking as a rookie Hamiltonian, it’s not like you miss them. Plus, one of the bleeps is pretty fantastic.)
Would it have been better to be in the room where it happened? Sure, the magic of watching excellent musical theater happening in front of you is impossible to re-create. But as the recent “Cats” movie proved, sometimes veering too off-course from the stage production isn’t great, either, so why not embrace a filmed version of this spectacular thing? “Hamilton” is an amazing look at our country, how immigrants get the job done, where we’ve been and where we might be going – all portrayed by a mostly non-white cast – that resonates as we celebrate independence during a time when things outside can look a little bleak.
In that case, being in the room where it streamed isn’t too shabby. And if you’ll excuse me, the soundtrack is calling and I have a lot of catching up to do.
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