As someone who reviewed theater for many years, I did not think “Hamilton” would translate well to the screen, especially the small screen (since Disney+ released it on July 3, one could watch it on their phones). Live theater buzzes with immediacy and the element of surprise—what might happen in front of an audience? And no two nights are the same, even when you are seeing the same production. How could this dynamism and crackle possibly translate? At the same time, I was excited. I was dying to see “Hamilton.’ I was still waiting for the hubbub to die down so that tickets didn’t cost an arm and a leg. Now I could see it on my laptop, in my pajamas!
Holding skepticism in one hand and eagerness in the other, I plunged in, strapping in for 160 minutes of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s version of Noah’s Ark: A hip-hop musical about Founding Father Alexander Hamilton, an insensible project he labored over for years while everyone laughed at him; even the Obamas laughed at him a little, nicely, when he brought up what he was working on in 2009. They aren’t laughing now.
Eleven years later, the only people laughing are theatergoers and now, viewers. Laughing because there are many great comedic moments in the musical, including every single moment starring Jonathan Groff (also Olaf from Frozen) as wacky, woo-woo King George. Crying, too, but I’ll get to that in a moment.
Filmed at The Richard Rodgers Theatre on Broadway in June of 2016, the film gives its audience a front row seat and a bird’s-eye view, all at the same time. It’s as if you have the best seat in the house and the seat floats to wherever you want to go. Despite my misgivings, the closeness of shots makes the sets and costumes and makeup and props pop in a way they never have before.
It also showcases the acting, and the acting is one reason “Hamilton” is so revolutionary (that and the famously addictive score blending hip-hop, jazz, R&B, and Broadway). When Aaron Burr (Tony winner Leslie Odom Jr.) sings about wanting to be in the “room where it happens,” his face tells a story of longing. From the outset, we know that Burr shot and killed Hamilton (Miranda) in a duel, which makes their interactions gripping.
The Schuyler sisters, Angelica (Tony-winner Renee Elise Goldsberry) and Eliza (Philippa Soo) pine in a different way, Angelica for her brother-in-law (historically we only know they were close as in-laws, but the musical takes some creative license with possible feelings), and Eliza for the heart of her ambitious, sometimes emotionally distant husband. (Trivia: The Schuyler sisters were wealthy Dutch socialites who attended a Reformed church, though Hamilton himself was at best a lukewarm Episcopalian.) Both are outstanding, as is Daveed Diggs as Lafayette in the first act and Thomas Jefferson in the second. His wild charisma and lightning-quick dance moves are transfixing.
Of course, the story is about Hamilton, and Miranda is excellent. This immigrant orphan from the Caribbean who became a Founding Father and the nation’s first treasury secretary was passionate to a fault (literally; it’s no spoiler that Hamilton has an affair). It’s his passion, ambition, flaws, and gifts combined that make his story spellbinding, and Miranda conveys just enough vulnerability to offset Hamilton’s scrappiness and make him human and relatable.
Directed by Thomas Kail, who directed the stage production as well as this movie, placed some 100 microphones and installed nine cameras in the Richard Rodgers Theater (per The New York Times). The movie was culled from two live productions in 2016 plus some additional footage filmed later, but appears to be seamless.
Rated PG-13 for a bit of language and raunch, things move so quickly that it’s hard to even catch those things. I, for one, was proved wrong about “Hamilton.” The filmed version was massively entertaining. Of course, there is nothing like live theater, and even this carefully cinematic treatment doesn’t quite match the magic of sharing a space with performers as they perform. But “Hamilton” comes awfully close. Longtime fans will find something new to admire, and newcomers will be enthralled. If they are anything like me, they’ll want to see it again and again, and make plans to see it live as soon as possible. (Disney+)