Lin-Manuel Miranda’s “Hamilton” has become so ubiquitous since it debuted on Broadway in 2015 that it can be easy to forget that the average American has never seen the thing.
And after all the glowing reviews and Tony wins and references in every bit of pop culture from “Knives Out” to “The Simpsons,” the uninitiated like me had to wonder: Is it really all that?
Like most of you, I am seeing “Hamilton” for the first time this weekend courtesy of the lovely new filmed version of the play on Disney+, and I finally have the chance to put all those songs and lines I’ve heard over the past five years into context. And, yeah, it’s all that.
It might not be good enough to merit $1,150 for a ticket on Broadway – Miranda doesn’t so much reinvent the stage musical as give it an energetic, ethnically diverse and wickedly funny new coat of paint. But it is more than good enough to merit a subscription to Disney+ if you don’t have one already.
“Hamilton” stands among the best original films on the streamer, and it is one of the highlights of a summer in which this sort of energetic and smart entertainment has been missing from movie theaters and the Great White Way.
Recorded over a couple days during the show’s heyday in 2016, “Hamilton” gives us the show at its peak before the many Tony-winners in its cast – among them Miranda as Hamilton, Daveed Diggs as Thomas Jefferson and Leslie Odom Jr. as Aaron Burr- moved onto bigger projects.
Needless to say, these actors became famous in these roles for a reason – they bring a fierce energy to every scene, cruising through their quick-witted rap banter with ease.
Miranda makes for a compellingly flawed founding father, and Odom matches him nicely as his longtime political rival -and eventual murderer- Aaron Burr. Diggs’ Jefferson is so energetic and playful that he threatens to steal the whole picture.
He probably would, if it wasn’t for Jonathan Groff (of “Frozen” and “Glee”) as the delightfully foppish King George, whose breakup anthem “You’ll Be Back” is a comedic highlight. There’s probably no reason from a story standpoint that the King needed to be a recurring player in “Hamilton,” but Groff is funny enough every time he shows up that it’s easily forgivable.
The songs are clever and energetic and pack a whole film’s worth of exposition into a few lyrics. The story is always moving and introducing new characters and plot points, which allows the nearly three-hour runtime (including a brief one-minute intermission) to fly by.
Director Thomas Kail, who also directed the stage production, never betrays the show’s stage roots in order to create something more cinematic. Instead, he luxuriates in the choreography, sets and costumes that made the stage show so popular. The closest he gets to making Hamilton “movie-like” are in his close-ups of the cast – getting much closer, it must be said, than you’re likely to get on Broadway.
This is the sort of modest filmed play that is normally the province of PBS’ “Great Performances” and Fathom Events, but the energy, performances and music of “Hamilton” (rated PG-13 for language and suggestive material) lift it above the competition with ease.
Thanks to the good folks at Disney+, this world-class musical will get the worldwide stage it deserves. Be sure you don’t throw away your shot to see it.
About the author
Stephen Dow is an award-winning journalist with a passion for film – not just consuming it, but thoughtfully and actively engaging with it. He believes that these modern myths have a lot to tell us about our world and ourselves. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.