The Hamilton musical is a bona fide cultural phenomenon. Why the Hamilton film feels even more zeitgeisty
The Hamilton film, as creator Lin-Manuel Miranda points out, is “a reminder, when live theatre isn't going to be back for a long time, of just how vital live theatre can be”.
In a 30-minute Zoom session with the cast that is available to stream alongside Hamilton on Disney + Hotstar, Lin-Manuel Miranda — lyricist, composer, producer and the actor portraying the titular character — notes that more people will watch this filmed version of his path-breaking play in the weekend since its release than the combined audiences who have watched it performed live over the past five years of its existence.
The coronavirus crisis is to thank for Hamilton — the winner of several Drama Desk and Tony awards, and the 2016 Pulitzer Prize for Drama — coming to our screens a year earlier than scheduled. Originally, the Hamilton film was meant to have a theatrical release in 2021, and it would have eventually made its way to Disney + as well. But as one big budget film after another has seen its release date postponed, and with no clear timeframe for when audiences are likely to troop back into theatres, Hamilton has avoided the limbo to which other movies are consigned.
The Hamilton film is a recorded version of the cast's June 2016 performance at the Richard Rodgers Theatre in New York. This sets it apart from movie adaptations of famous musicals. And of course, there have been film screenings of prestigious stage productions before: for instance, the Royal National Theatre's National Theatre Live initiative has been going strong since 2009, and several productions at Shakespeare's Globe Theatre have been filmed in high definition (to name just two).
But Hamilton is an unparalleled cultural phenomenon; its sizeable and exceedingly devoted following even has a name: “Hamilfans”. The movie itself is a top-notch production, bringing all of Hamilton's glory up close to a global audience, giving them a view they would never have had even if they’d managed to procure — as actor Christopher Jackson, who plays George Washington, jokes, “by borrowing from their 401k plan or giving up on a family holiday” — one of its super rare tickets.
Hamilton is Miranda’s interpretation of Ron Chernow’s biography of one of America's founding fathers, Alexander Hamilton. Through Hamilton’s story — an upstart orphan immigrant whose only advantage is his stupendous intellect — Miranda traces the story of the American Revolution and subsequent years. Hamilton’s role in the American War of Independence and in setting up the mechanisms of the new nation — its Constitution and financial system — alongside other personalities like George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and Hamilton’s nemesis Aaron Burr, are narrated through a hip-hop soundtrack and choreography that are intricate, effortless and unforgettable.
The pandemic that spurred its early release aside, Hamilton couldn’t have had its streaming release at a better time.
Take for instance these verses from the musical’s most iconic number, “My Shot”, which seem almost to have been written with the Black Lives Matter protests in mind —
Scratch that, this is not a moment, it's the movement
Where all the hungriest brothers with something to prove went?
Foes oppose us, we take an honest stand
We roll like Moses, claimin' our promised land
And? If we win our independence?
'Zat a guarantee of freedom for our descendants?
Or will the blood we shed begin an endless cycle of vengeance and death with no defendants?
I know the action in the street is excitin'
But Jesus, between all the bleedin' 'n fightin'
I've been readin' 'n writin'
We need to handle our financial situation
Are we a nation of states? What's the state of our nation?
I'm past patiently waitin' I'm passionately smashin' every expectation
Every action's an act of creation
I'm laughin' in the face of casualties and sorrow
For the first time, I'm thinkin' past tomorrow.
In the Zoom session with the cast, Miranda is asked by journalist Kelley Carter to comment on how relevant Hamilton’s themes feel in this moment, and he responds: “In terms of the conversations the world is having and in particular the United States is having about systemic racism that has been there since our founding, to have this story that brushes up against our founding is really interesting.”
Miranda also notes that he was asked (elsewhere) how the play has changed from the Obama era to the Trump presidency, to which his answer is that “it hasn't changed at all”. “If there's anything really political about the show, it's that the fights and paradoxes that were present at the time of [America’s] founding, they still exist. There’s the original sin of slavery. [Then the fact that] nearly everyone who dies in our show, with the exception of George Washington, dies due to gun violence,” Miranda adds.
Nevertheless, he admits that Hamilton does “hit differently” in these times, and nowhere is it more evident than when Diggs and Miranda (in their roles as Monsieur Lafayette and Alexander Hamilton, respectively) declare “Immigrants. We get the job done” to the audience’s rousing cheers in “Yorktown (The World Turned Upside Down)”. “People finding the language of revolution in this other revolution, that’s been heartening,” Miranda notes.
There’s a reason Hamilton's lyrics have been showing up in Black Lives Matter protests across the US: There's the same sense of a nation being built, its people fighting to be counted, a discussion of the values that will form its foundation. It’s pertinent to note here that for all the acclaim Hamilton has received for its diverse cast, it has garnered some criticism as well, mainly from historians who felt the musical overlooked many of Alexander Hamilton’s worst aspects, and also from the influential poet Ishmael Reed, who felt Black actors portraying slave owners (as many of America’s founding fathers were) was akin to Jewish actors playing Nazi officers. (Reed even staged his critique in the form of a play, The Haunting of Lin-Manuel Miranda, which was reportedly backed by Nobel laureate Toni Morrison.)
These flaws notwithstanding, what is undeniable is that having the story of America’s founding set to hip-hop — a genre with its origins among the slaves whose labour built the nation — has an import. Equally monumental is imagery such as the one from songs like “The Story of Tonight”, in which Miranda is flanked by actors Diggs, Anthony Ramos (playing John Laurens), Okieriete Onaodowan (portraying Hercules Mulligan), all of them “rais[ing] a glass to freedom”. And viewers all over the world are able to experience this due to the Hamilton film.
The earliest television programmes borrowed heavily from the New York stage tradition. They were filmed with studio audiences because actors were used to performing for a crowd and receiving feedback. Later, the practice of using canned laughter (or other recorded audience responses) in TV shows was meant to make watching them — even in the space of your own living room — a communal experience. As television productions grew more sophisticated, they dropped the live audience and pre-recorded feedback.
The filmed version of Hamilton brings this tradition, in a sense, full circle. Hearing the whoops of appreciation, laughter, and thunderous applause as the cast performs feels cathartic, as though you’re linked to the viewers present at the actual performance and your own emotions are being validated. The moment where Diggs reappears on stage in his second character, Thomas Jefferson, and gets a reception befitting a rock star, which he then plays off, is a case in point. Or the titters when Jonathan Groff, who plays King George III, twitches his ermine-clad shoulders in a dance to go along with his tantrum, “You’ll Be Back”. Or the response to Renée Elise Goldsberry’s powerhouse rendition of “Satisfied”, or Phillipa Soo bringing the figurative curtains down with “Who Lives, Who Dies, Who Tells Your Story”, or Christopher Jackson’s big farewell as George Washington in “One Last Time”.
In these times, more than ever, we need experiences — like Hamilton — that bind us. That unite rather than divide, that hold out the possibility of hope rather than of despair. The Hamilton movie’s success could be a cue to other musical productions to make filmed versions available. And in a world shaped by the pandemic, this may even be the only way forward for a while yet.
“One of the things we wanted to do with this film is capture our love of theatre and one of the best ways to do this is to capture it in the envelope in which it was presented,” Hamilton director Thomas Kail says in the roundtable session with Kelley Carter. “When the pandemic hit, there were no live performances, no Broadway, no touring, [but] there was an opportunity.” Kail further observes that “theatre’s too expensive, and you can only fit so many people in a theatre” so something like the Hamilton film can give millions of more people access.
As other commentators have noted, theatre may have begun as entertainment for the masses, but its hallowed grounds — Broadway, West End — are beyond the means of many. An initiative such as this democratises the art form; it’s fitting that Hamilton should lead the fray.
Making film versions of musicals and other theatrical productions available isn’t going to subtract in any way from the audiences who want to watch them live. Screenings such these are bound to make some of us even keener on attending live performances. The Hamilton film, as Miranda points out, is “a reminder, when live theatre isn't going to be back for a long time, of just how vital live theatre can be”.
I for one, am definitely hoping one day, when the world turns right side up, to be in the room where it happens.
The Hamilton film is currently streaming on Disney + Hotstar.
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