By ALAN SMASON
As the seconds ticked by to display a 2:00 a.m. CDT time on the computer, it was easy for me to imagine the sounds of a million click booms on TV remotes across the nation. The date was July 3, 2020, a full year before the previously announced release date of Hamilton: An American Musical in movie theaters nationwide.
In 2016, as the phenomenon of Hamilton was raising the fortunes of New York area ticket scalpers, two things were running out: the patience of Broadway lovers who were looking to see the show and the contracts of the originators of the roles in that production. Already, in April, Rory O’Malley had taken over the scene-stealing role of King George III, formerly played by Jonathan Groff, who had accepted a role in a Netflix TV series.
With the near-record haul of 11 Tony Awards complete, Lin-Manuel Miranda was ready to clip his famous pony tail and to don a Cockney accent for his role as Jack the Lamplighter in “Mary Poppins Returns.” Time, as in the case of the real life Alexander Hamilton in 1804, was running out.
Miranda and his magical cast members agreed to freeze a portion of time and, unlike few other Broadway hits, forever commit to the film arts their groundbreaking performances over a three-day shoot in late June.
Two of the days – Sunday and Tuesday – were filmed before a live audience with nine cameras and more than 100 microphones by RadicalMedia, a company producer Jeffery Seller had first worked with while “live capturing” his previous blockbuster revival of Rent. The non-audience Monday shoot was used for additional dolly shots, reaction shots and close-ups with cameras positioned in the audience.
By directing the film as a live capture shoot, Broadway director Thomas Kail maintained the integrity of the brilliant Tony Award-winning orchestrations of Alex Lacamoire, the superb Tony Award-winning scenic design of David Korins and the innovative Tony Award-winning choreography of Andy Blankenbuehler.
While not required to do so in the least, Rory O’Malley valiantly and gracefully relinquished his role for the film so that Groff could magically reunite with his former cast members.
Once finished and distributed, this move would solidify the financial well-being of the cast and creative staff plus give future generations the opportunity to witness the phenomenon fresh for themselves with eyes filled with wonder and ears pounding with awe.
But in the interim, the current novel coronavirus pandemic arose. Creator Miranda and the producing team led by Seller determined that worldwide audiences sequestered in their homes were starving for entertainment. Waiting might not be an option.
According to leading surveys of audience members, it would be some time before movie goers would feel safe and theaters would, once again, be operating at maximum capacity. Cash-strapped original cast actors and creative team members – all out of work – could certainly benefit from a big payout at this juncture.
So, dangling one of the hottest properties in front of the major digital streaming services, they struck pay dirt instead with a whopping $75 million agreement to upload the revolutionary musical set in Revolutionary War times over the Disney+ streaming platform. According to inside industry media, it was the largest disbursement ever for a finished film.
It turns out, though, it wasn’t much of a gamble. Hamilton has maintained near fever level pitch in interest after it transferred from the Public Theatre and opened on Broadway at the Richard Rodgers Theatre in July of 2015. It has enjoyed several extended runs in Chicago, Los Angeles and San Francisco as well as in worldwide cities like London. It has had various, simultaneous national road tours criss-crossing the U.S. and playing to packed houses everywhere.
Knowing all of this made a subscription to Disney+ a necessity not just for me, but for nearly a half million new subscribers. Disney+ showed an increase of more than 70% over the course of the previous four weekends, making the huge payout to Miranda, Seller and company a wise investment.
Director Kail first added some unusual fireworks in the Disney opening that leads to the darkened stage and humorous pre-show announcements by an unseen Groff, as “your king.” He humorously advises the audience to silence their cell phones before inviting them to “Enjoy my show.”
Then, out of the darkness comes the lone figure of Leslie Odom, Jr., in the role of Aaron Burr. Moving in a straight line, he methodically launches into the opening song, “Alexander Hamilton” with the refrain:
How does a bastard, orphan, son of a whore
And a Scotsman, dropped in the middle of a forgotten spot
In the Caribbean by Providence impoverished
In squalor, grow up to be a hero and a scholar?
From there the rhyming scheme only intensifies as Anthony Ramos as John Laurens, Daveed Diggs as the Marquis de Lafayette and Okieriete Onaodowan as Hercules Mulligan make their entrances in similar costumes of the day. Female stars Renee Elise Goldsberry, Phillipa Soo and Jasmine Cephas Jones, likewise, enter in attractive long dresses with tight-fitting bodices as Angelica, Eliza and Peggy Schuyler, respectively, as Blankenbuehler’s choreography becomes an integral part of the storyline.
The opening number also establishes the important respect George Washington (Christopher Jackson) has for the “immigrant coming up from the bottom” who would become his “right hand man.”
This was the first rap of the “Hamilton Mix Tape” that Miranda created for public consumption and he revealed it at a White House command performance before President and Mrs. Barack Obama. In many ways it is a microcosm that portends what will enfold over the course of the two and a half hours that follow it. Within in he literally sets the stage for the antagonism with his political rival Burr that will prove his undoing in Burr’s final declaration (“I’m the damn fool that shot him!”), the strong feelings of love he engendered within the Schulyer family and the passionate dedication from his historic colleagues like Laurens, Lafayette and Mulligan.
The opening number also establishes an important credo for Miranda, which is that America has always been built by the industry and commitment of the immigrants who embraced it as their new homeland. Here the phrase “another immigrant comin’ up from the bottom” embodies that philosophy while later in “Yorktown (The World Turned Upside Down),” both Lafayette and Hamilton celebrate their status on the field of war with “Immigrants, we get the job done!”
While some have decried the use of rap music and hip hop terminology within a Broadway vehicle, Miranda’s previous 2008 Tony Award-winning Best Musical, In the Heights, did much more to solidify its base than Hamilton ever did.
What Miranda does do with Hamilton, though, is push the borders of his rapid-fire rhyming scheme with his own notable performances in “My Shot” as well as those of Diggs as Lafayette in “Guns and Ships” and Goldsberry as Angelica Schulyer in “Satisfied.” With more than 20,500 words in its libretto, Hamilton logs 144 words in one minute on average. A special consideration is given to Diggs, who was able to articulate 19 words in just three seconds, an astounding feat by any stretch of the imagination.
But anyone who loves Broadway will recognize many different styles embodied in this work. There are pieces that incorporate jazz stylings such as Act II’s opener “What’d I Miss?” by Diggs as Lafayette and rhythm and blues in “Say No To This.”
King George’s recurrent theme is a shoutout to the Beatles, echoing similar refrains found in “All You Need is Love” and “Hey Jude.” Miranda claims he was inspired to write that ditty on his honeymoon, which some have ironically labeled as a break-up song.
Then, there are the tender, heartbreaking ballads found in selections like “Burn,” in which Eliza copes with her husband’s public infidelity and betrayal and “It’s Quiet Uptown,” which rings of inconsolable loss and, eventually, an unexpected redemption of Hamilton’s soul.
This is not a rap musical. It is a musical that unashamedly advances rap into the musical lexicon. It is neither apologetic nor indignant in its application of modern musical culture into a story that deals with history in an entirely unexpected and brave fashion.
Having people of color specifically represent the Founding Fathers could be perceived by some as disrespectful of history. Miranda’s retelling of America’s early 18th century history with black and brown actors on stage does something for 21st century America. It makes history relatable and of consequence to segments of American society who are currently engaged with protests and advocacy for change.
Yes, Washington, Jefferson, Madison and Hamilton owned slaves. It is historical fact.
Hamilton doesn’t deny their collective guilt in the system that Jefferson once acknowledged as “an assemblage of horrors” nor does Miranda point out that Washington, who struggled with the abhorrent practice, freed his slaves upon his death.
Jackson’s powerful rendition of “Right Hand Man” is only one example of his importance to the narrative of Hamilton. His poignant performance in “One Last Time” is a true highlight of the work.
As portrayed by Ramos, John Laurens is used as a specific device to register the beginnings of the antislavery movement. He elucidates in “My Shot”: “We will never be truly free until those in bondage have the rights of you and me.” The disposition of his character, not included in the original cast recording, is at the very least a tacit acknowledgment by Miranda that the issue of slavery was not going to disappear.
These figures were passionate men born into unreasonable times. Hamilton does not attempt to make excuses for their actions nor to apologize for their failures. What Miranda does is to imbue these starchy, distant white historical figures with legitimate feelings and foibles that both urban and rural youth can understand and appreciate. Older Americans might take exception to the manner in which they are portrayed, but cannot deny their vibrancy and approachability.
As Burr, Odom, Jr. is a masterful narrator who shines in the plaintive and simple ballad of “Dear Theodosia” and is best defined in Act I’s “Wait for It,” a piece in which he alternately explodes and inexplicably holds back. The friction that has been building between Burr and Hamilton again rears its head in “Non-Stop,” a song that highlights their differences in politics and in how they approach life.
Before his ultimate battle with Hamilton on the dueling field, there is Burr’s powerful rendition of “The Room Where It Happens,” where he bemoans being left outside of the important decisions of history. While he rages against the system, there comes a time late in the song where he jumps upon the table at which Jefferson, Madison and Hamilton were formerly sitting. Odom, Jr. leaps into the air as he sings out and the covering is whisked away, revealing a brilliant mirror reflecting however briefly upon him.
Likewise, Lacamoire’s orchestration in that song is particularly brilliant, employing the use of the banjo, an early American instrument that musicologists have traced back to Africa and commonly associated with folk and country music.
Korins’ simple set design that features wood and ropes is an homage to the shipbuilding times of the era as well as to an earlier Broadway classic, which had an enormous influence on Miranda, Les Miserábles. “The Story of Tonight,” which is reprised during Act I has an uncanny familiarity with the strains of “Drink With Me” and “Empty Chairs at Empty Tables.”
Imitation is, indeed, the sincerest form of flattery, but like Les Miserábles, Hamilton leads in more ways than it follows.
Perhaps the most telling of these aspects is especially evident in Blankenbuehler’s inventive and creative choreography incorporating dance moves that recreate suicide, murder and defiance. Unlike Burr, who moves in straight lines, Hamilton moves in whatever direction he needs to, a nod to his ability to compromise when necessary. Blankenbuehler carried out his designs with the assistance of his associate choreographer, the noteworthy Stephanie Klemmons.
Like Les Miserábles, turntables are used to great effect with the actions of multiple characters in selections like “The Schulyer Sisters” and “Non-Stop.” But specific dance sequences that emulate battle are also quite effective in pieces like “Right Hand Man” and “Yorktown (The World Turned Upside Down),” the latter of which incorporates break dancing along with powerful, more traditional balletic moves.
Howard Binkley’s Tony Award-winning lighting design works seamlessly with Lacamoire’s arrangements and Blankenbuehler’s synchronized movement. Binkley recreates the height of battles with creativeity and even manages to turn in a laugh during King George’s “What Comes Next” with a specific reference to being “blue” that comes right on cue.
While nothing can truly capture the connection made inside a darkened theater to that of what is played out on stage, this production does capture more than most. Kail’s close-ups and frenetic editing keeps the action moving along and enhances what might have been a commonplace shoot of an extraordinary show.
The fact that we can all enjoy seeing this Pulitzer Prize winning original cast of Hamilton for the very real bargain of $6.99 per month on Disney+ is nothing short of a modern miracle and may be one of the only good things that may have come out of this pandemic.
As I watch this piece over and over during this challenging time, I cannot help but reflect on that one perfect phrase from this near-perfect show: “How lucky we are to be alive right now.”
(Hamilon: An American Musical is available as part of the offerings now on the Disney+ streaming service.)