Full disclosure as we enter into this review; I am an unapologetic Hamilton super-fan. Since it opened on Broadway in August 2015, Lin-Manuel Miranda’s musical has become a genuine phenomenon. My obsession with it started in around 2016 when I listened to the soundtrack for the first time. It is perhaps an odd decision in hindsight to listen to a musical before seeing it, but that wasn’t going to stop me.
As an entirely sung musical, the story of Hamilton is completely encapsulated in its music, and for years this was all I had. I listened to the soundtrack almost religiously for three solid years before I got the chance to see it on stage in London’s West End in January 2019. I had watched many YouTube clips of the songs being performed, but for the most part I had pictured in my head how it would look performed in its entirety. Needless to say when I did finally see it on the stage, I cried the entire way through the performance, so overwhelmed by the fact I was finally seeing my favourite thing in the world happening in front of my eyes.
I imagine that for many, the chance to now see Hamilton (or Hamilfilm as it has been called) on Disney+ will be a very similar experience. The stage show is still one of the hottest, and most difficult to acquire, tickets in town, and of course with the current pandemic, live stage shows are very much on hold. Whether you’ve obsessed over the soundtrack and this is your first time seeing it, whether you’ve seen it on the stage and you’re now revisiting, or whether this is the first time you have ever listened to or watched it, there is no denying that Hamilton is an unforgettable event.
A recorded version of the stage play might not seem like it would make the most compelling screen experience, but there has always been something distinctly cinematic about the staging and execution of Hamilton and it translates much better than you would think. The scope of the show is absolutely huge, and at a meaty 2 hours and 40 minutes, there is so much to digest.
What is so unique about watching the show in this way is the chance to truly appreciate the smaller moments and the incredible acting, something that can quite often be lost in the grand spectacle of seeing something being performed on the stage. Whilst many talented actors have played these characters over the last five years, there is something so magical about seeing the original Broadway cast in the roles that they made their own. They provided the blueprint for everyone else that would subsequently step into their shoes after all. For me personally, having listened to the soundtrack so much over the last four years or so, these are the voices that I know and associate with Hamilton. I never had the chance to see them perform, aside from the clips available online, and I never thought I would get this chance. Experiencing Hamilton in this way has reignited my love for it, a flame that has never stopped burning, but is honestly now stronger than ever.
There isn’t a single weak link in the incredibly talented cast, but there’s definitely some stand-outs. Phillipa Soo as Eliza Hamilton provides the emotional heart of the film with “Burn” remaining one of the most beautiful and melancholic moments of the entire show. The scream she lets out at the end of “Stay Alive (Reprise)” is so guttural that it will truly shake you to your core, and finally the fourth wall break at the very end of “Who Lives, Who Dies, Who Tells Your Story” is one of the most magical and wonderful moments in any show, past, present or future. Daveed Diggs as Marquis de Lafayette/Thomas Jefferson makes a strong case for the scene-stealer of the whole damn thing, providing so many of the best lines and comedic moments plus an unwavering energy that is completely captivating. However, competition comes in the form of Jonathan Groff’s King George III. A truly monstrous creation, the unblinking mania of Groff as he delivers the lines with venom, actual spit, and a smile is completely iconic. He is a character that steals the show before he utters a single word and immediately gets the audience laughing with just a single look.
The set and production design of Hamilton is simple on first glance, the backdrops unchanging with some sparingly-used moving staircases, and a revolving portion of the stage which is frequently utilised to stunning effect. It is almost impossible to pick a favourite number of set-piece, but there’s undoubtedly some highlights worth noting. The double-header of “Helpless” and “Satisfied” remains one of the most flawlessly executed things I’ve ever seen. A perspective shift is a difficult thing to pull off on film, let alone in a stage show, but the ‘rewind’ technique used here is incredible and completely changes the story from this point on. I have to take a moment here to mention Renée Elise Goldsberry as Angelica Schuyler who completely slays “Satisfied”, and with the emotion behind her performance, it isn’t hard to see why she is many fans’ favourite character.
Perhaps not the first moment people remember, but I have always loved and appreciated the quiet subtlety of “Dear Theodosia”, and it is in this moment that we see a completely different side to Leslie Odom Jr.’s Aaron Burr, who is almost immediately established as the “villain” of the piece, and is Hamilton’s recurring adversary. However, in this song, they are just two father’s bonding over love for their children, and it’s beautiful.
Hamilton is a film which wears its hip-hop influences on its sleeve, and nowhere is this more evident than in the “Cabinet Battle” numbers. Framing political debate as a rap-battle is perhaps the best example of what this musical is doing as a whole. The marriage of these two things probably seems like the least likely thing in the world to work, but yet due to the genius of Lin-Manuel Miranda, it is somehow the most natural thing in the world.
Of course it would be remiss to have this entire review without any mention of Miranda, and whilst his performance as Hamilton is undoubtedly incredible, this moment has to be taken to mention the music and lyrics of this show. There is a natural flow to Hamilton that you simply just don’t see in other musicals. Every single word is sung or rapped, so the songs have to do so much of the heavy lifting, responsible for story-telling whilst at the same time being memorable enough to last outside of the stage show. Fortunately, this is something that Miranda executes effortlessly. It’s an often employed musical theatre trick to use repeating refrains, melodies and phrases, and the way these moments reoccur at different points throughout creates a natural and easy flow.
Hamilton employs clever literal, musical, and historical references and ties them up in a show-stopping package. A show that is as much about the characters as it is about the music, the staging, the production, and everything else. It is truly unique and a start-to-finish breathtaking experience, which in my opinion is completely unparalleled.
My first (of many, let’s face it!) watches on Disney+ brought back all of the reasons why I love this show so much, and now we have it on demand and at our fingertips, which is quite frankly a gift we don’t deserve but one we absolutely need. Hamilton is timely, and timeless, and at a time when the arts are suffering and temporarily paused due to the current situation, there is no better time to be reminded of the thrilling spectacle of seeing a show such as this on the stage, or for now, the screen. I could use all the superlatives in the world for this show, but I will simply end it with one; unforgettable!
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Directed by: Thomas Kail
Written by: Lin-Manuel Miranda
Cast: Lin-Manuel Miranda. Daveed Diggs, Phillipa Soo, Leslie Odom Jr., Jonathan Groff, Jasmine Cephas Jones.