Back in 2016, the original Broadway cast of the gigantic smash hit Hamilton recorded one of their final performances. Hamilton was due for a theatrical release in late 2021 but, as things have changed dramatically theatrically, it was released streaming on Disney+. Unlike Les Miserables or Phantom of the Opera, this isn’t a feature film adaptation, it’s a recording of the play, capturing a moment in time and offering a better than best seat in the house of the cast that made Hamilton iconic. Does that make this technically a “movie”? Probably not, but it is an incredibly slick recording of a Broadway show that conveys the scope of the performance. Hamilton is a flashy genre bending musical that is rap, R&B, ballads and more as it flips musical conventions and bounces between hilarious, heartfelt, moving, flippant, cool and epic.
Alexander Hamilton (Lin-Manuel Miranda, who also wrote the musical) is an up and coming American revolutionary in the late 1700s standing up to the oppression of King George (Jonathan Groff). Hamilton has the help of French officer Lafayette (Daveed Diggs), General George Washington (Christopher Jackson), and his good friend Aaron Burr (Leslie Odom Jr.) to beat the English and establish the new nation of the United States of America. Settling into a somewhat shaky domestic life with his wife, Eliza (Phillipa Soo), Hamilton becomes the treasury secretary under President Washington. But the arrival of the bombastic Thomas Jefferson (Diggs, again) sends events spiraling towards a fateful duel between Hamilton and his former best buddy Burr.
Like most musicals, Hamilton is split up into two acts. Instead of putting an arbitrary break in the middle, there is a different tone to each act. The first act feels more like a “traditional” Broadway musical, all about revolutionaries and bombast sung via elaborate musical numbers with a love story side plot. The second act of Hamilton is lower key and darker. While the country is being built up, Hamilton distances himself from his wife as political rivals are jealous of his access to the President. The final musical numbers, instead of being as big as closing numbers tend to be is more somber, befitting what happens to Hamilton and also subverting the musical conventions that a show has to end loudly.
Subversion is a huge part of Hamilton’s appeal, from the colour-blind casting of historical white figures to the way it enthusiastically makes rap a part of musical theatre. The songs weave rap in and out of musical numbers, with some truly infectious songs like the straight up iconic “My Shot”. Hamilton saying that he “not going to throw away my shot” is a recurring line throughout the play, eventually hitting a truly ironic note in the fateful duel with Burr. A sad musical number called “It’s Quiet Uptown” shows the extent of the trauma Hamilton and his wife has gone through. One of the funniest songs is King George singing to the upstart Americans “You’ll Be Back” as Jackson’s performance as George is gleefully weird. There is also a great recurring bit between Hamilton and Jefferson having debates about US policy that is framed like a rap battle and featuring a truly hilarious rant by Hamilton about a treaty that was signed with a now beheaded King of France.
The original Hamilton cast is lighting in a bottle. Miranda is a nimble performer who bounces between impressive rap flows and quiet dramatic solo singing moments. Jackson as Washington adds some heft to the mentor character and there’s a very raw moment between Washington and Hamilton where Alexander snaps at Washington for calling him “son”. As Hamilton’s wife, Soo runs through a gamut of emotions as their relationship plays out. Odom Jr. as Burr goes from jovial buddy to being overtaken by his greedy inner demons. A standout is Diggs as both the French general Lafayette and Act One and the power hungry Jefferson in Act Two. Both characters are really fun to watch, especially as Jefferson arrives in Act Two having been away the entire revolution as told in his song “What’d I Miss”.
The fact that Hamilton is a recorded performance delivers a fascinating look at the complexity of the stage play. Most of it is from wide angles so one can appreciate the elaborate staging. The centre of the stage rotates throughout the show, creating some cool dance numbers and interesting images, like when a character is shot the performer stands still on the rotating stage making it look like they’re falling in slow motion. The lighting is rather striking with some nicely deep colours that reflect the mood. Since this is a stage play, the acting is rather loud as opposed to more subtle performances in movies. There were a few numbers that were performed for close ups without a crowd that is spliced into the songs, and it’s cool to see the people up closer than possible.
Hamilton captures the energy of being in the theatre with the original cast that not many people could experience. It probably doesn’t count as a “movie” however it was never intended to be. This is a time capsule of a riveting performance of a modern musical classic. Hamilton is weirdly ambitious and unlike anything the genre has done before, sending the musical genre soaring to new heights.
Director: Thomas Kail
Starring: Lin-Manuel Miranda, Phillipa Soo and Leslie Odom Jr.