First, the confession: Before watching the film of the Broadway show now streaming on Disney+, I had never seen Hamilton. I had added the cast recording to my iTunes library, where it languished after one perfunctory listen. It’s not that I don’t like musicals. On the contrary, I’m much more into musicals than most middle-aged white guys; I’d much rather go to a musical than a football game. I would have loved to have seen Hamilton live on Broadway, but the truth is I was too broke to afford a pair of $500 tickets. When the touring company came to the Orpheum, I came up empty in the press pass lottery.
Maybe I could have scraped together the dough, but I wasn’t motivated to, because as a passionate student of American history, I’ve never been a big fan of Alexander Hamilton. The founder of the country’s first central bank and probable closeted royalist has always come across as an ambitious schemer to me, even as I generously quoted Publius, the pen name he used while writing the bulk of the Federalist Papers. For me, Hamilton has always represented those who love America more for its capitalism than for its democracy. The penniless immigrant from the Caribbean turned self-made statesman was ripe for a reputation renovation, but it was his status as proto-capitalist that allowed Hamilton the musical to see the light of day. If you don’t believe that’s true, let me tell you about my thwarted plans for an epic musical biography of five-time socialist presidential candidate Eugene V. Debs. “Wall Street thinks you’re great,” sings Aaron Burr (Leslie Odom Jr.). “You’ll always be adored by the things you create.”
Lin-Manuel Miranda as Alexander Hamilton and Phillipa Soo as Eliza Hamilton
But it is Hamilton’s moral ambiguity that makes him such a rich character in the hands of Lin-Manuel Miranda. There’s a lot of sappy, second-rate musical theater, which hits big on the strength of melody and sentiment. (Andrew Lloyd Webber, I’m looking at you.) Hamilton is the opposite. Part of Broadway’s cultural function has traditionally been to assimilate different popular music traditions, and Hamilton’s integration of hip-hop with show tunes is the perfect example. Miranda uses the lyrical density to weave a decade-spanning story of wartime heroism, political intrigue, and personal ambition. Rap cyphers turn out to be the ideal format to dramatize George Washington’s confrontational cabinet meetings.
Manuel’s music and story sit among the greatest of Broadway history. It’s easy to craft inspirational songs about revolutionary fervor — just look at Les Misérables. But creating a song about the ugly political wrangling that comes after a successful revolution is something else entirely. The first act of Hamilton is filled with bangers like “History Has Its Eye on You,” but the depth of Manuel’s genius is revealed in the second act’s “The Room Where It Happens.” Sung by Burr, the story’s heel (and a right bastard in real life), it’s a show-stopper about the creation of a national banking system and the geographical placement of Washington, D.C. Who even knew such a thing was possible?
(left) Leslie Odom Jr. as Aaron Burr
Now, the prediction. In a few years, once we’ve fought COVID-19 to a draw and film production can resume, The House of Mouse is going to drop $100 million to make a blockbuster version of Hamilton. They’ll film in Independence Hall (the room where it happened) and “Guns and Ships” will be staged at a lavishly recreated Battle of Yorktown. But it won’t have a tenth of the power of the version that just dropped on Disney+.
Thomas Kail, who directed both the Broadway musical and the film, uses techniques pioneered by Jonathan Demme in Stop Making Sense, cutting together footage captured over three nights of shows at the Richard Rogers Theatre in June 2016. The original cast had been the toast of the town for a year at that point, and the show had just set records at the Tonys and was about to take home a Pulitzer. From the first close-up of Miranda as Hamilton, backed by a chorus singing “What’s your name, man?,” it’s clear that these performers are on fire. Tony winner Renée Elise Goldsberry as Hamilton’s sister-in-law Angelica, roars onto the stage for her introduction in “The Schuyler Sisters.” Christopher Jackson as George Washington visibly chokes back sobs when the crowd leaps to their feet for “One Last Time.” After the duel that claims Hamilton’s life, the fires of victory turn to ashes in the mouth of Odom as Burr. No soundstage-bound film will ever match the blood-and-guts heroism of these glorious humans facing a full house on a Friday night.
Renée Elise Goldsberry (center) as Angelica Schuyler
Hamilton bowed on Broadway in August 2015, three months after the decade’s other towering masterpiece, Mad Max: Fury Road, hit movie theaters, and only a few weeks after Donald Trump announced his presidential campaign. Like Fury Road, the cascading catastrophes that began in 2016 have deepened Hamilton’s meaning. For all the flaws of the Founding Fathers — and they had many — their experiment in government by the people, for the people has endured and brought hope to the world. Hamilton lived at a moment when the old order was breaking down and an opportunity for a new, more just alignment of power became possible. 2020 now looks like one of those times. In Hamilton’s day, the young Republic was threatened by the personal ambitions of powerful men. So, too, is it in our day. In Manuel’s telling, Hamilton’s ambition is both his driving force and tragic flaw. Nevertheless, he recognized the dangers of a president driven only by the will to power when he swallowed his pride and endorsed his longtime rival in 1800. “When all is said and done/Jefferson has beliefs/Burr has none.”