‘Hamilton’ on Disney Plus Captures the Groundbreaking Musical’s Vibrant and Eloquent Vision of the American Revolution
In these rapidly changing and tumultuous times, there is a sense of joy that Disney has decided to release a filmed edition of “Hamilton,” not as an adaptation but as a capturing of the original stage musical. The crowning achievement of Lin-Manuel Miranda can now be forever enjoyed in all its energy, splendor and romanticism. “Hamilton” broke new ground as a telling of the American Revolution through the cultural sounds of modern America, borrowing heavily from hip-hop, and mixing in R&B, soul, and pop to humanize the story of a few of the Founding Fathers, while grasping onto the ideal of the American Dream. All of that is here in the way hundreds of thousands have experienced it on stage.
Of course, this is not the equivalent of a mere recording of a performance. Director Thomas Kail has slipped between the worlds of film and stage, helming 2016’s “Grease Live!” and the acclaimed 2019 limited series “Fosse/Verdon.” Using six cameras Kail brings “Hamilton” to life by beautifully framing its moments and using editing to convey its intensity. The musical is so well known there’s almost no point in recounting the plot. But for the few unaware, it is set in 1776 as Alexander Hamilton (Miranda) leaves his home island of Nevis for New York. There is talk of rebellion against the colonies’ British overlords and Hamilton soon strikes up friendships with figures like French agitator Marquis de Lafayette (Daveed Diggs) and fellow student of the law Aaron Burr (Leslie Odom Jr.). Hamilton also falls in love with one of the locally popular (and very wealthy) Schuyler sisters, Eliza (Phillipa Soo). The two marry which strikes a blow to Eliza’s sister Angelica (Renée Elise Goldsberry), who secretly loves Hamilton. Romance is put aside when revolution breaks out and Hamilton and Burr are soon jostling for influence in the army led by George Washington (Christopher Jackson). But defeating the British is only the beginning of a long saga that will take Hamilton and Burr through the founding of the United States, the establishment of its system of government and personal furies that will lead them to a final, bloody confrontation.
Captured by Kail’s frenetic cameras, “Hamilton” emerges as the best kind of pop history. Miranda’s conception of the musical casts Latinx and black Americans in the roles of the country’s prime founders. Everyone knows the real Hamilton and Burr, Thomas Jefferson (Diggs) and James Madison (Okieriete Onaodowan) were white (and owned slaves). But by casting the show as he does, Miranda achieves the powerful effect of reminding audiences that the American Revolution is part of the legacy of everyone living on the continent. Song lyrics emphasize Hamilton was himself an immigrant. He is forever the outsider in this version of history, first looked down on for being poor, then dismissed by rising stars like Jefferson for his economic proposals while heading Washington’s Treasury Department. Miranda’s vision never becomes too iconoclastic. Jefferson is a political wheeler dealer and George Washington is a little too heroic (for a guy who never won a single battle), but they remain towering American titans. Christopher Jackson’s Washington would fit perfectly in any romanticized war movie, giving orders and never making a mistake. Unlike something in the style of Gore Vidal’s “Burr,” the Founding Fathers in “Hamilton” are rarely satirized or looked at cynically. Miranda has fun with them, he never attacks. Jefferson represents the elitist South, and after fighting Hamilton wins his support against Burr while running for president. But per the dialogue it isn’t because politics is a cutthroat game, but because Hamilton firmly believes Jefferson has vision while Burr has none. Of course maybe that is how it all happened. The more politically intriguing parts have to do with Hamilton and Jefferson debating a more centralized government versus more independence for the states, meaning Jefferson hates Hamilton’s idea of a central bank/treasury for the newborn republic. Hamilton does call out Jefferson for owning slaves, the real backbone of the country’s growing industries. It is reported that Disney asked Miranda to drop a few F bombs from the lyrics. They are not too missed because the more important content is intact.
Political sobriety aside, “Hamilton” deserves to be celebrated for its very design and spirit, its celebration of revolutionary values from a time of immense change. As filmed by Kail it is an exhilarating experience. The set is a baroque design with brick walls and scaffolds that seem lit by candlelight, its stage surface spin as two opponents engage in an old-fashioned duel. All the great numbers are here with history re-told through urban sounds and language like the revolutionary anthems “My Shot” and “Yorktown (The World Turned Upside Down),” where actors brilliantly dance as battling forces with muskets aimed. Lafayette throws some rapid, blistering rhymes for “Guns and Ships.” Jonathan Groff is a devilish delight as a scoffing, confused King George who cannot comprehend why the American colonies would ever want to run themselves, or why presidents don’t stay in office forever. He hums along with a creepily twisted smile. Hamilton and Jefferson also engage in rap battles when debating whether to send aid to France when its own revolution erupts. Look at the way the actors evoke the slow motion swirl of being trapped in tempest for “Hurricane,” or how someone “grabs” a bullet in midair during a duel.
If “Hamilton” were merely a sung historical lesson it would not be great drama however. This is a musical with a heart and some of its most powerful moments are the human ones, as when Burr sings to his daughter on the eve of revolution in “Dear Theodosia,” or Angelica expressing the heartbreak of loving a man she can never have in “Satisfied.” When Eliza discovers Hamilton has been unfaithful Phillipa Soo’s voice in “Burn” conjures pure angst, and when she burns her husband’s letters we feel every bit of disappointed helplessness. The restless Hamilton, never happy and writing like there’s no tomorrow begins to see the uncertainty of post-revolutionary chaos manifest itself in his personal life when his private life becomes the subject of slander, and his own son Philip (Anthony Ramos) pays a price. Per this musical, which is how official history has always presented it, Hamilton and Burr were good friends but Burr was more driven by ambition than ideals. In “The Room Where It Happens” he pouts over not being allowed into the halls of power, and when Hamilton refuses to endorse him for president a duel of articles ensues that culminates in a real duel of guns. If you know your history you know how it ends. Miranda does add deeper nuances, wondering if Hamilton might not have been a victim of ego as well.
“Hamilton” as a filmed experience remains a vibrant American musical celebrating the iconography and personalities behind that fateful uprising of 1776. Luckily, Disney has decided to release it through its Disney Plus streaming service, so countless viewers can enjoy it as they wonder at home about the political and social uncertainties of our own time. With its combination of great music and unforgettable choreography, “Hamilton” reminds us that there are moments where history becomes a great storm which can easily sweep us away.
“Hamilton” premieres July 3 on Disney+.