At last, some good news! The highly anticipated filmed recording of Hamilton arrives on Disney+ this week—and it is a magnificent soul-stirring spectacle, writes critic Luke Buckmaster.
Where to start? How to begin? What to say? I had heard good things about the musical phenomenon known as Hamilton—as has virtually everybody with a vague interest in the arts and at least one or two functioning senses—but I wasn’t prepared for such sheer magnificence; for such a soul-stirring spectacle. Nor was I prepared to have my jaw slackened, eyes widened, mind boogied by the quasi-medium of filmed theatre, a genre that attempts to have it both ways (the stage…on the screen!) but cannot do justice to either of its foundational pillars.
The very concept of filmed theatre has long struck me as problematic, if not paradoxical: a Frankensteinian process involving inserting something of great value into a place where it cannot properly function—like an amputated leg sewed into an arm socket. Incapable of capturing the thrill of live theatre and, confined to bobbing around the proscenium, unable to deploy the full arsenal of motion picture language, the result cannot create great filmmaking or great theatre. And yet. And yet. And yet…
Here comes Hamilton. At a time when virtually every aspect of society seems to be hit by the unanticipated and the unprecedented, Disney+ have added yet another surprise to 2020’s growing tally. The streaming event of the year is not a movie or a TV series, but, indeed, a performance captured in that Frankensteinian mismatch of a medium. This highly anticipated filmed theatre recording (directed by Thomas Kail, as was the stage show) lasts 160 fabulous minutes and in no way disguises its roots—even beginning with a voice on a PA system asking the audience to turn off their mobile phones.
Written by Lin-Manuel Miranda, who also stars in the titular role, the show explores the life and political ascension of one of America’s founding fathers, Alexander Hamilton, a “bastard, orphan, son of a whore and a Scotsman” who became right-hand man to George Washington and the country’s first treasury secretary. The production highlights various elements of his personal and professional tussles. A debate between Hamilton and then U.S. Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson, about the former’s proposal to establish a national bank system, might not sound like thrilling drama, but this is the beauty of Miranda’s writing: he makes even dry material sing, in multiple senses of the word.
In this instance the debate between the leaders is staged as a rap battle (there’s also lots of hip-hop, R&B and more conventional musical theatre melodies). Jefferson bolts out of the gates with a strong missive, but Hamilton shoots back:
Thomas, that was a real nice declaration Welcome to the present, we’re running a real nation Would you like to join us, or stay mellow Doin’ whatever the hell it is you do in Monticello? If we assume the debts, the union gets new line of credit, a financial diuretic How do you not get it, if we’re aggressive and competitive The union gets a boost, you’d rather give it a sedative? A civics lesson from a slaver, hey neighbor Your debts are paid ’cause you don’t pay for labor…
In another, even better number—the slick, sly, show stopping The Room Where it Happens, which explores ladder climbing and lust for accessing inner sanctums—Miranda unpacks a political compromise. It involves the location of the capital city versus the approval of a proposed financial system, about federal government control over debts accrued by the states. Again, not exactly material that sounds like it’s going to set your pants on fire, but in Miranda’s hands it makes for dazzling world-slinging and memorable tunes, belted out by a note perfect and physically boisterous cast.
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In Hamilton the pangs and pain of politics, morally and otherwise, are countered from the start by a sense of thrilling possibility: the scent of revolution; hope of a better tomorrow; the underlying belief that it’s better to perish on your feet than live on your knees. The protagonist is told by a superior early in the piece that “dying is easy, living is harder”. This is one of several cut-through lines, emphasizing the value of turning beliefs into actions and fighting for them. And another: “If you stand for nothing, what will you fall for?”
Lines like this recognize something that is second-nature to many real-life activists: that history sometimes presents a narrow window of time in which change is possible. Hamilton also understands this, declaring that he is “not throwing away my shot”. We are reminded throughout the show that “history is happening” and “history has its eyes on you”, those lines presented in the narrative context of America’s foundation, but with a spiritual flavour belonging to a later era—the era of Obama’s presidency. This was when the show was created, and when enduring positive change in America felt possible.
Disney’s filmed recording arrives at a bitterly different time, with Black Lives Matter raging in the background, bringing added meaning to Hamilton’s statement that “I never thought I’d live past 20. Where I come from, some get half as many”. There is also of course the global pandemic and a worsening climate crisis. But questions at the heart of the show remain pertinent: what values should a nation stand for? How does one come to terms with legacies—both of a personal kind, and the sort commemorated in statues currently being ripped down, or at least re-scrutinized, around the world?
That scrutiny itself is a sign of progress; a reminder that history is indeed happening now and has its eyes on us, the folks in the audience. The simple truth about history, which seems so elusive to so many—particularly those defending statues, and by turn the status quo—is that it has never been about keeping a record of events, or commemorating notable achievements. That’s part of it, but ultimately history is about something very different: a way of reconciling the past with the ever-evolving philosophies and attitudes of the present.
You don’t have to think about any of this while watching Hamilton; in fact you probably won’t be able to—given the sheer adrenaline-charged impact of it. I’ve consumed methamphetamine that was less invigorating than this delicious chunk of musical and political catnip, performed with a soaring sense of purpose and some damn, damn catchy numbers. Disney’s filmed recording isn’t a great movie, because it can’t be. And it’s not a great theatre experience, because it can’t be that either. But it is magnificent. By god it is magnificent.