Hamilton on TV might not be live theatre but it is perfect for right now

Review by Karen Topham, ChicagoOnstage, member American Theatre Critics Association.

I’m going to answer the biggest question right off the bat. For those who may not have already heard, the filmed version of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton is in fact utterly captivating. Directed by the Broadway stage director Thomas Kail, it manages to capture all of the eloquence of Miranda’s script as well as the nuances of the actors and Andy Blankenbueler’s stunning choreography. This may not be live theatre—you are not immersed within an audience from whose energy the performers are feeding—but it is without a doubt the closest you’re going to come to it for a while.

Filmed at the Public Theatre in New York with the show’s original cast over three days in June of 2016, this multiple-camera shoot isn’t a movie; it’s the preservation of a cultural phenomenon and by far the finest filmed version of a stage show that I have ever seen, due in large part to crane shots and closeups that Kail filmed separately. And, of course, it begins with an epoch-defining musical, a production that has impacted both theatre and the culture at large arguably more than any other one ever has.

If you have never seen Hamilton (and the scarcity and expense of tickets means that is probably a lot of you), you still are probably aware of it due to the expansive ways in which it has been incorporated into the culture. Signs with lyrics from the show like “History has its eyes on you” have popped up during the BLM protests, for example, and the notion of wanting to be “in the room where it happens” has become part of our American lexicon. If you’ve spent the last several years locked in a closet, though, the musical tells the story of the “bastard immigrant” Founding Father Alexander Hamilton with a multi-racial (mostly black) cast using Miranda’s brilliant hiphop music and lyrics. It is a sung-through show with numbers that range from pure rap (there are even “rap battle” scenes set in Cabinet meetings) to slow, gentle ballads. There are plentiful times when you’ll laugh out loud and there are others that will find you shedding tears. (I cried several times, just as I had when I saw the play onstage.) And every single element of the show, from acting to singing to lighting to movement to staging to costuming to what-have-you, is showcased wonderfully in the 160-minute production.

It may not be the same as watching the show live, but in truth it has several beneficial aspects that might actually enhance the experience. Chief among these are those closeups, which break down the usual distance from which the audience views the story, inserting us directly into highly personal, emotional moments as well as the many energetic and complex scenes depicting the American Revolution. That is not to say that everything works perfectly. One scene that is adversely affected is the Battle of Yorktown, in which the many closeup edits detract from what is, onstage, an impressive and powerful moment. And closeups of actors expectorating while singing (especially in the case of Jonathan Groff’s portrayal of King George, which is a hoot) remind us that in this time of COVID-19 we are probably much better off sitting in front of our televisions.

Having watched Hamilton twice with its fine Chicago cast, I was particularly fascinated to see Miranda and the Broadway cast in their iconic roles. No one disappoints. Miranda, as you would expect, perfectly conveys all of the surprisingly contradictory elements of this monomaniacally driven man from his deep love for Phillipa Soo’s Eliza to his desperate need to forge a legacy as his path crosses again and again with Leslie Odom Jr.’s Aaron Burr. Miranda and Odom are careful that Burr, certainly the play’s antagonist, also develops audience sympathy. From his early description of himself as  “the damn fool who shot (Hamilton),” we are set up to see a character that will come to regret his life choices. And his several powerful numbers make him as much a flesh and blood person as Miranda’s Hamilton.

Soo, along with Renée Elice Goldsberry as the other main Schuyler sister, Angelica, capture our hearts in the exciting and theatrical “Helpless” and “Satisfied,” the latter of which turns back time to show us the former through the eyes of the older sibling. (It’s a scene that is stunning onstage and works very well here, though I can’t even imagine how it could be captured in any true Hamilton movie.) All of the actors, in fact, are superb. Daveed Diggs’ foppishly flamboyant Thomas Jefferson is perfectly contrasted to Okieriete Onaodoawn’s staid James Madison and Christopher Jackson’s portrayal of George Washington that seems at once almost regal and terribly human. (Both of the former actors play different characters during Act One.) 

One of the most wonderful things about this filmed version of the play is how much clearer it makes minor characters. Hercules Mulligan and Lafayette shine as they enthusiastically plot the revolution with Hamilton. The third Schuyler sister, Peggy, may get short shrift in Miranda’s lyrics, but we are treated to several lovely and revealing moments from Jasmine Cephas Jones (who also is outstanding as Maria Reynolds later on). Close camera work allows Anthony Ramos’ Laurens and, especially, his Philip Hamilton, to come alive in ways they can’t when we are seeing them as we sit in the real audience. Hamilton’s desolation at hearing about Laurens’ death is even more touching when we are right there with him, and his and Eliza’s pain at the loss of their son destroys us as much as it does them (leading to the haunting and beautiful “It’s Quiet Uptown”). 

This Hamilton will bring one of the best musicals ever to by far its largest audience ever. Miranda himself has marveled at the notion that, over just the three-day holiday weekend, the show will be seen by as many people as have ever seen it onstage. And that number will just continue to grow. For a nation starving for entertainment at a time when we have no idea how much longer it might be before the pandemic allows us back into theatres, it couldn’t have come at a better time. Disney + will undoubtedly reap massive financial rewards from its $75 million purchase, and though the world will never be the same, the legacy of Hamilton—both the play and the man—is assured.

Hamilton is now streaming online on Disney +. The show runs approximately 160 minutes; there is a one-minute intermission that (of course) can be extended as long as needed just by hitting pause. Find more information about current plays in our front page recs and attheatreinchicago.com.

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