Lin-Manuel Miranda’s musical based on Ron Chernow’s biography of Alexander Hamilton is the most successful stage musical of the current century. Three performances of the show were recorded in 2016. They were melded into a single version which was intended for to be shown in movie theaters. Miranda sold the distribution rights to Disney for $75 million. Because of the COVID-19 epidemic Disney released the show for viewing on its Disney+ streaming service. Thus, the HD in my title refers to the show as seen on a 65″ TV connected to a very good sound system.
Hamilton, despite being only five years old, show signs of age. It is basically a patriotic portrayal of the principal founding fathers save one – Franklin doesn’t appear – and of the founding and early years of the United States. The use of non-white actors in virtually all the parts, George III is whiter than Kleenex, to depict colonial Americans is no different from the use of non-white singers in opera. Consider the casting of the colonial Boston version of Verdi’s Un ballo in maschera. No one pays any attention to the skin color of the performers. Opera is color blind, at least in one direction. Blacks can play white characters, but not vice versa.
The reason that the show, were it new, likely would be shunned by the enlightened is its cavalier treatment of slavery. It’s only mentioned twice, both times in Act 2. Hamilton derides Jefferson and Madison (both played by black men) for their use of slave labor. At the show’s ends mention is made of Hamilton’s widow’s abolitionist labors. Today the issue of slavery and its use by most of the country’s founders would overwhelm everything else and likely make for a much less enjoyable show. Hamilton and Adams are the only really famous founders I can think of who never owned a slave. Even Ben Franklin owned two for a while. One ran away and Franklin made no attempt to recover him. The other was freed.
The show received universal praise when it first appeared. But recently both the musical and the real Hamilton have been criticized for not being sufficiently woke. However, the show has received so much praise and reached such a large audience that it’s likely immune to wokeness or the lack thereof.
As a work of musical theater, I think it’s quite good. Not Verdi, Puccini, or even Sondheim good – but compared to anything that’s emerged this century it engages the viewer with more force and impact. It’s been compared, at least as regards its outsized reception, to Rent. In my view there’s no comparison. Rent was a mostly boring show that had only one good tune in it and that one was by Puccini.
Miranda didn’t steal from Puccini; he just didn’t even attempt to write a tune. All the music is rhythmic, sort of an ersatz hip-hop. The entire dialog is chanted. There are a lot of rhymes, almost rhymes, and jejune rhymes. But there’s a lot of action. There are some longueurs in the first act, not a lot but sufficient for a nod or two. Things pick up in the second act when Daveed Diggs returns as Thomas Jefferson. He was Lafayette in the initial act.
The piece is a paean to the founding and establishment of America. The founders are imperfect, but deserve the acclaim they are granted in Hamilton. Miranda, at least as of 2015, would not be in the crowd demanding their statues be uprooted and discarded.
Miranda’s Hamilton does not overshadow the other main characters. They are acted with force and dispatch. Jonathan Groff is entertaining as a garishly dressed King George III. The part could easily have been omitted without loss to the story, but Groff’s impersonation is too good to drop.
Leslie Odom Jr is the villain of the piece, Aaron Burr. The man mostly remembered for killing Hamilton in a duel in New Jersey. The same state and general locale in which Hamilton’s son Philip also had been killed in a duel three years earlier. Burr was in his last years a vice president when he offed Hamilton. His political career was finished by the deed.
Also noteworthy were Christopher Jackson as George Washington and Okieriete Onaodowan as both Hercules Mulligan and James Madison. The female parts were less well delineated than their male counter parts. I think this is the result of the style in which musical is written. It’s bouncy, energetic, and dare I say it – masculine.
Thomas Kail’s video direction is on a par with what one sees during a telecast of The Met in HD. Of course, the Met telecasts are done live. Kail had four years to put his video version of the show together. A telecast of a live performance no matter how well edited is never equal to the experience that an in situ audience experiences. The audience in the theater has only one point of view, but can direct its attention wherever it wants. The reverse is true of a recorded show. Kail’s version is fine. He doesn’t indulge in endoscopic closeups and pretty much lets the story unfold without too much interference.
My guess is that this is a show that has past its peak time. Like Yogi Berra, I’m acutely aware of the difficulty of predictions, especially when they concern the future. My guess is that 25 years from now the show will be a memory similar to that of Rent. That’s time enough for me to be long gone and forgotten should I be in error. But if I’m wrong, I’m going to be dogmatically wrong. Is the show worth paying Disney+ $6.99 for a month of access just to see Hamilton? Definitely.
Daveed Diggs as Marquis de Lafayette and Thomas Jefferson
Renée Elise Goldsberry as Angelica Schuyler
Jonathan Groff as King George III
Christopher Jackson as George Washington
Jasmine Cephas Jones as Peggy Schuyler and Maria Reynolds
Lin-Manuel Miranda as Alexander Hamilton
Leslie Odom Jr. as Aaron Burr
Okieriete Onaodowan as Hercules Mulligan and James Madison
Anthony Ramos as John Laurens and Philip Hamilton
Phillipa Soo as Eliza Hamilton
Sydney James Harcourt as Philip Schuyler, James Reynolds, doctor and ensemble
Sasha Hutchings as Sally Hemings and ensemble
Thayne Jasperson as Samuel Seabury and ensemble
Jon Rua as Charles Lee and ensemble
Ephraim Sykes as George Eacker and ensemble
Additionally, Carleigh Bettiol, Ariana DeBose, Hope Easterbrook, Elizabeth Judd, Austin Smith and Seth Stewart appear as ensemble
“Alexander Hamilton” – Burr, Laurens, Jefferson, Madison, Hamilton, Eliza, Washington, and Company
“Aaron Burr, Sir” – Hamilton, Burr, Laurens, Lafayette, and Mulligan
“My Shot” – Hamilton, Laurens, Lafayette, Mulligan, Burr, and Company
“The Story of Tonight” – Hamilton, Laurens, Mulligan, Lafayette, and Company
“The Schuyler Sisters” – Angelica, Eliza, Peggy, Burr, and Company
“Farmer Refuted” – Seabury, Hamilton, Burr, and Company
“You’ll Be Back” – King George III and Company
“Right Hand Man” – Washington, Hamilton, Burr, and Company
“A Winter’s Ball” – Burr, Hamilton, and Company
“Helpless” – Eliza and Company
“Satisfied” – Angelica and Company
“The Story of Tonight (Reprise)” – Laurens, Mulligan, Lafayette, Hamilton, and Burr
“Wait for It” – Burr and Company
“Stay Alive” – Hamilton, Washington, Laurens, Lafayette, Mulligan, Lee, Eliza, Angelica, and Company[a]
“Ten Duel Commandments” – Laurens, Hamilton, Lee, Burr, and Company
“Meet Me Inside” – Hamilton, Burr, Laurens, Washington, and Company
“That Would Be Enough” – Eliza and Hamilton
“Guns and Ships” – Burr, Lafayette, Washington, and Company
“History Has Its Eyes on You” – Washington, Hamilton, and Company
“Yorktown (The World Turned Upside Down)” – Hamilton, Lafayette, Laurens, Mulligan, Washington, and Company[a]
“What Comes Next?” – King George III
“Dear Theodosia” – Burr and Hamilton
“Tomorrow There’ll Be More of Us” – Laurens, Eliza, and Hamilton[b]
“Non-Stop” – Burr, Hamilton, Angelica, Eliza, Washington, and Company
“What’d I Miss?” – Jefferson, Burr, Madison, and Company
“Cabinet Battle #1” – Washington, Jefferson, Hamilton, and Madison
“Take a Break” – Eliza, Philip, Hamilton, and Angelica
“Say No to This” – Maria Reynolds, Burr, Hamilton, James Reynolds, and Company
“The Room Where It Happens” – Burr, Hamilton, Jefferson, Madison, and Company
“Schuyler Defeated” – Philip, Eliza, Hamilton, and Burr
“Cabinet Battle #2” – Washington, Jefferson, Hamilton, and Madison
“Washington on Your Side” – Burr, Jefferson, Madison, and Company
“One Last Time” – Washington, Hamilton, and Company[c]
“I Know Him” – King George III
“The Adams Administration” – Burr, Jefferson, Hamilton, Madison, and Company[a]
“We Know” – Hamilton, Jefferson, Burr, and Madison
“Hurricane” – Hamilton and Company
“The Reynolds Pamphlet” – Jefferson, Madison, Burr, Hamilton, Angelica, James Reynolds, and Company[a][d]
“Burn” – Eliza
“Blow Us All Away” – Philip, Martha, Dolly, Eacker, Hamilton, and Company
“Stay Alive (Reprise)” – Hamilton, Philip, Eliza, and Company
“It’s Quiet Uptown” – Angelica, Hamilton, Eliza, and Company
“The Election of 1800” – Jefferson, Madison, Burr, Hamilton, and Company
“Your Obedient Servant” – Burr, Hamilton, and Company
“Best of Wives and Best of Women” – Eliza and Hamilton
“The World Was Wide Enough” – Burr, Hamilton, and Company
“Who Lives, Who Dies, Who Tells Your Story” – Eliza and Company[a]