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Forget The Mandalorian, here’s the real reason to take the plunge for Disney+
It’s been impossible not to hear about it – for the last five years, everyone who could afford the three-figure tickets to experience Hamilton on Broadway or the West End spared no words in heralding Hamilton as the musical experience of the decade. Even as the show ran on for longer and tickets became more readily available, it was still nothing compared to the original cast, or so those privileged enough to see the original cast would have you believe. Well, now we can judge for ourselves as a filmed recording of the original production has debuted on Disney+, at long last democratising a story of democracy.
The core concept of Hamilton is a retelling of the founding of the United States from the perspective of its overlooked first secretary of the Treasury, the eponymous Alexander Hamilton. But Hamilton is not a museum piece or documentary. Its primary concern is portraying historical events in a fashion that modern audiences can connect with, breaking from a long tradition of self-serious prestige dramas by and about the white men in banknotes and oil paintings. Hamilton begins with a diverse cast and a single set, an eighteenth-century construction site from which wars and conflicts are told. It eschews archaic language and dramatic monologues for hip hop and R&B infused with wordplay and motifs that never lose focus on the psychology of and relationships between its conflicted characters.
The Durham Performing Arts Center describes Hamilton as ‘America then, told by America now’, which aptly epitomises the show’s approach to storytelling; events are recontextualised in a way that audiences can understand without it being patronising, successfully doing away with the stuffy conceit of history books and wartime propaganda. For instance, the relationship between the British crown and the colonists is primarily portrayed through George III (played with note-perfect moustache-twirling by Jonathan Groff), characterised as the domineering boyfriend who just won’t let you leave as he sings macabre love songs asserting that you can’t succeed without him.
But Hamilton is about far more than the Revolutionary War, delving into the sometimes dubious political dealings behind closed doors in ‘The Room Where It Happens’ which shaped the American government, and charting the clashes between fierce rivals and larger than life personalities whose actions paved the way for much of the world today, for better or worse. The standout among these is Daveed Diggs in the dual role of Marquis de Lafayette/Thomas Jefferson, who entirely embodies the swagger of a revolutionary and a political hotshot whilst somehow managing to maintain a French accent when rapping at break-neck speed.
Indeed, despite a rather minimal set, the production uses all other elements of its stagecraft to enhance the experience, ranging from a turntable set perfectly in-tune with the choreography to a world-class chorus never out of step. Somehow the spectacle of the stunts and dancing never overpowers the music and the performances, and there is an attention to character present in every line which makes the show benefit from a rewatch. There’s always something – a reference, an implication, an extra meaning – that you never noticed the first time or even the third time.
The intricacy of creator and star Lin-Manuel Miranda’s lyricism never fails to astonish. In particular, his use of motifs is used to great effects, such as Hamilton’s signature line ‘not throwin’ away my shot’ taking on drastic and even tragic new meanings throughout the show. And as excellent as Miranda is in the lead role, he is outdone by Leslie Odom Jr. as Hamilton’s arch frenemy Aaron Burr, with his electrifying rendition of ‘Wait For It’ being perhaps the most thrilling number in the show. Odom Jr.’s vocal and performing prowess makes Burr, arguably the show’s antagonist, its most nuanced and engaging character, and was certainly well-deserving of beating Miranda for the Tony Award for Best Actor in a Musical. But I doubt Miranda was feeling too bad considering he walked away with Best Original Score and Best Book of a Musical, and I’d go as far as to say that comparisons to Sondheim are not unwarranted.
Through framing the friend-turned-antagonist as the narrator and using popular music styles to recontextualise an old story for the present day, focusing in on the decaying relationship between the two leads, Hamilton follows in the footsteps of Jesus Christ Superstar, which traded men in sandals for rock star hippies (and is a must-watch for anyone in love with Hamilton). Although Hamilton doesn’t attempt to alter this established structure, the strength of the formula when matched with Miranda’s lyrics and the score is more than enough to blow you away.
Although no substitute for the live theatrical experience, this filmed performance is an unmissable way to experience a remarkable telling of a remarkable story. But there is the complicated issue of ethics which I don’t think Hamilton does enough to address, specifically slavery, something most of the show’s characters practised and profited from – and those who didn’t were likewise complicit. Miranda takes care to glorify no one and to portray these characters as complicated and sometimes contradictory, but is that enough? Perhaps in 2015’s America calling out the glorification of slave owners George Washington and Thomas Jefferson would have been too risqué, but not today. It’s hard not to see the irony in watching characters calling for freedom and liberty whilst owning slaves.
Through it all is a fascination with legacies and how people are remembered, and an often-critical view of history’s tendency to memorialise those who ought to live in infamy, a sentiment only more relevant today. But still, there is the additional irony of a story about a poor man succeeding in an elitist society being completely unaffordable for most people for so many years. At least anyone can experience Hamilton now that the wait for it is finally over.