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Hamilton

Back in April of 2018, I was lucky enough to see the touring production of “Hamilton” when it came through my town. (Don’t ask how I was able to get tickets, it’s a long story.) I took my mother — she who taught me pretty much everything I know about musical theatre — as an early birthday gift, we went, and we had a wonderful time. Yet I still found myself somehow slightly underwhelmed.

A lot of that comes from the fact that all the best parts of “Hamilton” are right there in the original cast recording. The story, the characters, the dialogue, the whiplash wordplay from Lin-Manuel Miranda, the groundbreaking music, the myriad of thematic layers based in patriotism then compared and contrasted with patriotism now, it’s all there. Watching the stage production felt like watching an adaptation — a fine interpretation of a far superior source material.

But then I had an epiphany.

Longtime readers are surely aware that I’m extremely active in the local theatre scene. Specifically, my people are those in the community theaters and independent productions of Portland. The kind of companies that thrive on immersion and innovation to make up for their lack of resources. The kind of companies that perform in venues that can only house twenty to fifty people.

(For perspective: My own production of “From the Ruby Lounge” had a capacity of 35. And we had to get REALLY creative about fitting that many in there.)

In my kind of plays, the fourth wall is practically nonexistent. My kind of venues are so small, there’s nowhere to hide and no escape from the unfolding action. When the actors are literally within arm’s reach, in constant danger of tripping over an errant foot in the audience, it feels like I’m right there in the moment. There’s an intimate, immediate feel to the proceedings — though it helps that the cast and crew will actually stick around to chat and share a drink when the show is done.

I can’t share that intimate feeling with an audience of hundreds. I can’t feel like I’m there in the moment when the stage is fifty feet away. But I can feel it on a cast album, like the characters are talking two feet away and my imagination can fill in the visuals. I can even feel it in most movies, when I’m experiencing a story through the camera lens and I can see every micro-expression like the characters are right next to me.

Which brings us to Hamilton, the long-awaited recording of a performance with the original cast, finally released on Disney+.

It feels strange to review this one, for so many reasons. Sure, the review is entirely justifiable, as this was the huge movie release everyone’s been hotly anticipating for the past several weeks. (Which has come to mean something very different in this pandemic world, but still.) But does this even qualify as a movie, really?

Stage recordings like this one are nothing new — perhaps the most famous example is the original cast performance of “Into the Woods”, taped for “American Playhouse” and aired in 1991. As opposed to Into the Woods, the 2014 film adaptation directed by Rob Marshall. One was built from the ground up to be a movie — utilizing the effects, procedures, and audio/visual language unique to the medium of cinema — while the other was built just as specifically around the arts and sciences of the live theatre medium.

Does the stage show become a movie just because a camera was rolling during production? Probably not where AMPAS is concerned, but really, who cares what the Oscars think anymore?

Another reason why this is a strange one to review is because… well, “Hamilton” debuted in 2015. The cast album firmly and immediately embedded itself in the cultural zeitgeist and it hasn’t remotely faded in the five years since. Hell, this film has been sitting on the shelf for the past four years, and hundreds of people have seen this show on the stage in the time since. Not to mention the millions of people who’ve listened to the original cast album, most of whom could probably recite every lyric backwards and forwards by now.

After all the Tonys, the Grammys, the colossal pop culture presence, and the meteoric rise of Lin-Manuel Miranda, the play has been dissected every which way by various writers far more dedicated and educated than I. Just today, a friend on social media (a person of color, and a friend in the Portland theatre scene) posted this article, stating “the American elite can’t get enough of a musical that flatters their political sensibilities and avoids discomforting truths.” A significant chunk of the article complains about how “Hamilton” was made specifically to avoid offending the wealthy elite few who could afford Broadway tickets. Not so much of an obstacle anymore, as of 07/03/2020, but we’ll come back to that.

What interested me most about the article was this point, especially in light of the ongoing nationwide racial protests:

The most obvious historical aberration is the portrayal of Washington and Jefferson as black men, a somewhat audacious choice given that both men are strongly associated with owning, and in the case of the latter, raping and impregnating slaves. Changing the races allows these men to appear far more sympathetic than they would otherwise be. Hamilton creator Lin-Manuel Miranda says he did this intentionally, to make the cast “look like America today,” and that having black actors play the roles “allow[s] you to leave whatever cultural baggage you have about the founding fathers at the door.” (“Cultural baggage” is an odd way of describing “feeling discomfort at warm portrayals of slaveowners.”) Thus Hamilton’s superficial diversity lets its almost entirely white audience feel good about watching it: no guilt for seeing dead white men in a positive light required.

It’s absolutely true that our nation was built on the backs of slave labor. It’s true that our Founding Fathers were a bunch of white men who declared that all men are created equal, conveniently omitting women and people of color from that statement. This is the great Original Sin of America, and it’s something we’re still grappling with. It’s also a problem much bigger than “Hamilton” was equipped to address.

First of all, to think of all the Founding Fathers as any kind of monolithic entity is playing directly into Lin-Manuel Miranda’s hands. The entire play — most especially the second half — is all about showing how the Founding Fathers had their differences. They were debating each other, backstabbing each other, currying favor, fighting to win elections and power for different reasons and causes. Hell, there’s one point in “Cabinet Rap Battle #1” in which Hamilton explicitly calls out Jefferson in particular and the Southern States in general for the practice of slave labor.

(Side note: From what I can tell, the real Alexander Hamilton was never a slave owner, but the Schuylers were prominent slave-owning aristocrats. Thus while Hamilton himself was likely against the institution of slavery, he probably refrained from overt abolitionism in deference to his in-laws. I mention this because the play never does.)

There’s also the matter of John Laurens, an outspoken abolitionist who was active in America before the Revolutionary War had even ended. If Laurens and his vocal abolitionist actions hadn’t been given such a prominent supporting role in the first half, audiences around the world might have never known about him and kept on thinking that all of our Founding Fathers were 100 percent in favor of keeping slavery legal.

But really, the simple fact of the matter is that “Hamilton” casts its net much, MUCH wider. To focus solely on the slavery issue — which is necessary and important, don’t get me wrong — is to lose sight of the numerous other valid and important points raised by the play.

First of all, this is a movie full of wonderful and amazing people of color, all playing empowered and well-developed characters. Can we just take a moment to appreciate that from an aesthetics point of view, if nothing else?

Secondly, making the Founding Fathers into people of color reinforces the idea that these revolutionary Americans were immigrants. White people back then weren’t so firmly entrenched in North America like they are now, they were only a handful of generations removed from the first immigrants who came to this continent, if they didn’t directly come off the boat themselves.

Thus the Founding Fathers are reframed as a bunch of scrappy underdogs who were fighting against impossible odds to build their own nation. And if it sounds like the play is glorifying our founders, I’ll refer you back to my earlier point about how they’re portrayed as a bunch of squabbling backstabbers. Moreover, the play is explicitly clear in portraying George Washington’s doubts and previous failures, in addition to Alexander Hamilton’s marital infidelity, and so on and so forth right on down to the last member of the chorus. From start to finish, top to bottom, not a single character is ever portrayed as a saint.

Perhaps the single most important accomplishment of this play is that it humanizes the Founding Fathers. By making them look and talk like us, we’re able to recognize them as the fallible and flawed human beings that they are. We of the modern age (especially in an election year, like this one) often complain about partisan gridlock, idiots in government, and how compromise is exceedingly difficult if not impossible. The play takes basically every complaint about current American politics and reframes all of them in the context of our nation’s earliest days. The message: It was ever thus. We’ve worked through it for the past 200 years and change, and we can keep working through it.

Furthermore, by making these historical figures look and act more modern, the play sends what’s potentially a far more important message: Any one of us could be the next Washington. Any one of us could be the next Jefferson. If nobody has any control who tells your story, that means any one of us could have a story worth telling for generations to come. History has its eyes on every single one of us, and we therefore have an obligation to make the most of what time we have.

If an immigrant bastard orphan son of a whore and a Scotsman could grow up to be freaking Alexander Hamilton, any of us could potentially accomplish so much. And that message is especially powerful coming from a BIPOC cast and crew. Any immigrant, any person of color, anyone who’s been persecuted or discriminated against could be the next one to change the world. It’s the American Dream.

Then the play ends and we remember that the American Dream is effectively dead.

Income inequality is higher in the USA than pretty much anywhere else in the world. We have immigrant children in cages, courtesy of an openly racist administration elected and empowered by fellow racists. Even as I type this, the nation is still mourning over the deaths of George Floyd, Breona Taylor, Elijah McClain, and too many other people of color killed by police without trial, the victims of a system that protects racists in law enforcement.

But I also see people in the streets, protesting for greater accountability and transparency in local law enforcement. In our America — as in Hamilton’s America — we only get the change we fight for.

Nevertheless, the fact remains that this play — as with most Broadway plays — was very specifically built for the wealthy elite few who could afford tickets. To their credit, the cast and crew have implemented such measures as the $10 ticket lottery, educational outreach, YouTube content updates, and of course the relatively inexpensive cast album recording. Even so, the fact remains that a Broadway show has to jack up ticket prices to the sky, partly to recoup their astronomical budget and partly (especially in Hamilton’s case) to compensate for booming demand. And even if ticket prices weren’t a factor, there’s still the cost of plane tickets for those out of New York, and the cost of travel for those who don’t live near a place where the show is touring.

The bottom line is, Broadway is insanely expensive to produce and prohibitively expensive to attend, and so any Broadway show that offends the uber-rich is a show that probably won’t last long. So of course Hamilton paints a generally rosy picture that doesn’t challenge the status quo, even on subjects where maybe it probably should.

But goddammit, I’ve gotten so incredibly tired of waking up every day to yet another reminder of why my country sucks. Complaining is all well and good — especially if it’s complaining to the elected representatives — but we need hope. If we can’t remember (on July 4th, of all days) what potential we had as a nation and whatever made this a country worth living in to begin with, then really, what the hell are we fighting for?

These are shitty, godawful times to be an American. And that’s especially true of our BIPOC citizens, who’ve never had it all that great to begin with. But if this play can help someone rediscover some sense of optimism and patriotism — or help them discover what patriotism means to them — why take that away?

But again, we run into the inherent hypocrisy that this is a message for the masses, only available to the elite. That’s not such a problem anymore, as the stage recording is now available on Disney+, in all its glory with the original cast. Yes, it’s true that “Hamilton” still won’t (legally) be available to those who can’t afford Disney+, those who can’t access it for whatever technical reason, and those of some hypothetical future in which the recording and/or Disney+ are offline.

While the bar has been dramatically lowered, it’s still there. But it won’t be for long. There is absolutely no reason why this show — with its minimal demands for set design, special effects, costumes, etc. — cannot be made into something affordable and accessible by any community theatre or high school just as soon as the rights are available. It might take a few years, maybe even a couple of decades, but I guaran-goddamn-tee that this will happen within my lifetime.

But let’s circle back to my earlier question, with regards to the cast recording now on Disney+: “Does the stage show become a movie just because a camera was rolling during production?” I submit that the answer is no — there’s a lot more that goes into it, as Hamilton demonstrates.

I’ve personally filmed some of my own shows, so I’m here to tell you from experience that it’s nowhere near as easy as you think. Even if you know exactly where every member of the chorus is going, trying to capture all that moving chaos in the frame, or figuring out what to focus on to the exclusion of whatever else is going on in the moment, is exceedingly difficult.

This, to me, is the strongest case for why Hamilton deserves to be recognized as a work of cinema in its own right. The camera movements, the camera placements, the editing, the close-ups… all of it’s done in such a way that it serves to advance the story. Even better, it delivers that feeling of intimacy and immersion I was talking about earlier — this movie doesn’t keep you stuck in a house seat 50 feet away from the stage, it places you directly on the stage, moving and dancing right there in the action.

These are not hallmarks of live theatre, certainly not Broadway theatre. This is filmmaking. This is cinema, pure and simple.

Moreover, the visual aspect brings so many layers that are simply not possible in a purely auditory medium. This is most especially prominent in “The Reynolds Pamphlet” and the “Helpless”/”Satisfied” diptych. The choreography, the body language, the facial expressions, the characters who are onstage even though they don’t have a line… ALL of this conveys volumes of information that would not be accessible on the cast album.

On a slightly different note, we have songs like “Wait For It” (my personal favorite), “Burn”, and “It’s Quiet Uptown.” These are quite possibly the three most dynamic and emotionally charged songs in the entire show. Listening to them, you might expect performances with broad gestures, playing to show the cheap seats what inner turmoil the characters are suffering. But in the film, all three songs show the affected characters standing alone and stock still, covered in blue light. The effect is that the characters look like bombs ready to explode. They look like trapped energy under immense pressure, with no outlet to express it except for music.

And then of course we have the performances. Jonathan Groff is probably the most improved, as he brought a ton of physical/visual comic relief to King George that wouldn’t be there on the album. And of course we’ve got Daveed Diggs playing Thomas Jefferson like a force of nature, mugging to the crowd and dancing circles around everyone else onstage. There’s the raw onstage charisma of Chris Jackson as George Washington. The warm, playful, sisterly body language between Renee Elise Goldsberry, Phillipa Soo, and Jasmine Cephas Jones as the Schuyler Sisters.

(Side note: Lin-Manuel Miranda himself once said that falling in love with Phillipa Soo every night was the easiest job he ever had. I never believed that like I did when I finally saw the both of them in this picture together.)

And then of course we’ve got Goldsberry, Miranda, Leslie Odom Jr., and others in the cast all delivering subtle facial expressions in a way that wouldn’t even be visible to ticket holders, much less anyone listening to the album.

This comes back to something I’ve been saying for years about musicals adapted to film (like the aforementioned Into the Woods and the notorious Cats production last year): Musicals are hugely elaborate by nature. All it takes is one actor who doesn’t have the vocal range of the character as written, and the whole production is in potential jeopardy. There are so many individual pieces that all have to move perfectly, altering any one of them could lead to a chain reaction that brings everything down. And we’ve already seen this happen far too many times with the switch to a medium that the musical in question was never written for.

Compare that to this picture, in which the music, the dialogue, the sets, the costumes, the lighting, and literally everything else was made specifically of, by, and for this cast, this crew, this orchestra, and this stage. With all due respect to the future community theatre and high school productions of this show, in addition to all those on Broadway and on tour who’ve staged this show in the past four years, there can be absolutely no doubt that this will always be the definitive presentation of “Hamilton”. And I’d love nothing more than to see this normalized, with more Broadway shows given mainstream attention through easily accessible cast recordings, Oscars be damned.

As much as I like reviewing Hamilton because of all the thematic layers to sink my teeth into, I hate reviewing Hamilton because it’s a critic-proof film. The Broadway play has ingrained itself so deeply into the popular consciousness and in so short a time, you already know what you’re getting and whether or not you’re going to see it. All that’s left is for me to tell you that if you’re a fan of the album recording, you won’t be disappointed by the cinematic presentation (and I mean that as exceedingly high praise). Even if you were lucky enough to see the stage show in person, you should still see this to spot all the details that the camera picked up while you were all the way back in the house.

But at the same time, I can also get the appeal of sticking with the original cast album. While the visual aspects of the show are amazing and well worth seeing, the album is still the best part of the show and it’s still as awesome as it ever was, even without the visuals.

Maybe you’ve spent the past five years obsessively listening to the cast recording with no way of seeing the stage show, and you’ve got your own version of the show in your head. That’s okay. I wouldn’t take that away from you. In fact, I dearly hope with all my heart that someday, in some community theatre or high school somewhere, you get the chance to see that vision fully realized.

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