dir: Thomas Kail
This is what we’re reduced to, in lockdown. Watching anything. Watching a recording of a play. Honest to god, a musical play.
Life has contracted thus. I’m making it sound like I was forced at gunpoint to watch this 2 hour and 40 minutes musical, but truth is no-one forced me to watch it. I was always Hamilton-curious, considering how there was a time a few years ago where every single American program or podcast you listened to that had nothing to do with the actual musical would be raving about it and Lin-Manuel Miranda endlessly, much to the mystification of people outside of that bubble.
And a couple of weeks ago I was watching the 7.30 Report, where musical tragic Leigh Sales interviewed the man Lin-Manuel himself about the upcoming release of this here thingie on Disney+, where neither Leigh nor a special guest kid video hook-in superfan could hide their joy when they heard this was being released 4th July, both fangirling out in the most absurdly joyous ways. Lin-Manuel must be used to people going gaga when they speak to him, so he took it with charm and grace.
So. A lot of us knew this was coming, and weren’t exactly sure why we should care. The majesty, the wonderfulness, the overarching importance of the Founding Fathers, as they are called, of those United States don’t really matter to anyone outside of the States. As one of the Founders that was lesser known, at least less than men like Washington, Franklin, Jefferson, it become incumbent upon Lin-Manuel to correct this gap in everyone’s knowledge.
To an Aussie audience, well, we’d be forgiven for not giving much of a damn about any of this. Musicals, too, I would argue, aren’t as much in the DNA of Aussies as they are in the American genome. Sure, we don’t mind a movie with a few lipsynched disco era or ABBA-adjacent songs, but we’re not that huge on the whole palaver. We don’t have multiple stage musicals about the founding of our great nation, because, let’s be honest, it’s not going to be a pretty story. But even worse, and even more humiliating is that, unlike the proud and feisty Americans, we never managed to cast off the colonial yoke of the Empire. We are, and our indigenous brothers and sisters, still under it.
Americans can forge a prouder path forward, ignoring all that pesky genocide and slavery, looking past all the unsavoury bits, in order to be able to construct something they can all mostly be proud of. The hardscrabble life of a young, scrappy and hungry man, just like the nation itself, who goes on to help fight off the British and forge a union of states like no other in human history. He inspires others to do their darndest to create a better form of government than most others were ever capable of, with an eye to the political and legal structures of the past, but with ideas about completely new ways of running things that would form what is often referred to as the American Experiment.
This kind of shit, let’s be honest, does not sound very interesting or entertaining. Anyone who’s heard any of the songs from the musical, though, or the various lines now quoted as scripture by those in the know, whether they’re mocking or saying them seriously, knows that where the joy is, is not in what the musical is about, but how it’s about it.
The movie is smashed together from a couple of performances from 2016, the last year that Obama was president, the last year up until November that a large enough proportion of people felt positive about what American political life could achieve. There are also a number of other moments where they’ve filmed sequences with no audience, with the cameras on stage, up close and personal, right up the noses of the performers. It’s all blended together rather seamlessly. I imagine it’s hard to film something like this with an audience present without being too obtrusive, trying to capture the energy of a live performance. And there maybe are a few moments that we wish we didn’t get to see, all thanks to the wonders of modern technology.
You see, I know the story of the madness of King George III, mostly because I recall watching a film at the cinema (remember those?) called The Madness of King George, starring Sir Nigel Hawthorne in one of his last great roles. He was really, really nuts, but at least he didn’t spit all over the place.
King George III here, mad or not, is a spitting, frothing machine of over-enunciation, and it’s magnificent, but also queasy. He is amazing. He functions kind of as a narrator, without being the narrator. Right at the beginning, off-stage, he advises the audience to turn off their mobile phones, and he welcomes them to “his” play. He owns the Americas at this point, so the musical is his too, until they earn their independence. He returns a few times, once to warn the rebels that they shouldn’t make him too angry, because he might have to kill their friends and family. To remind them. Of his love.
That’s pretty extra. I cannot say enough about how freaky and necessary I found those sections. They’re controlled and manic at the same time, and they made me laugh and marvel at how weird this world truly is.
But those are short interludes that I’m referring to, in a musical that goes far and wide in the ground it covers regarding the rising up of the rebels against their masters, of the machinations of the resistance, but more importantly, the key relationships between Hamilton and the various people around him.
Sure, sure, there are his relationships with the other main players of the revolution, like Hercules Mulligan (Okieriete Onaodowan), which, is like one of the greatest names ever, or the Marquis de Lafayette (Daveed Diggs), the French general who led rebel forces against the British, or the big man George Washington (Christopher Jackson) himself, or his relationship with the two Schuyler sisters Eliza and Angelica (and Peggy).
The really important relationship is the one with Aaron Burr (Leslie Odom Jnr), as his envious shadow, the one that dogs him from play’s beginning to its end. Though certain details are indisputable, as in, they did know each other, and they did have a duel, there’s a lot the story does to make it seem like Burr is the Salieri to Hamilton’s Mozart.
When I thought this while watching the Disney+ exclusive stream of Hamilton, I wondered how hard they’d worked to make the story fit into that neat and simplistic groove, or whether my grasping for the Amadeus example, great film by Milos Forman that it was, was also lazy. Surely I could think of a better example of this sort of dramaturgical dyad?
But then I also thought – anyone I told this to who was under the age of 45 probably has no fucking idea what I’m talking about anyway. F. Murray Abrams won an Oscar for playing the envious Salieri, opposite Tom Hulce as the genius Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, but it was based on a play by Peter Schaffer, not the actual history. And when The Simpsons did a parody of Amadeus, in the form of Marge telling a group of kids the story of Mozart, but pretty much like the movie Amadeus), Lisa is compelled to point out to Marge that Mozart (Hamilton) worked really hard at his music (building the Republic), and that Salieri (Burr) was respected and celebrated in his time, not some bitter also-ran.
But the thing is, would the whole production be as compelling if Burr’s motivation as given here isn’t a burning, consuming envy and resentment towards the man remembered as one of the Founders, the man on the $10 bill. What currency is your face on, Burr?
Actually, that reminds me of another joke from The Simpsons, involving as it does Gore Vidal, a distant relative of Aaron Burr’s, having written a book called Burr, and lying to people at a writer’s festival that he named it after seeing an advertisement for Eskimo Pies, truly one of the greatest ice cream confections ever confected best served cold, hence the “brrrrrrr”.
Yes, it’s true, all of my knowledge of history and literature comes from The Simpsons and movies, pre-Wikipedia. It’s no exaggeration.
What I remember of Gore Vidal’s book was that Burr in that was the hero, and everyone else, especially Hamilton, were grasping, incompetent, amoral chancers. The Founding Fathers themselves were all awful (as was probably true in real life, since most of them were enthusiastic slave owners and traders), but Burr was a good man, and he had good reason to challenge the loathsome Hamilton to a duel. Everyone challenged Hamilton to duels, because he was such a slanderous arsehole.
But where’s his musical, huh? Where’s his Broadway show selling for $500 a ticket, like Hamilton was pre-coronavirus pandemic?
Well, you could make the argument that Burr is given plenty of screen time and songs here, almost as much as Hamilton himself, plenty of motivation behind his actions, plenty of opportunities to explain his side of the story. It’s almost as if the film needs a villain, because even the people who like and support Hamilton pretty much all thing he’s an arsehole too.
While the story and song never stint on praising his enthusiasm, his stick-to-itiveness, his determination to succeed no matter what, almost no-one seems to like Hamilton. Burr, especially, right from the start thinks Hamilton talks too much, and advises him that he should smile more and talk less, that way people would like him more, and he’d guard himself from criticism for his more extremist positions.
It’s not bad advice at all, is it? But of course the play has to sideline Burr, celebrate talking shit with people you’ve just met as long as it means drinking heaps in their company and planning on beating the British, but makes Burr look standoffish and cold, like someone who doesn’t stand for anything but himself.
Okay, so in case it hasn’t been made crystal clear, almost everything is sung or rapped throughout. There is plenty of traditional musical type singing, and a fair bit of shots not being thrown away, and even rap battle type stuff. I have to say, as a seemingly ungrateful and uneducated swine, almost everyone in the play is extraordinary at what they do. I know I praised Johnathan Groff as the King earlier, but there are so many other phenomenal performances here. Leslie Odom Jnr as Burr is great playing the fussy prick that he is, but his vocal performance is strong. Daveed Diggs is great as Lafayette, with a goofy swaggering French accent, but in the second half he’s just as big and great as Thomas Jefferson, just returned from France and looking to mess Hamilton up.
The two Schuyler sisters, played by Philippa Soo and Renee Elise Goldsberry also have tremendous voices, more classically trained voices, especially in Soo’s case, though Goldsberry is no slouch. I could not believe, as in it did my head in a bit to see Goldsberry here, so charming and with such a powerful voice, knowing her only from the Netflix series Altered Carbon, where she plays a complete hard-ass terrorist in the form of Quellcrist Falconer.
As Angelica she embodies an intellectual equal to Hamilton, if not his superior, in the course of the story, even to the point where she regrets, potentially, having introducing her sister to him, wondering if she did the right thing. They seem so compatible, so meant to be together, so complementary in their approaches to life? Oh well, I guess Hamilton will manage to do something to remind her that she is the one who truly dodged a bullet, not him.
I also thought the chap that plays Washington was massively impressive as well, considering how massive he is. He puts across this gravitas and presence that really filled up the screen and my ears, doing credit to the person he’s playing, who towers above most of these pisspots and panhandlers.
Notice what I’ve done? Pretty much praised almost everyone except the main character, the guy who wrote everything over the course of six years and made it the global phenomenon that it is today? Well, why might that be? Hmm, can’t think of any reasons that come to the top of my head…
I think Lin-Manuel is great. I genuinely love a lot that the man has created. He's great as Lee Scoresby in the His Dark Materials series. I don’t think he has a great voice, though. He stands out in the midst of such a talented cast, he is fine on the “acting” part of the performance, but not as strong on the actual singing part. I don’t know if it helps, or if it was part of the character as conceived, but there is this whiny, high pitched hectoring note to his delivery that was distracting for me, when it never was before when I listened to the cast recording.
I don’t know – how do you fault the guy singing about how he isn’t going to through away his shot, by making sure the world knows exactly who he is, by insisting that he’s the man singing about not throwing away his shot in the musical he wrote? You can’t. Doing so would be churlish. And you don’t want to be a damn churl, do you?
This is a musical of two halves, with a short intermission, and I wonder as to how many people, by that stage, will be complaining about that second half. Two hours and forty minutes is probably not that long when it comes to a massive musical experience, it’s probably standard. The opera sometimes takes as long, if not longer. At the performance itself you’d get a half hour intermission, to relieve whatever needs relieving, to grab a couple of drinks and or snacks, to express your enthusiasm for the first half (or dread of what’s to come) and then find your way back to your seat.
Here, we’re just watching the second half, wondering why it needed to be so long. We’re probably more critical of the second half than the first, we question why this song needs to be here, or whether it could have been excised completely (as some songs were), because we already know the various characters’ motivations, but then we also get the same actors in some cases playing new characters. That is perhaps a bit distracting, but not unwelcome.
What we are really marching towards are Hamilton’s downfall on a number of levels, before the fateful duel. Everything in the first half building up his achievements towards his ultimate triumphs and the birth of the nation are pretty much torn down (in most cases by Hamilton himself) in a patently cruel fashion. The moral clarity and purpose he possessed early on, the gentle hand of fate tipping things in his favour is gone, and there is a long way to fall.
This part depends on redemption, but it’s not of the character himself (we know he doesn’t deserve it). A tragedy occurs that from then on hinges entirely on whether Eliza can bring herself to forgive him, and it’s ever so heartbreaking. Philippa Soo possesses a voice that could wrench tears from rocks and stones, and it’s used as exquisitely as a scalpel in these parts.
I didn’t feel the performance was too long. Anything great can’t be too long. Anything bad can’t be short enough. I think it missed an opportunity to have Cabinet Battle #3 included in the film/release, because it’s the one instance when slavery is explicitly argued about even within this novel context, rather than the more subtle references early on, in terms of the compromises made necessary in order to create one nation under God where all Men (but definitely not women) are created equal, as long as they are not any other skin colour than white, and they own property. The play doesn’t pretend Hamilton was opposed to slavery, or Washington, or Jefferson, but it doesn’t expressly refer to it either. Washington admonishes Hamilton as the latter struggles to get the 13 states to accept the Constitution, by reminding him that Virginia grows tobacco, and Washington, from Virginia, has tobacco. Meaning, slaves he owns on his property in Virginia grow tobacco for him, so…
For some people deliberately diversifying the cast isn’t enough to set aside the whitewashing of history or the depth of the genocidal crimes committed at the birth of this nation. For some people deliberately diversifying the cast is tantamount to communism and, I dunno, the lizard people taking over the world, but fuckheads like that are unlikely to be sitting through an extravaganza like this. They’re not the market this is aimed at – they’re the very opposite of the market this is aimed at. Still, at this time when some people are realising for the first time in their lives that Black Lives actually Matter as well, more, not less, needs to be said about the circumstances of slavery, what was done by whom and why, and how it persisted for as long as it did, and the excuses people used along the way to justify themselves. Because more status quo gets us nowhere.
It's a towering achievement, an exciting and dynamic production, and I think just enough of that energy is captured by this movie. There are abundances of great, memorable songs, and some of the motifs and themes are carried through to later parts of the story so beautifully. Though some parts of it sound painfully dated, like that record scratch stuff and some of the rapping sounds like they’re about to launch into a Public Service Announcement about washing your hands or watching both sides of the road before you cross, like a teacher somewhere has just turned around a chair, sat down, and said to some kids that he wants to have a real talk with them about bullying.
It’s still pretty great. Hamilton, or Ham to his friends and fam, was worth the wait.
9 times I still have to admit I still find musicals pretty cringeworthy most of the time out of 10
“They won't teach you this in your classes/But look it up/Hamilton was wearing his glasses/Why, if not to take deadly aim? It's him or me/The world will never be the same/I had only one thought before the slaughter/This man will not make an orphan of my daughter.” – Hamilton