The moment Lin-Manuel Miranda conceived the idea of telling the story of Alexander Hamilton almost exclusively with a cast of brown and black actors was his own kind of big bang. People have already tried to revisit the history of the founding fathers, with often miserable results (Exhibit A, 1972: the dull film musical) 1776). And theater companies have mounted productions of Shakespearean plays and other works of the English-speaking white canon with casts entirely composed of people of color. But focusing specifically on the earliest days of our nation’s rich history, Miranda said something that few people had openly recognized: that the history of the United States – a country founded by white men who have first took land from the natives, then built new wealth from slave labor – it belongs to all of us, regardless of color. It is up to us both to own and to admit, depending on who we are and who our ancestors were, whether we have benefited greatly or suffered from the status quo. With Hamilton, Miranda added a swooping tag to the Woody Guthrie lineage: This land was made for you and me, because it was made by you and me.
The main problem with HamiltonThe expansive vision for the play – the show was presented for the first time at the Public Theater in New York in 2015, before becoming a Broadway hit almost impossible to see – was that so few people could experience it. But a filmed version of Hamilton now changes all that: Miranda, who also plays the title role, and the director of the series, Thomas Kail, had recorded a few performances in 2016 at the Richard Rodgers Theater, with the intention of finally transforming it into a film released in theaters . Although this plan has been put aside by COVID, the “film” version of Hamilton will be available for streaming from July 3 on Disney +, and it’s a pleasure – both a pleasure to watch and a great purse pop studies, entertainment informed by a sense of history and curiosity.
Miranda was inspired to write the show after reading Ron Chernow’s biography in 2004 Alexander Hamilton, and it shows pretty close to the facts: the show begins with an exuberant number that tells us, in shorthand, who Alexander Alexander was – as if to say, there’s no shame in not knowing, but wouldn’t you as to know? The major figures in the life of this daring and extraordinary figure appear one after the other, singing just an extract from their role in its history, weaving together like links in a human chain. They include his sweet but also surprisingly clever and resilient wife, Eliza (Phillipa Soo); Philip (Anthony Ramos), the son who had a tragic end; and Angelica (Renée Elise Goldsberry), Eliza’s sister, who loves her brother-in-law in a way that causes her great suffering. We meet Hamilton’s friends, like the suave Marquis de Lafayette (the fabulous Daveed Diggs, who also plays Thomas Jefferson), and the leader who made Hamilton a trusted advisor, George Washington (Christopher Jackson). And finally, there is the man who presents himself as “the damn crazy who killed him”, Aaron Burr (Leslie Odom Jr.), a haunted narrator whose competitiveness and bitterness lead him to a moment which essentially puts end to two lives, even if it results in one immediate death.
At the center of it all is Hamilton of Miranda, a man who, as he tells us, wants the world to know his name. Born out of wedlock in the British West Indies, he was orphaned at 12 years of age; young, he was so brilliant that he was sent to New York to study. From there, he would become a soldier, a trusted member of General Washington’s staff at the time, a lawyer, and possibly the First Secretary of the Treasury. But he is also one of the architects of the United States as a nation and ideal, an immigrant who, in Miranda’s words, “did the job”.
Miranda, both a writer and an actor, approaches Hamilton’s history with stars in her eyes, and her sense of joy and discovery resonates through the material. There is enough drama here for three lives, let alone one. Hamilton, presented by Miranda as a charismatic, impetuous, sometimes exasperating figure, is a magnet for all that life has to offer, and he seizes part of it wisely.
As an interpreter, Miranda is exuberant almost to the point of surpassing; at close range, his broad, open-hearted facial expressions are sometimes recorded as assaults, a problem that may not be as apparent in live performance. Even so, his energy prevails and the artists around him feed on it; they are supported, it seems, by the delight of doing something new – the whole show is like a big cymbal crash, an announcement of “I’m here!” The musical numbers, all written by Miranda, easily slip from the braggadocio of rap from the 90s to the touch of jazz Harlem and beyond. Miraculously, nothing seems excessively tuned: it is music mainly intended to be sung, not belted. There are ballads that resonate with a dark maturity (“C’est calme Uptown”), and teasing and blues numbers that beckon like a neon nightclub sign (“The room where it happens”). The great moment of King George III, “You will be back” – the monarch who has lost his grip on the colonies is interpreted by an exaggeratedly comic Jonathan Groff – with the sparkling salience of an Anthony Newley cabaret air from the early years 70.
There are more than 20 songs in all, almost too many! But the variety is so vast that they never tire. The staging is inventive and graceful: at one point, a rotating segment of the scene allows the players in Hamilton’s life to turn in a fascinating slow motion, like the ghosts of history who remind us to remind us that they too were once flesh and blood. If you’ve ever seen the show – I hadn’t seen it – these delights won’t be new to you. But even if nothing matches the thrill of the live performance, the filmed Hamilton has its advantages: Kail, the director of this film and the play, chooses his close-ups carefully, and there is no busy and distracting camera work. The effect is to watch the show not from the best seat in the house, but from the best Ten seats. Best of all is the exhilaration of watching so many wonderful performers, flamed by the exhilaration of doing something really new. The story of this cracked mess of a country, bold and dramatic but also streaked with blood, is for all of us to remember, but also to build. As Hamilton reminds us that we are the sum of the good ideas of our founding fathers and their misdeeds. The supervisors put the frame around the future, but they left it to us to fill it.
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