I love a good musical, but up until last week, I had actively avoided the most popular Broadway show of this century.
You probably already know I'm talking about Hamilton, Lin-Manuel Miranda's 2015 Tony- and Pulitzer-winning phenomenon. As it broke box office records, as its cast album achieved once-in-a-generation crossover success, as it inspired so many of my friends (even those who swore they didn't even like musicals) to learn all the words, I kept my fingers in my ears and went la-la-la.
Here's why: I told myself that if I was going to experience this universally beloved cultural touchstone, it was going to be in an actual theater, surrounded by an actual audience. Of course, seeing the show on Broadway probably wasn't in the cards for me, and even as touring productions started making their way around the country, tickets for those were also hard to come by. I held out hope anyway. (Some good news: The Hamilton tour is still slated to hit the First Interstate Center for the Arts next year, running from April 13 to May 9.)
Despite my self-imposed ignorance, I still had a grasp of the show's basic building blocks: It's both a biography and a modernist deconstruction of the life of Founding Father Alexander Hamilton, with a decidedly 21st-century musical style and a cast of Black and Latinx actors upending the blinding Whiteness of American history. I also picked up some isolated references through sheer osmosis: I knew the show involved a bastard orphan and rooms where things happened and shots that were absolutely, positively not going to be thrown away. But that was about it.
When it was announced that performances featuring the show's original Broadway cast had been filmed and were being stitched together into a cohesive concert movie, I figured this would finally be my chance to see what all the fuss was about. Originally slated for theatrical release in 2021, the film of Hamilton instead made its debut on Disney+ a couple weeks ago, causing a spike in new accounts on the streaming service.
So now I've seen Hamilton, and here's what's obvious about the show, even from my couch. While so many musicals have tried and failed to bridge Top 40 pop and traditional showtunes, Miranda's score, forged from fragments of old-school hip-hop and '90s R&B slow jams, is one of the few that succeeds. It's also incredibly nuanced, revisiting its musical motifs and lyrical refrains in smart and dramatically memorable ways.
And speaking of lyrics, Miranda's mastery of wordplay, meter and rhyme scheme is so dextrous and playful, with couplets and triplets that somehow seem to swallow each other up and then fold back in on themselves. One benefit to seeing it on Disney+ is being able to turn on subtitles, so I could easily follow along with the words.
The performances are, no surprise, great. Phillipa Soo and Renee Elise Goldsberry as sisters Eliza and Angelica, the most important women in Hamilton's life, really stood out to me as the best performers of the cast. Daveed Diggs, who I first saw in his 2019 film Blindspotting, spits rhymes with remarkable precision as both Thomas Jefferson and Marquis de Lafayette, and Leslie Odom Jr. (as Aaron Burr) is up to the challenge of the most show-stopping musical moments — it's no wonder he (along with Diggs and Goldsberry) won a Tony for this performance.
As far as Hamilton the movie is concerned, it's a solid job by director Thomas Kail, who won an Emmy directing the live TV production of Grease a few years ago. There aren't many concert films that manage to truly capture the electricity and immediacy of a live performance — Jonathan Demme's Stop Making Sense is usually (and rightfully) cited as the primo example — and this one does in certain moments. It really comes to life when the camera actually makes its way onto the stage and into the action (in sequences clearly filmed without an audience). You're so close you see the spittle flying from their lips, especially scene-stealer Jonathan Groff as mischievous King George. Even if you're able to see a live production of Hamilton, you're probably in the nosebleeds anyway, so this is a solid alternative.
I'd like to see more Broadway productions go this route, for no other reason than they're preserved for posterity. But I still don't think this is the ideal way to see a show for the first time. The insane amount of hype surrounding Hamilton is no doubt a byproduct of the live experience: Seeing the sheer athleticism and timing it requires to pull off a show as kinetic and agile as this can sometimes give you a contact high.
That's part of the ephemeral magic of theater: You experience it, and then it's gone. If you've already seen the show and memorized the lyrics, you'll no doubt be more than happy to revisit it again whenever you want. If you're a Hamilton first-timer, you're going to wish you'd actually been in the room where it happened. ♦