You’ve heard the hype. Ever since Hamilton premiered on Broadway in the Richard Rodgers Theatre, it has been lauded and praised by every critic known to man. But is this hip-hop musical about the Founding Fathers actually worth the hype? After having watched the new filmed version of the play on Disney Plus, I can definitively say that Hamilton is worthy of every good review I have seen from it. Everything about it is immaculate — from the writing to the acting to the stage design. This musical is like nothing the world of musical theater has ever seen before. The representation showcased throughout is revolutionary, the motifs and themes could be studied in a literature class for months, and the staging is jaw-dropping and meticulous. Hamilton not only takes viewers on an emotional roller coaster and provides some of the best Broadway songs of the century, but it reinvents the story of Hamilton with a modern lens, making it a relevant story that celebrates the use of one’s voice to change the world.
Lin-Manuel Miranda, the mastermind behind this tour de force, visualized the musical after he read Ron Chernow’s 2004 biography on Alexander Hamilton. After years and years of preparation and writing, he finally got together the crew and backing to put together the musical. This is the life story of Hamilton — from the time he tries to rise up to the top as a young and ambitious attorney to his death. An essential piece in Miranda’s approach is the casting of all non-white actors to play the principal Founding Fathers. In this way, and since the music style of the show is steeped in black culture, this show reflects the cultural ideals of minority communities in America despite being about all white historical figures. This recontextualization of American history is important and empowers these demographics more than if they had included a major slave plotline.
Yes, many of the main characters of this movie were questionable in real life, but Miranda’s intentions are far different than portraying Hamilton, Thomas Jefferson or George Washington as heroes. He means to empower people of every background by showing the potential any person can have when they use their voice for positive change. Many of the most positive or uplifting moments in Hamilton, such as the determined anthem “My Shot” or the inspirational “The Story of Tonight,” are not meant to simply comment on Hamilton’s life — they are meant to encourage the movements going on in America every day. Miranda did not write Hamilton to be an informative historical piece — although it can work in that department as well if you do not mind changes or omissions — he wrote it to be a powerful call to arms for today’s America and to validate the cultural changes of the moment.
The first act (of two) of the play is the most empowering and groundbreaking that includes most of the show-stopping numbers. The second act, however, is when the emotion truly kicks in. I’d argue that Hamilton is at its best when it showcases the heartbreak and fragility that Hamilton experiences near the end of his life. He makes many mistakes and pays for them dearly (“Burn” is a chilling song with a mind-blowing performance from Phillipa Soo) and he experiences immense loss (“Stay Alive (Reprise)”) is emotionally draining). During the last thirty minutes, it was hard for me to go 60 seconds without the potency of the events affecting me. The two most powerful songs in Hamilton, and perhaps in recent musical history (Dear Evan Hansen is the exception), are “It’s Quiet Uptown” and “Who Lives, Who Dies, Who Tells Your Story.” Without giving anything away, especially since the latter is the final song, both of these numbers feel as if someone set a fifty pound weight on your stomach. The storytelling is so rich and the characters so well developed, that these tender and heart-wrenching moments hit like a freight train.
The casting and acting also makes the hard-hitting moments come together. It’s hard to know where to start when discussing the performances because they are all so exceptional. Miranda crushes as Hamilton himself; he’s not the best singer, but his rapping is poetic and fast, and his dedication to this role is something to behold. He is in every single scene and never once feels out of place. As for the rest of the cast, there are two types of great performances to highlight: the comedic and the dramatic. Regarding the comedic, the highlights are Daveed Diggs as both Thomas Jefferson and Lafayette and Jonathan Groff as King George III. Diggs oozes charisma throughout; during every scene it seems as if he’s marching to his own beat while the rest of the cast circles around him. Groff, meanwhile, has only three (and a half) scenes, yet he makes a hell of an impact during both. He plays a great buffoon; you don’t often see a tyrannical villain be this light-hearted while joyfully singing “I will kill your friends and family to remind you of my love.”
As far as the more dramatic performances, the standouts are Leslie Odom Jr. as Aaron Burr and Phillipa Soo as Eliza Schuyler, Hamilton’s wife. Odom plays the most morally ambiguous character in the show (and that’s saying something given Jefferson is a lead character), and he gives us an insight into what’s happening in the soul of Burr. He narrates the show and conducts many of the most energetic songs in the play (“The Room Where It Happens”) Soo, however, is the real highlight, and she delivers the fantastic final moments of this show that will have you crying for the next day. The emotional vulnerability she exhibits is astonishing for a stage play, especially since she had to act it every night for upwards of a year.
Miranda wrote a musical that is Shakespearean in the amount of literary themes and devices it utilizes, and has the musical poetry of Sondheim’s finest work. It is even structured like Shakespeare: it starts with a prelude that details the upcoming events, it contains an epic romance that pervades throughout the show, and ends with a moral tragedy that reflects on the state of its characters and humanity as a whole. There is so much more rich messaging and amazing talent in Hamilton, but I will say no more; you must go watch it instead. Miranda is a musical and lyrical mastermind, and this film version of Hamilton on Disney Plus does more than enough justice to one of the best musicals ever written.
I give Hamilton an A+.