By Lynn Venhaus
The movie “Hamilton” meets the moment! Creator Lin-Manuel Miranda’s game-changer remains a vibrant experience five years after opening on Broadway. Its brilliance shines brightest with the original cast, and its synergy is a thing of beauty.
The cultural phenomenon “Hamilton,” the most nominated musical ever on Broadway and winner of the 2016 Pulitzer Prize for Drama, had two performances recorded on June 25-26, 2016, at the Richard Rodgers Theatre in New York City. This is after the musical won 11 Tony Awards, one shy of the record, and while the original cast was still intact. Founding Father Alexander Hamilton, the first Secretary of the U.S. Treasury, is the central figure in this retelling of history and political scheming. It also includes Hamilton’s family and romantic drama, based on Ron Chernow’s biography.
Miranda’s masterpiece is a hopeful reflection on the ‘unfinished symphony’ that is America – he presents a history lesson, inside view on the messy political process and an amalgam of modern and Broadway styles of music in a grand and glorious way.
Miranda, who wrote the book, music and lyrics, also stars in the title role. He cast black, Latino and Asian-Americans as the characters – “it is about America then as told by America now.” This ensemble is the gold standard – particularly Tony Award winners Leslie Odom Jr. as Aaron Burr, who resents the ambitious Hamilton’s easy climb; Daveed Diggs as loyal Lafayette in the first act and cocky Thomas Jefferson in the second; and Renee Elise Goldsberry as fiery Angelica Schuyler, whose sweet sister Eliza marries Hamilton; plus nominees Christopher Jackson as an imposing George Washington, Phillipa Soo as the kind-hearted wife Eliza and Jonathan Groff, who makes the most of his nine minutes as the snooty and catty King George.
Hamilton’s a fascinating human, and his journey keeps us riveted through his personal evolution and the birth of our nation. His rivalry with Burr adds a complexity – their flaws, fears, desires and regrets fuel the story. Odom has some of the show’s best songs – “Wait for It,” and “Non-Stop,” and his introduction “Talk Less” is memorable.
Featuring a score that blends hip-hop, jazz, R&B, pop and traditional Broadway show tunes, “Hamilton” is a revolutionary moment in theatre, and you won’t be able to get those songs out of your head: “My Shot,” The Story of Tonight,” “The Room Where It Happened,” “Who Lives, Who Dies, Who Tells Our Story,” “History Has Its Eyes on You” and “The World Turned Upside Down.” The Cabinet Battles are comical and thought-provoking at the same time.
The Schuyler Sisters have a sensational introduction – and Peggy (Jasmine Cephas Jones), and the songs “Helpless,” “Satisfied,” “Burn” have real depth from a female point of view. “It’s Quiet Uptown” will tug on your heartstrings.
Already, the staged musical has had profound impact on culture, politics and education, and you will see why, as Hamilton the movie transports the audience inside the Broadway show in an intimate way. (I spontaneously broke into applause a few times).
As for the ‘film’ part, we might not be in the room where it happened (Richard Rodgers Theatre) but what it lacks in the palpable energy only live theater produces, it trades for the emotions you connect with in the close-ups.
Declan Quinn’s cinematography and Jonah Moran’s editing gives us a crisp perspective. And the skill of that team — Thomas Kail’s seamless direction, Alex Lacamoire’s exquisite orchestrations and conducting, Andy Blankenbuehler’s fluid and innovative choreography and Manuel’s smart and clever words and music — are a swirling mix of craft, art and talent.
With use of steady-cam, crane and dolly, the multiple cameras create a view you would not have seen – even if you been fortunate enough in the first couple of rows. We also benefit from it being performed before a live audience – their reactions give ours some vitality. Lafayette’s line: “Immigrants – we get the job done!” produces the loudest applause.
I saw the musical once two years ago, on its first national tour at the Fox Theatre in St. Louis, and even with its cavernous 4500 seats, was gobsmacked. It was among the best theatrical experience ever – and lived up to the hype.
This view has new opportunities for discovery, to marvel at Manuel’s attention to detail and his nimble storytelling. The recurring themes and repetitive nature of the score add texture to the rhythms and harmonies, and the cast’s enunciation and verbal dexterity is remarkable.
In 2009, Miranda was invited to the White House to share what he was working on during a night of poetry-inspired entertainment. President Barack and Michelle Obama were a little taken aback by his concept – a hip-hop concert album about the founding father who is on the $10 bill. OK. Well, the rest, as they say, is history.
And Manuel has made history. An Emmy, Tony and Grammy Award winner, among his theatrical accomplishments — he wrote and starred in the Tony-winning 2008 musical “In the Heights,” was co-composer and lyricist with Tom Kitt and Amanda Green for “Bring It On!” in 2011 (produced by Mike Isaacson-led Fox Theatricals) and at Stephen Sondheim’s request, wrote Spanish dialogue and lyrics for the 2009 Broadway revival of “West Side Story.”
“Hamilton; An American Musical” opened at the Public Theatre on Jan. 20, 2015 and moved to Broadway that August. Because of the demand for tickets, he created the “Ham4Ham” lottery ($10 tickets for first couple of rows), but those who couldn’t get to Broadway or afford the sky-high ticket prices, can see the next best thing. The unforgettable theatrical experience has been made accessible for an even wider audience to appreciate.
The lighting design, by Howell Binkley (Tonys for both “Hamilton” and “Jersey Boys”), is effective on screen. Paul Tazewell’s costumes and David Korins’ deceptively simple brick-lined set designs of scaffolds, catwalks and staircases add to the show’s signature style and cohesiveness.
The film was slated for an October 2021 theatrical release, but the decision was made to stream through Disney Plus ($6.99 a month subscription or $69 for the year).
What a wonderful way to celebrate the birth of our nation and see its impact today, after a grave period of uncertainty, unprecedented pandemic and level civil unrest not seen in 50 years. It feels more urgent as a call to action, to keep this great American experiment a righteous one.
The care and skill that went into this production is obvious. “Hamilton” deserves a standing ovation in every living room across this great country of ours. The musical makes America more beautiful this Independence Day weekend.
“Hamilton” is a filmed musical directed by Thomas Kail, starring Lin-Manuel Miranda, Leslie Odom Jr., Daveed Diggs, Renee Elise Goldsberry, Phillipa Soo, Christopher Jackson and Jonathan Groff. Rated: PG-13 for language and some suggestive material, it runs 2 hours 40 minutes with 1-minute intermission. Lynn’s Grade: A Streaming on Disney Plus beginning July 3.
Lynn Venhaus has had a continuous byline in St. Louis metro region publications since 1978. She is a Rotten Tomatoes-approved film critic, currently reviews films for Webster-Kirkwood Times and KTRS Radio, covers entertainment for PopLifeSTL.com and co-hosts podcast PopLifeSTL.com…Presents, and writes features and news for Belleville News-Democrat and contributes to other publications. She is a member of CCA, AWFJ and St. Louis Film Critics Association. She is a founding member of the St. Louis Theater Circle.