I still remember how I felt the first time I listened to Hamilton. I was 18 years old, a recent graduate of high school, and impressionable. Lin-Manuel Miranda’s portrait of American history is quite romantic and idealistic – the perfect combination for someone looking for something to believe in. I listened to Lin sing, “America, you great unfinished symphony, you sent for me\ You let me make a difference\ A place where even orphan immigrants \ Can leave their fingerprints and rise up” and felt pride, nationalism. I wanted to find something worth fighting for as Hamilton did.
Hamilton is a sentimental, loving, ode to the ideals of America. The musical recounts the tale of an orphan immigrant, Alexander Hamilton, and his rise to power, in seemingly the only country in the world where such social mobility was possible in the 1700s. It blissfully retells Washington walking away from power, establishing the first of many democratic norms in the country. It depicts Jefferson and Hamilton fighting over partisan debates but, always, eventually coming to a comprise in the interest of American people. It acknowledges the nation’s original sin of slavery and the mistreatment of women. But it contends those mistakes do not define the nation. As Washington puts it, that “the begin influence good laws under a free government” are something worth fighting for – worth celebrating. It tells the story of love, friendship, career success, and mistakes made possible by this better, freer, society.
On February 17th, 2015, Hamilton debuted on Broadway. The soundtrack, which includes about 95% of the dialogue in the musical, debuted at #12 on the Billboard Top 200 chart and later rose to the #1 Rap album on the charts – a feat never achieved by a Broadway musical. By early 2016, the show had captured the hearts of the country and was a national phenomenon. President Obama invited the cast to the White House to perform a few songs. It was a powerful image, a diverse cast, that in many cases had black actors depict the slave-owning founders, greeted by the first black President to celebrate a musical that commemorates the triumph of American ideals. As Hamilton moves to from the stage to the big screen on Disney + on July 3rd, it returns to a different America.
In 2020, the ideals at the core of American independence and the core of the musical Hamilton, are still fighting for – they are just harder to see in ourselves. Protests over the racial inequities and police brutality against black people are reaching their second month. We are reminded daily of the failure of America to be a free and fair land of meritocracy. Black Americans face inequalities and discrimination in everything from health, income, wealth, hiring practices, judicial sentencing, and access to voting. And yet the demands of protesters – at least at the federal level – have gone largely unheard. The coronavirus is ravaging the nation, as the death count nears 130,000 Americans, and the economy has been ground to a halt resulting in Great-Depression level unemployment. Our president – who won election primarily on an anti-immigrant platform, stoking the flames of fear and division – seems more concerned with how the virus affects his political life than the life and death of the American citizens. The joyous message of Hamilton is simply harder to hear in 2020 than it was in 2015. The America of 2020 is not one that makes you want to get up and sing about how proud you are to be an American.
Let’s talk briefly about how the movie experience compares to the soundtrack so many people experienced Hamilton through
The friendship between Alexander, Lawrence, and Lafayette leaps of the screen. Their chemistry crackles and brings new life into many scenes – the glances, laughing smiles, and pats on the back between the trio bring the friendship authenticity that the soundtrack can’t replicate. The rendition of “The Story of Tonight Reprise” is particularly great.
The subtly of Okieriete Onaodowan’s performance as James Madison is brilliant. Madison is composed and poised in a way that neither Hamilton nor Jefferson are played. He is never overly emotionally, at most offering a simple finger point to communicate his performance. It’s a wonderful contrast between Onaodowan’s performance as Hercules Mulligan, which is much more boisterous, as well.
The mentor-mentee relationship between Hamilton and Washington. There is something about the sheer physicality of the actors that adds to this relationship. Christopher Jackson, who plays Washington, is a burlier man than Lin and is 3 inches taller. The physical dynamic between the two adds depth to the father-son or older-brother relationship between the two that doesn’t exist in the soundtrack.
Daveed Diggs prancing around the stage as Thomas Jefferson is excellent. Digg’s energy is a joy to watch. He lightens the mood in the second act of the play.
The humor of King George plays much better with a crowd to laugh along with the bit. In the role, Jonathan Groff feeds off the crowd and is having a lot of fun with his facial expressions. His mocking of Jon Adams, a bit through the play, is a pure delight.
The relationship between Alexander and Maria Reynolds doesn’t work as well on the screen. It’s very challenging to make anything involving Lin-Manuel Miranda feel sexy. In the audio-only format, Jasmine Cephas Jones’ sultry voice gives the relationship the sexual tension it needs. And Lin’s deepening of his voice allows him to rise to the moment. In the film, Lin barely changes octaves and the camera lingers too long on his reactions to the temptations Jones’ provides. It comes off awkward and stiff.
The vocal performances don’t match the standard of the soundtrack. This isn’t anything unexpected. The stars have to run around, dance, and act all while singing in the movie. And the movie captures a live performance. No chance to re-do a note to get it just right. Again, nothing unexpected here. But vocally, it is an inferior product to the soundtrack.
Feature Image Credit: cnet.com