The room where it happened is now in your living room, as long as you subscribe to Disney +, where a filmed version of the Pulitzer Prize-winning Hamilton is currently streaming. Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Broadway smash about Alexander Hamilton, one of America’s founding fathers, became nearly impossible to see after celebrities and New York elites drove up ticket prices. It’s indeed worthy of high praise, though, and high ticket prices, as evidenced by the life-affirming events that take place over the course of the 2 hour, 45 minute run time. But Disney + is where it belongs, at least for now.
The production plays with the same verbal and visual fireworks as the stage version, partly because it was filmed in front of a live audience at the Richard Rodger’s Theater, and partly because catchy music and convincing storytelling make for great cinema. The show also features the original cast – who Miranda has compared to an all-star Yankees team – and marries Thomas Kail’s direction with Andy Blankenbeuhler’s choreography. Kail directed the original show as well, which makes him uniquely suited to step behind the camera.
Here, he uses camera angles to heighten key moments. Without over-doing it, Kail occasionally zooms in on a trembling face or spirited smile to create an intimacy you just can’t get while watching from the Broadway rafters. The opener, for example, does more than give us a front row seat. It places us on stage next to Hamilton. We watch him, feel him and engage with him, as if we too were jumping and dancing and rapping in a pub in 1776. The characters spinning around Hamilton are just as important: “How can a bastard, orphan, son of a whore become great?” they sing.
Kail’s film follows Hamilton as he goes from Caribbean immigrant to the face of the American Revolution, a story told/rapped by family, friends, enemies and a really, really, snooty King George III. The other major characters are played by black and Latino actors, including Leslie Odom Jr.’s Aaron Burr, Christopher Jackson’s George Washington, Phillipa Soo’s Eliza (Hamilton’s wife), and Daveed Digs, playing both Lafayette (Act 1) and Thomas Jefferson (Act 2).
Part of Hamilton’s brilliance is this reclamation of U.S. history. By casting black actors as white founding fathers, Miranda illustrates that America’s independence was forged by blacks and whites alike. “The story of America takes on a different meaning when you see black and brown performers telling the origin of our country,” says Miranda.
True that. The story itself is gripping, too. It’s an exhilarating tribute to Hamilton, with so many moments in his story remaining powerful and relevant, especially in his work ethic, a tool he used to help build America, the banking system and fight against injustice. As his rivals Burr and Jefferson express in song, he provided a blueprint for how to do his work, and do it well. “If you don’t know/now you know,” says Jefferson, quoting Notorious B.I.G.
The rap music copies what Nas, Tupac, Biggie and Kendrick Lamar have been rapping about for ages – systemic racism, revolution as a means to freedom – and pastes it into a Broadway play, that way those who despise the genre will finally listen to what its artists have to say. If rap is playing on the radio, they change the channel. If they pay $5,000 dollars for a Broadway ticket, they roar with applause, calling the music “vital,” “explosive,” “what America needs to hear right now.”
That’s not to say Hamilton isn’t vital, explosive and what America needs to hear right now. It’s all those things and more. The soundtrack contains one gem after another. “Alexander Hamilton,” “The Room Where it Happens” and cabinet rap battles standout. Days later, I still can’t get the Hamilton vs. Jefferson diss track out of my head. A few of the final numbers, however, take aim at the audience. Much like Kendrick Lamar’s recent, quieter albums, questions of legacy and how to provoke change are directed at the listener.
If we dismissed the revolutionary movements in 1776 and the 1960s, the rap music of the 1990s and today, one wonders if a fusion of the two can really make a difference. “Rise up!” Hamilton commands in one musical number, watering the seeds for future generations to rebel against racial inequality and political injustice. While the revolution he started is far from over – the wage gap remains, protests over racism continue and politicians still crave power over change – Hamilton ends on an inspirational note. A pitch-perfect reminder that every voice matters.
Hamilton is a pitch-perfect reminder that every voice - even King George III's perverse Elton John impersonation - matters.