IN THE ROOM WHERE IT HAPPENED
Broadway. The name was literally becoming iconic within many shows and productions that have come and gone; gracing their names, star-studded performances, famous musical songs on the mainstage for all to see and producing memorable hits throughout the decades. Through the years, musical Broadway productions and shows have showcased the theatrical arts in its various forms, with such big hits including Les Miserable, Joseph and the Technicolor Dreamcoat, The Phantom of the Opera, Cats, The Lion King, Into the Woods, and Rent just name a few. One such production premiered on the stage back in 2015, with the release of Hamilton. Adapted loosely based on from the 2004 biography book by Ron Chernow, Hamilton follows the story of Alexander Hamilton, the somewhat unsung Founding Father of the United States and those who played a major role throughout the course of his life. Created by Lin-Manuel Miranda, Hamilton quickly rose to critical universal acclaim throughout the theater world, with many clamoring to see the show and gain creativity ingenuity praise for how the play is presented and in the musical numbers. Because of this, Hamilton became a modern hit on Broadway; selling to a plethora of sold out shows and winning numerous awards, including cultivating 11 out of 16 Tony Awards (including Best Musical) as well as receiving the 2016 Pulitzer Prize for Drama. Hamilton even want on tour beyond the streets of Broadway, with several “off-Broadway” productions being represented on various U.S. tours throughout the following years. Now, director Thomas Kali and Disney+ present a film taping version of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s popular Broadway show (with the original cast) in the 2020 movie Hamilton. Does this film translate the stage production in a good light or is it a pale comparsion to the 2015 Broadway hit?
Arriving in New York in 1776, Hamilton (Lin-Manuel Miranda), an orphaned immigrant from the Caribbean island of Nevis, and quickly becomes entangled in the upheaval strife of the American Revolution as an aide-de-camp to General George Washington (Christopher Jackson), working alongside fellow patriot freedom fights such as John Laurens (Anthony Ramos), Marquis de Lafayette (Daveed Diggs), and Hercules Mulligan (Okieriete Onaodowan). In addition, Hamilton, during this time, comes into contact with Aaron Burr (Leslie Odom Jr.), his longtime rival relationship, as well as falling for Angelica Schuyler (Renee Elise Goldsberry) and marriage to her sister, Eliza (Philippa Soo) shortly after. After winning the American Revolution, Hamilton finds himself as the Secretary of the Treasury; facing new challenges such as his disagreements with Thomas Jefferson (Diggs) and James Madison (Onaodowan), his affair with Maria Reynolds (Goldsberry), the death of his son, Phillip (Ramos), and his downward spiral relationship with Burr, which reaches a climatic point. As history is written and major events unfold, Hamilton is at the epicenter of something “big”; changing the face of a nation and recalling upon those who made his story. Remember….who lives, who dies, who tells your story are the main beats of history!
THE GOOD / THE BAD
Similar to what I said for in my review for the 2019’s film adaptation of Cats, while I do love movies, I do have to say that I do quite enjoy theatrical stage productions as well. Technically, both are quite similar in projecting storytelling through imagery and characters, but something about theater stage shows is quite alluring…. sometimes magical. Of course, while I’ve seeing several smaller scale shows, including ones that my highs school drama club put on (which were still great), I have seeing some of the larger / famous ones out there from the actual big theater companies that produced them, including Les Miserable, Joseph and the Technicolor Dreamcoat, Cats, Phantom of the Opera, and The Lion King. Personally, I would say that my favorite would be Phantom of the Opera (love that musical).
This brings me back to talking about Hamilton, the 2020 release film tapping of the famous Broadway Stage play. With the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic still having a rippling effect for most (if not all) countries across the globe and impacting millions, the theatrical world has felt the “cause and effect” of the outbreak. This includes various movie studios shuffling around their planned 2020 releases for a later date (with some pushed back an entire year) and even New York’s Broadway variety of stage plays and shows closing up for the rest of the 2020 year. Because of this, the scrambling of “what to release?” and “when to release?” has been the main topic of many in the theatrical world. Thus, with the shuttering of Broadway, the production of the famously popular stage play of Hamilton seems to take centerstage (front and center again) in the public eye, with Disney+, Disney Studio’s streaming service, presenting the theatrical stage (tapped back in 2016) with the original cast members. The announcement of such a project came out during the COVID-19 pandemic and certainly made waves, with many eager to see it…. including myself. As stated, I’ve seeing plenty of popular stage plays, but I always wanted to see Hamilton, but never had the chance to see it. Now, like many others, I finally would be able watch the Broadway production of Hamilton (with the original cast) with the taping of Hamilton on Disney+. So….what did I think of it? Well, I really liked it. Despite a few minor nitpicks, the 2020 feature film of Hamilton lives up to the hype and critical praise that its original Broadway stage production has received over the years.
As an additional note, this review is gonna be based on not only the presentation of the taping of the Broadway presentation, but also on my opinion of the actual stage play itself.
While Hamilton was created by Lin-Manuel Miranda, the director of this project belongs to Thomas Kali, whose background consist of other Broadway productions in various TV episodes, Live TV specials, or feature film presentations, including Grease: Live, The Electrical Company, and In the Heights. Thus, given his knowledge of directing “on the stage”, the idea of Kali helming this project is quite ideal; approaching Hamilton (with Miranda) with the intent of a highly entertaining and enjoyable stage production that easily translates well into a feature film. Although Hamilton isn’t quite labelled as a theatrical movie (technically), the spirit, energy, and overall presentation of the original Broadway musical is ever present and is quite accessible format to view the production, especially with the original cast members playing their respective roles (more on that below). Kali did serve as the director for the original music and serving on the Hamilton filmed stage production is equally impressive in all variants of the production, including the lead actors, songs, choregraphing, story, and stage managing of everything; making for quite an experience to view that keeps the nuances of the stage play, but have a little bit of splash of theatrical feature film mixed in. Such is the case with the camera angling of certain scenes and sequences by panning shots and facial close up shots; something that the Broadway show couldn’t pull off as Kali offers up some facial expressions to some of the more dynamic character built moments and / or musical numbers (such as King George III’s comical songs) as well as splicing a few editing scenes for some more powerful cues. Altogether, Hamilton feels like the Broadway experience that everyone wanted to see; getting chance to see the full stage theatrical production of the big numbers and charismatic performances.
In terms of the actual stage play of Hamilton, I personally liked it. As mentioned, I never actually got to see the Broadway production (neither on or off-Broadway plays), but I kept on hearing plenty of “rave reviews” about it. Thus, I was definitely curious to eventually see Hamilton in some shape or form and I do have to say that it certainly lived up to the inherit hype. Rather than the straightforward (more traditional) way that Broadway musical shows are produced (i.e. standard showtunes songs), Miranda, who also help write the music, pull from different styles of music genres to play apart in the play’s songs; incorporating the influences of hip-hop, R&B, soul, and pop as well as traditional showtunes. It may sound like a jarring compilation of music for a Broadway show, but the end result is sheer brilliant and entertaining, with a great majority of Hamilton’s songs being solidly fun, energetic, heartfelt, and impactful. This is also plays a part in the stage presentation, which certainly plays a central focus, and gives off a beautiful usage of color stage lights and a revolving circle (on stage) that projects play of different facets (i.e. body movements, stage handling, scene changes). Additionally, Miranda does make the most of his stage play and charges the tale of Alexander Hamilton without enough fun and whimsical charm (both in energy and dramatic) as well as talking about history during this time without become tedious or boring. Lastly, I did find it interesting (and really didn’t expect) that most of the play’s cast were of a non-white acting talent that play most of the major characters in the story. While some people might balk at that idea, it really didn’t bother me at all. In truth, it’s kind of added to the play’s energy and charismatic nuances. Like Miranda said about on this subject by describing Hamilton as about “American then”, as told by America now. Thus, I really enjoyed Hamilton and, while I’ve seeing plenty of Broadway shows in my life (some of the more popular), I can definitely see why this particular play got all the praise and adoration that it has received over the years.
There are those who might dislike how the movie doesn’t get to focus on everything that transpired in Hamilton’s life and / or the amount of historical facts that occurred during such a poignant moment in American history. However, given the amount of singing / musical numbers (it is a musical play after all) and how the there’s a particular end point to reach, this notion didn’t quite bother me as much.
For all of its prose and acclaim that both the play and this film version of Hamilton has received, there were a few minor criticisms that have with presentation, which (again) is a combination of the actual stage play creation and in the filmed version. On the matter of the theatrical play, I have to say that there are a few elements (both story and character ones) that aren’t fully utilized in the production. Of course, the talent of the on-stage performances presence certainly masked those problems, with many giving charismatic energy to their respective roles, but I felt that some of them kind of get “dropped off” …. especially with characters like Hercules and Layfette, who definitely makes a stirring character (via their performances), but sort of get dropped off by the end of the first act. The same with Madison in the second act. He’s there in various scenes, but there’s not much to him.
The same with some of the story narrative elements, with some good ideas that are being tossed around (especially during the musical numbers), but then are suddenly dropped from narrative and never mentioned again. Again, I do understand not everything that happened within Hamilton’s life can be encompassed within the theatrical play, but I do feel that some pieces could’ve been better handled, including ones that involve the Revolution, those who surrounded him, and his life after the war. What’s presented gets the job done, but I felt that Miranda could’ve ironed out some beats and writing plot points here and there throughout the play. Additionally, while I do like a great majority of the musical numbers, I feel like the ending / closing number (“Who Lives, Who Dies, Who Tells Your Story”) doesn’t sendoff the play the correct. Yes, it’s a bit impactful and definitely tries to “wrap up” everything about the Hamilton play. However, it doesn’t have the same “resonating” feeling or climatic finale finish that I’ve seeing of other Broadway musicals other. Thus, I kind of felt it was a letdown.
In terms of the filmed version, while I do praise the various camera angles and close-ups that are utilized for this unique presentation of the Broadway show, some of the camera work is a bit wonky in a few areas. How so? Well, some of the close-up shots (not so much of the facial close-ups) of various characters aren’t properly executed quite well, with some shots only showing partial performances in the scenes. Again, I really do understand that this wasn’t presentation was intentionally made to be theatrical feature, but I felt that a bit slicker camera movements and / or editing could’ve been better handled in a few areas. Although….this is a minor quibble. Additionally, I felt that the sound mixing / editing of this film version could’ve been a little bit better as there were moments where the volume audio dropped to a lower level as I had to (at various parts) “up the volume”. Maybe a little bit better handling of sound mixing / editing would’ve been helpful, especially since many viewers would be streaming this feature.
Like the first original run of the Broadway show, Hamilton showcases plenty of the acting talents of the original cast members in their various respective roles and I do have to say that it’s incredibly awesome to see this collective body of performances assembled and showcasing plenty of stylish charismatic in all fronts. I truly do wish that I could’ve seeing the original cast members live because their energy is phenomenon and each one delivers stirring / memorable performances.
Leading the charge (in almost all fronts of play) is actor Lin-Manuel Miranda, who plays the story’s central protagonist character of Alexander Hamilton. Miranda, known for his roles in Mary Poppins Returns and His Dark Materials, has appeared in a host of minor capacities throughout the years on big and small screens as well as various TV cameo projects and on Broadway. Thus, with Hamilton being his creation, Miranda masterfully steps into the role of the chief title character and certainly does a magnificent job. Miranda imbues Hamilton with plenty various characteristics from mocking to wounded to scrappy to pigheaded and so on and so forth. He truly is the star of the show and Miranda’s singing is quite impressive in all regards. In a close second behind to Miranda’s Hamilton, actor Leslie Odom Jr. certainly steals the show as the play’s self-proclaimed villain of Aaron Burr. Like he says in the opening number “I’m the damn foul who shot him!”. Rather than being the cliched mischievous villain (i.e. a figure to loathe and despise), Odom makes Burr something of a sympathized antagonist characters, showcasing the “triumphs and pitfalls” of his career and watching Hamilton succeed as he stays in the shadow. Additionally, Burr acts as the play’s narrator, treating the character as a ringmaster / Greek muse construct in “setting the scene” for what is to come, with Odom Jr. masterfully projecting the tone and auditorily skills to pull this off. Plus, hearing him sing his bits in “The Room Where It Happened” is terrific.
Next, there is the large supporting players of the movie, which pull off “double duty” in the play as two different respective character (one in Act I and the other in Act II). Of these three, actor Daveed Diggs (Blindspotting and Wonder) shines the best as the Marquis de Lafayette and Thomas Jefferson. Whenever he’s on-screen, Diggs thrives and definitely shines the brightest…. even more so than Miranda’s Hamilton and Odom Jr.’s Burr. His exuberant performances in both characters are truly felt as “fan favorites” of the Hamilton play. And trust me…. it’s easy to see why that is. He’s quite literally a commanding force on stage, spinning into blustery / larger-than-life dance numbers and rapidly spitting out rap lyrics at an alarming rate, with incredible and diction and a theatrical grace that has plenty of delight and mischievous throughout. He is indeed an explosive energy in both Lafayette and Jefferson and truly is the memorable “star” of the play.
Following him, actor Anthony Ramos (Monsters and Men and A Star is Born) gives a fine performance as John Laurens and as Hamilton’s son, Phillip. As Laurens, Ramos gives willful persona that’s both fun and sincere at the same time, while his portrayal of Phillip Hamilton is one of a young scrappy character of that of his father (brash and righteous). Both of which are well-played by Ramos. Of this trio, I think that actor Okieriete Onaodowan (Station 19 and The Get Down) gets the least amount character development time for his dual respective characters of Hercules Mulligan and James Madison. Granted, Onaodowan is terrific in both roles and certainly has the screen presence to make the character, but (as I mentioned above) both Hercules and Madison seem to be pushed to the backburner in various scenes and is limited by the stage play, which is a bit disappointing as you can tell that Onaodowan is quite talented and does give quite the impression of a “larger-than-life” character persona in his portrayal of Hercules.
Looking beyond those characters, I do have to mention that actor Jonathan Groff (Frozen and Mindhunters) is terrific as King George III. While his scenes are scattered throughout the play, Groff’s portrayal England’s presiding ruler is quite comical and he certainly embraces that ideal whenever he’s on-screen and the result is pure hilarious magic. As for the two Schuyler sisters (Angelica and Eliza), both actresses Renee Elise Goldsberry (One Life to Live and The House with a Clock in its Walls) and Philippa Soon (Smash and The Code) do exceptionally jobs. Goldsberry is riveting as the witty and sympathetic Angelica in her performance as well as her more seductive secondary role in the play as Maria Reynolds, a person who Hamilton has an affair with, while Soon is quite hopeful and helplessly heart-wrenching as Hamilton’s dutiful wife. Rounding out the cast, actor Chris Jackson (Oz and Bull) gives an impeccable job in the role of George Washington; commanding each scene that he’s in with great ease.
Get ready to experience the journey, the courage, the legacy, the dream, the history, the joy, the moment, the revolution, the myth, the music, the fight, and the tragic triumph of Alexander Hamilton’s life in the filmed stage play production of Hamilton. Director Thomas Kali production of the staging and filming the iconic Lin-Manuel Miranda stage play is ever bit as enjoyable and immersive as it to actually seeing the Broadway show; capturing the essence and spirt and critically showcasing the modern masterpiece in delightful and spectacular fashion. While there are some minor flaws that the Broadway production can’t overcome, the presentation of the show is incredibly solid and effectively works in this theatrical feature medium, thanks to the original cast performances and in the palpability of the show’s musical numbers and energetic meaning. Personally, I loved this movie. It was definitely something great and certainly deserves all the praise (the original Broadway show) that it received. There were a few minor nitpicks that I had with it, but the stage play production, acting, and singing were all well-played and entertaining. Thus, my recommendation for this is definite “highly recommended” one as it is truly something to behold, especially if you never saw the theatrical stage play or the original cast members. Altogether, the 2020 release on Hamilton on Disney+ is truly a captivating and engrossing presentation of the famous Broadway production (with the original cast) and is the next best thing to seeing the show from…. well…. just like the song says….in the room where it happened.
4.5 Out of 5 (Highly Recommended)
Released On: July 3rd, 2020
Reviewed On: July 17th, 2020
Hamilton is 162 minutes long and is rated PG-13 for language and some suggested material