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Schultz reviews: 'Hamilton'

Schultz reviews: 'Hamilton'

Carl Schultz 

“Hamilton”   Distributed by Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures, 160 Minutes, Rated PG-13, Streaming July 03, 2020:  

Whenever he was complimented on his signature performance in the beloved 1955 motion picture classic “Mister Roberts,” actor Henry Fonda would usually demur, “Well, thanks...but the Broadway show was even better.”

Movie versions of popular Broadway shows, especially musicals, are often a tricky item:  When they work well--as with “The Music Man” in 1962, “My Fair Lady” in 1964, and the imaginative re-staging of Bob Fosse’s “Chicago” in 2002 (which in itself was adapted from a 1927 silent picture)--the adaptations sometimes become movie classics, beloved by generations.  Both “My Fair Lady” and “Chicago” actually won Best Picture Academy Awards.

On the other hand, when a Broadway adaptation fails, it usually fails big.  Although his stage productions have continued to sell out performances on Broadway and London’s West End, there’s never been a successful movie adaptation of a musical by Sir Andrew Lloyd Webber.  In fact, the $100 million 2019 movie version of Lloyd-Webber’s legendary “Cats” became known as one of the most notoriously bad pictures ever made.  Audiences expecting the poignant, melancholy lyricism of the stage show were instead effectively subjected to a 110-minute musical horror pageant.

Appearing about halfway between the two extremes is “Hamilton,” the new movie version of the gigantically popular 2015 Broadway production “Hamilton: An American Musical.”  The winner of eleven Tony Awards, either Drama Desk Awards and the 2016 Pulitzer Prize for Drama, “Hamilton” was still selling out every night at Broadway’s Richard Rodgers Theater at the time the Covid-19 pandemic closed down live entertainment around the world.  Filmed on a shoestring budget of $12.5 million, the film version premiered on July 3 and is currently playing on the Disney+ subscription video and on-demand computer streaming service.

With music, lyrics, and book by the talented, versatile, and prolific Lin-Manuel Miranda, “Hamilton” is an adaptation of writer Ron Chernow’s 2004 biography “Alexander Hamilton,” and tells the story of one of the United States’ Founding Fathers in contemporary musical terms embracing elements of hip-hop, rhythm and blues, rap, pop, and soul music, as well as traditional Broadway-style show tunes.  Because of its modern storytelling methods, “Hamilton” has been advertised as “a tale of America then, as told by America now.”

Rather than a traditional motion picture adaptation, “Hamilton” is a live recording of the actual Broadway musical, featuring the original cast and edited together from three performances of the show filmed on consecutive evenings in June 2016.  While the film includes a few setup shots and the use of Steadicam, crane, and dolly-mounted camera movements, the picture is essentially a filmed record of an actual live performance, right down to the stage announcements which precede the opening curtain.  A sellout audience is present, and can be heard but not seen.  At times, the film seems almost as if the director had simply pointed the camera at the stage, turned it on, and allowed the film to run for the duration of the performance.

As a result of the style of filming, this version of “Hamilton” reveals the stagecraft a movie would’ve hidden, disguised, or reframed the narrative to exclude:  The actors plainly wear microphones, the circular center of the stage revolves with certain complicated music and dance segments...and the audience’s frequent cheering and applause is always present to remind television viewers when we’re supposed to be impressed, and how much.

While “Hamilton” breathes new life into history by placing into contemporary musical terms the events which occurred during the formation of the United States of America, the film does not attempt to revise or modify the story’s foundation any more than Chernow’s excellent biography did.  Rather, the show refreshes history and brings dusty, arid museum portraits to vivid life...and then makes them sing and dance.  From some perspectives, “Hamilton” is a modernized and more irreverent remake of the 1972 musical “1776”...which in itself was based on a 1969 Broadway show.

But unlike “1776,” which was weighted toward emphasizing Thomas Jefferson’s importance to the formation of the United States, “Hamilton” is a show in which all roads lead to Alexander Hamilton.  America’s future Secretary of the Treasury and model for the $10 bill is presented in the show as an eager young immigrant (Alexander Hamilton was born in the British Leeward Islands, now the Virgin Islands) who’s determined to become a figure of history even if he needs to create the history around him.  The character defines himself with the lyric, “I’m like our country--young, scrappy, and hungry.” 

Portrayed by Lin-Manual Miranda, even when Hamilton is not onstage--which isn’t often--the other characters are usually talking about him.  Calculating, manipulative, coldly ambitious, Alexander Hamilton longs to be a hero, and not the hero’s secretary.  Also the play’s author and central driving force, Miranda in addition to his prodigious artistic talent possesses enormous quantities of what was once known as “star power”--charisma, rapport with the audience, and enough plain old likability to enable the actor (and his play) to more or less skate past the knowledge that Alexander Hamilton is just not a very likable character.

Standing nose-to-nose with Miranda’s Hamilton, if not matching his performance volt-for-volt, is Leslie Odom, Jr. as Aaron Burr--politician, lawyer, future New York senator, America’s third vice president, and damned by history as a traitor and an accused murderer.  In “Hamilton,” Aaron Burr fulfills precisely the same function as Judas Iscariot did in “Jesus Christ Superstar” and Antonio Salieri did in “Amadeus.”  As coldly ambitious, cunning, and manipulative as Hamilton, the “bastard, orphan, son of a whore” Burr agrees with his one time friend and colleague on his proposed political ends of the new nation...but not the means of getting there.

In addition to a performance which is more studied, contemplative, and subdued than Miranda’s as Hamilton, Odom as Aaron Burr possesses enough raw talent, energy, and acting chops to fill some awkward shoes indeed.  All Odom really lacks are Miranda’s charisma...and his puppy dog eyes.  The winner of the 2016 Tony Award as Best Actor in a Musical for his performance in the show and also a prolific television actor with credits that include recurring roles in “Law & Order: Special Victims Unit,” “Smash,” and “Person of Interest,”  Odom as Aaron Burr would be the star of “Hamilton” if Lin-Manuel Miranda weren’t in it.

Others in the talented and versatile cast, all of whom enjoy one or moments in the spotlight (and some who occupy multiple roles) include Phillipa Soo as Hamilton’s wife Eliza, Daveed Diggs as both Thomas Jefferson and the Marquis de Lafayette, Renee Elise Goldsberry as Angelica Schuyler, Jonathan Groff as King George III, Okieriete Onaodowan as James Madison and Hercules Mulligan, Sasha Hutchings as Sally Hemmings, and Anthony Ramos as both Phillip Hamilton and John Laurens. 

In a supporting role, Christopher Jackson’s George Washington,“the pride of Mount Vernon,” is presented almost as a figure from a Gilbert and Sullivan operetta.  The Father of Our Country even references the Victorian-era theatrical partners with the lyric, “I’m the model of a modern Major General.”  Drafted as the leader of America’s military during the looming conflict with England and attempting to recruit the ambitious young Hamilton to his personal staff despite his longing for battlefield glory and possible martyrdom, Washington advises him, “Dying, young man, is easy--living is harder.”

The show’s pointedly, determinedly, and at times emphatically multi-racial and multi-ethnic cast reminds us implicitly that with the exception of Native Americans we’re a nation descended from immigrants.  Some of our ancestors fled oppression and persecution in other countries...and some were conscripted and kidnapped, transported to the New World to find maltreatment as slave labor during the foundation and establishment of the Land of Liberty.  Leslie Odom, Jr is African-American, for example, and Lin-Manuel Miranda is descended from Puerto Rican grandparents.

Since “Hamilton” is so filled with historical information as well as entertainment, it’s recommended for “Hamilton” novices (those among us who couldn’t afford the $849-and-higher price of a premium ticket to the Broadway show) that the closed-captioning feature on your TV be kept on.  The show’s literate and informative lyrics are often delivered at breakneck rap music rhythms, and the absence of post-production looping for clarity sometimes renders the words unclear.  You’ll be able to follow the plot without close-captioning, but not savor it.

Described at one point by playwright Lin-Manual Miranda as “a flawed play about flawed people,” “Hamilton” in the era of the Black Lives Matter movement is attracting an enormous amount of controversy for its alleged positive portrayal of Alexander Hamilton and the United States’ other Founding Fathers, many of whom were slave-owners.  Because of its characterizations, the #CancelHamilton organization is actually advocating the play’s closure prior to Broadway’s scheduled reopening in 2021, as well as ending its streaming on Disney+.

In response to the controversy, the staunchly liberal Miranda took to Twitter on July 06 to address the outcry.  “Appreciate you so much,” Miranda tweeted.  “All criticisms are valid.  The sheer tonnage of complexities & failings of these people I couldn’t get.  Or wrestled with but cut.  I took 6 years and fit as much as I could in a 2.5 hour musical.  Did my best.  It’s all fair game.”

Incidentally, the tearful, surprised, guttural gasp uttered by Phillipa Soo’s Eliza Hamilton at the very end of the play, although originally unscripted, has become a tradition of the play and has no real relevance to the narrative.  Still, the gasp has become a source of fierce speculation by “Hamilton” viewers.  Since the sound occurs just after Soo as Eliza sings the lyric “I can’t wait to see you again--it’s only a matter of time,” some interpret the sound as Eliza experiencing a sight of Heaven, while others theorize the character caught a glimpse of her late husband’s ghost.  Author Miranda’s cryptic answer:  “The Gasp is The Gasp is The Gasp--I love all the interpretations.”  In other words, never turn your back on free publicity.

While the filmed stage performance of Broadway’s “Hamilton” is flawed and often rough, flaws are part of the charm and allure of any live stage presentation, and therefore the lack of cinematic nuance is easy to overlook.  Every performance is a star-turn and every song is a show-stopper, and the show is well worth viewing...although whether or not it excuses the $7.41 per month price of a Disney+ subscription is subject to the viewer’s individual taste and budget.  Originally planned for a theatrical release on October 15, 2021, the show’s distribution was moved forward for worldwide digital presentation and streaming by Walt Disney Studios in response to the Covid-19 pandemic. 

Still, considering Disney’s history of frequently recycling their own product--turning animation into live-action and vice-versa--it’s probably inevitable that “Hamilton” will eventually be produced again by the studio in a streamlined, souped-up new super-version that takes full advantage of the cutting-edge, world-class production facilities that produced original movie musical classics from “Mary Poppins” in 1964 to...well, 2018’s “Mary Poppins Returns,” another movie featuring an entertaining and ingratiating performance from Lin-Manuel Miranda.

But until that time, as rough as it is, this version of “Hamilton” will do nicely.  Check it out.

“Hamilton” is rated by the MPAA for language and some offensive material (author and star Miranda actually edited two F-bombs from the soundtrack of the film to avoid an R rating).

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